The generation to which Captain Kangaroo taught self-respect and empathy has let the big guy down.
Thirty-nine years after Bob Keeshan brought his famous gentle whimsy to CBS _ imparting values of trust and mutual caring and affection through his associations with Bunny Rabbit and Mr. Green Jeans _ the Captain is shocked at how things have turned out. The generation he nurtured has not done nearly as well by its own progeny.
In much the same terms expressed lately by disheartened baby-care guru Dr. Benjamin Spock, Keeshan says he sees American children as worse off today than they were when he made his debut as Captain Kangaroo in 1955. They're beset by eroding family unity, a latchkey lifestyle and, yes, too much TV, he says.
"These are worse conditions for children than at any other time in this century," says Keeshan, 67, in a voice uncharacteristically edged with anger.
So these days, Captain Kangaroo is speaking less to children and more to their parents, trying to reawaken what he calls "forgotten secrets _ the secrets of guiding children through childhood."
At the same time, advanced research into development of the brain during early childhood is confirming that the Captain was right all along _ such simple concepts as play are crucial to the intellectual and emotional growth of children, especially in the years between birth and kindergarten.
And many of society's ills, from domestic abuse to illiteracy to teenage pregnancies, are being attributed to the absence of elemental nurturing techniques in the stressed family structure.
Keeshan's Captain Kangaroo, which ran for 30 years on CBS-TV and another six seasons on public television, went off the air in 1991.
He now lives in Vermont and runs a company called Corporate Child Care, which operates 49 on-site day-care centers for businesses.
The centers practice his philosophy of "developmental day care" _ day care that aims to help children thrive emotionally and intellectually.
But today, Keeshan personally imparts his message on child-rearing mostly through books. His latest is just out _ Family Fun Activity Book (Deaconess Press, $12.95). It's a book, he says, that probably wouldn't have been needed 30 years ago. Certainly, he adds, his own mother wouldn't have needed it.
Today, Keeshan says he often encounters parents eager to spend more time with their kids, but not quite sure what to do with them. Many skills that comprised "instinctive parenting" several decades ago have been lost to today's busy, two-career families.
Thus, Keeshan calls Family Fun a reference book "of games and activities that haven't been passed on to a lot of today's parents."
At the suggestion of his close friend and fellow children's icon, Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, Keeshan has grouped the activities by appropriate ages. They all seem mere play, but contain developmental goals important for all children.
"The object of these activities and projects is not to build monuments, but to build character and self-esteem," says Keeshan. "They demand the participation of the child, and are therefore the most ideal kind of toy."
Bonker Bubbles (Age 3): Involves a homemade bubble mix of detergent and corn syrup, and bubble makers made from funnels, strainers and other kitchenware. Developmentally, it aims to teach a small child how different ingredients, mixed together, make a new substance, and to enhance imagination and creativity.
Balloony Spoony Race (Age 6): Involves a relay race with balloons balanced on spoons. Developmentally, it stimulates both fine and major motor muscles and aims to teach cooperation in reaching a goal.
Family Shield (Age 8): Involves the child's drawing a coat of arms and decorating it with pictures that symbolize the family. Developmentally, its goal is to instill a sense of belonging and create an opening for discussion of family history and cultural identity.
The projects include such things as rudimentary experiments in gravity and jet propulsion, using balloons and other common household items. The underlying objectives, though, are very much non-academic.
"The one thing that children need above all else is a reasonable amount of our time: time for the building of a relationship, the building of self-esteem, the giving of values, the creation of character," Keeshan says. "These may seem like rather heavy and serious objectives, and they are. But they can be done in small, incremental ways _ the ways that come from spending time, doing whatever, with a child."
Keeshan, who is a director for the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse, has completed a draft of his next book under the working title It's Your Attitude. The book will be one of a series based on the premise that children should be respected by parents as "intelligent individuals, rather than as property."
Keeshan believes that the notion of children as property _ "a concept rooted in our culture" _ is among the underlying causes of child abuse. But he says his ultimate goal through his writings is as simple as the principle that guided his old show.
"When I meet parents who grew up with the program, they say to me, "You were always a good friend. You made me feel good'."
He wants those grown-up fans to hear the same words from their own kids.
Play activities right from the pouch
Here are examples of Captain Kangaroo's play activities, each aimed at specific stages in the emotional and intellectual development of children:
Social awareness, for ages 3-5: Family members and friends create a mural by tracing their body shapes on long pieces of shelf paper. The sheets are taped together in one long mural, so that it appears everyone is holding hands.
Cooperation, ages 6 and 7: Family members decorate a can or jar, then fill it with strips of paper, each one listing a chore around the house, or a fun activity or treat. Children draw strips from the jar until they have one job and one treat. First comes the job, then comes the treat.
Creativity, ages 8-10: Pictures are cut out of old magazines and glued on index cards. A family member draws a card, then makes up the start of a story inspired by the picture on the card. Each player then draws a card and continues the story.