Thursday, January 17, 2008

(Don't) Send In the Clowns

Scientists have finally confirmed a suspicion I've had for a long time -- kids don't really like clowns. In fact. I'm not sure who really, truly, enjoys clowns.

Researchers from the University of Sheffield, who were simply trying to figure out ways to improve the decor of hospital children's wards, did a study of 250 hospital patients between the ages of four and 16. What did they find? They discovered that every one of the kids they surveyed -- without exception --- disliked clowns because they were downright scary.

"As adults we make assumptions about what works for children," said Penny Curtis, a senior lecturer in research at the university. "We found that clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them quite frightening and unknowable."

I have never been a big fan of clowns. I can't remember how I felt about them as a kid, but I know that as an adult, whenever I went to a circus and the clowns came out to do their "comedy" acts, I was bored, just waiting for the next act when the little dogs jump through the hoops wearing tutus.

I got a different view of clowns when we took my oldest daughter to a circus when she was probably four or five. Whenever a brighly-colored and wild-haired clown came near, she began wailing in fright, as if the clown was carrying a bloody knife and was going to start carving on her stomach. I wasn't used to this reaction then, but when I looked around, I noticed other kids were reacting the very same way. Not all of them, but a good number.

My guess is that all of that clown persona -- the technicolor drag queen makeup, the towering orange and red Afros, the wild, ill-fitting clothing, the honking bicycle horns and the squirting carnations -- simply overloads a kid's circuits. I mean, weren't were supposed to be somewhat afraid of or repulsed by the Joker in the Batman cartoons and movies? And what was he if not just another made-up clown?

Of course, maybe my kids are just overly sensitive. Neither one of them would ever let us put them on Santa's lap to get a Christmas photo made -- they were scared of Santa, too. But come to think of it, a guy in a Santa suit is kind of like a clown, just with fewer colors and props to work with. I think many kids perceive a real, live St. Nick as they do a clown -- not as a friendly adult, but as a big, loud, weird-looking stranger. Maybe there's just too much chaos and uncertainty in a concentrated dose coming at a kid to have him react positively to clowns of any stripe.

Now I know that there will probably be reaction from lots of clown-loving adults and kids out there, and if that's how you feel, it's no skin off my big, round, red nose. And in fairness I must include a disclaimer -- I do like the way clowns tie those long balloons into the shapes of animals. That's a valuable skill, I guess, but I'm not sure you need to look like the survivor of an explosion in a paint and wig factory to put it to use.

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