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We watch a little tv, and I’m picky about it. How about you?

We watch a little tv, and I’m picky about it. How about you?

Niko’s been sick lately and doing his best impersonation of a couch barnacle, so we’ve been watching a lot of tv including “Despicable Me” on repeat. We usually watch maybe an hour of tv a day, after school, while he and I both decompress, and I’m pretty picky about what he’s allowed to watch. One of my not very secret wishes is the ability to black list stuff on Netflix so that certain shows just don’t show up. Anyway, I’m going to make a little list here of the shows I allow Niko to watch, and the ones I’d rather he not watch. I’d love to hear your opinion on these shows, and on what you let your kids watch.

We’ll start with shows I approve of and let Niko watch pretty much without objection.

You’ll probably recognize that some things I find valuable in kid programming include:

      A cast that isn’t all white dudes/centered around only a white dude
      Shows that have involved fathers/father figures
      Shows that are legit educational, not just ~~THE MOR U NO~~
      Shows that portray women/minorities in positive light and as fully developed characters
      Shows that emphasize emotional/social growth/skills, and working together/problem solving

Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is an animated update of Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood, produced in part by the Fred Rogers’ Foundation. It’s set in The Land Of Make-Believe and follows grown-up versions of his original puppet characters and their adorable children. When I was a kid, I wanted to grow up to be Lady Elaine Fairchilde. Well, she grew up to marry a super hot musician and have a super cute little girl. Anyway, the show focuses on emotional and social development and growth and offers helpful scripts for challenging times. If you’re not aware of what scripting is, it’s when you prepare for a negative thing ahead of time, rehearsing how you’ll deal with it. Some of the things the show has dealt with include starting school for the first time; being nervous about parents/guardians going away; waiting patiently; dealing with anger/tantrums; working together/sharing; trying new food; visiting the doctor; and the like. The cast includes a mixed marriage and mixed-race child, a single mom raising her kid, and an uncle who is the guardian of his nephew, so there’s a variety of families represented. There’s a lot of emphasis on kindness and working together and supporting each other, and the fathers who are present in their kids’ lives are very present and are equal parents.

Dinosaur Train sounds like a marketing-driven dream, a mash up of two things little kids (stereotypically boys) love: Dinosaurs, and Trains. Also there’s time travel involved. I scoffed at the show initially, but if you overlook the talking dinosaurs riding around in improbable trains through time, there’s a high level of actual factual information going on. Additionally, there’s an emphasis on social skills and friendship and kindness. Both parents are very involved in raising the kids, and the dad does emotional heavy lifting. One of the dinosaurs protagonists is obviously adopted, and this is discussed in various ways. There’s emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving. While the main character is a male, there are many supporting female characters who are fully developed and exist in their own right.

Doc McStuffins follows a Black American girl who is a toy doctor, following in her medical doctor mom’s footsteps. Her dad is a stay at home or work at home parent who cooks and cleans while her mom pulls down a professional income. It’s mostly a light and fluffy show, with Doc trying to solve the little mysteries of why various toys and stuffed animals are broken, and figuring out how to fix them. Niko bounces between wanting to be Doc McStuffins and wanting to “be her boyfriend,” although when I ask him what he means when he says that he can’t give me an answer. He’s a white boy who identifies hard with a Black girl, though.

The Magic Schoolbus is a tv show based on a series of Scholastic Books which most people I know grew up watching. I didn’t. If you’re not familiar with it, an elementary school teacher named Ms Frizzle has a magic school bus, and she takes her (incredibly small, mixed race and gender) class on field trips to outer space, dinosaur times, inside the human body, etc. Like a lot of television of its time, the cast is very diverse. What happened there? Why, in general, has kids television moved back to the primarily-white-or-non-human mode? Anyway, there’s a lot of sciencing going on and other than Ms Frizzle there’s no single POV character, which I think makes it easier for kids to relate to the entire cast. Niko goes through Magic Schoolbus phases. We watch it on netflix. The picture quality isn’t very high and the clothing etc are fairly dated, as is some of the science. But it’s still a pretty solid show.

Peep and the Big Wide World is a kid show that explores and discusses science concepts both via utterly adorable animated shorts starring Peep, Chirp, and Quack (a baby chick, fledgeling, and sassy duck) and live action bits featuring human children doing experiments and discussing what they’re learning. It’s a great introduction to basic science concepts and ideas, but it’s also fun to watch, witty, and very cute. Also. Megan Mullally has a guest voice appearance for two hilarious episodes. Every time I watch them, I pretend she’s Karen from “Will And Grace” but in duck form.

Pingu is stop motion animation from Switzerland and follows the adventures of Pingu (a penguin), his family, and his friends. The characters all speak a kind of universal gibberish, designed to make it easy to export the film to various countries without having to rewrite and rerecord dialogue, and the body language and facial expressions are very expressive as a result. Pingu and his baby sister Pinga are sometimes at odds with or jealous of each other, but generally are united and loving. Their dad knits, and is a fully involved parent. The show’s an interesting look at life in a different country.

Sid The Science Kid is yet another science concepts show following Sid (who has a Black American mom who works with computers (designing video games? designing web sites? something like that) and a Jewish dad who is a construction worker. Like most of the shows I’ve touched on, both parents are fully involved in the kids’ lives, and Sid’s dad is a very hands on parent who cooks and cleans and does emotional care. Sid’s friends are diverse in a pretty fleshed out way, and both male and female adults work in various science related fields. The show heavily pushes the idea that kids are natural, innate scientists because they are eager in investigating the world and asking questions and provides examples of how kids can do hands on science experiments at home and in school.

Signing Time is a show that’s existed in many different incarnations (many of them with really bad graphics) and a solid basic premise: that American Sign Language is something that kids and adults can learn and use to communicate with each other. The show is geared mostly toward the hearing, in part because there are benefits to providing a means of communication to pre-verbal kids, and in part because hearing kids (and adults) can and do have Deaf and hard of hearing family members. Unlike a lot of “baby signs” books and material, the focus and emphasis is on actual ASL and provides a groundwork for actual communication. There’s animated bits, live action bits, and lots of songs.

And now for a list of shows I’d really rather he not watch, and why. It’s a shorter list because I don’t let him watch a lot of tv period, so he’s been exposed to less shows than a lot of kids.

Babar (warning: autoplay video at the link) is an absolute no at our house. It’s a colonialists dream, with the jungle savages (Babar et al) being rescued from the wilds of the jungle after the violent murder of parents, brought to “civilization” by a nice white woman, and taught to wear pants and eat with a fork. Then they bring that back to the jungle and walk around on their hind legs wearing expensive, restrictive clothing. If the show were just animals wearing clothes, that’d be one thing, but the actual back story is hugely gross so I’ve pre-emptively banned it, and flick past it quickly when we’re looking through netflix.

Chuck And Friends is an old-school commercial disguised as entertainment. Every character in the show is available as a toy, and the “lessons” are tacked on and awkward. Every character (except for Chuck’s mom) is coded male. There’s a lot of in-fighting in the show and a lot of violent play and general meanness with the “be nice” lesson feeling like an afterthought. It’s pretty irritating in general.

Jake and the Neverland Pirates picks up after Disney’s racist, sexist “Peter Pan” leaves off. The main characters are two white boys and a faintly olive skinned, dark but straight haired girl who exists as a kind of literal manic pixie dream girl (she can fly and sprinkle pixie dust around). The show is tedious and, like Dora the Explorer, is non-interactive but set up as interactive… you know, inane questions with long pauses for an answer, multiple choice “puzzles” that the characters solve, side scrolling type adventures. It’s like watching someone play a computer game aimed at little kids. The kids have smug expressions and all do ‘extreme’ sports like BMX biking and skateboarding and snowboarding and roller blading and outwitting the incredibly unintelligent Captain Hook.

Sofia the First is about to be “accidentally” erased from our DVR. You know what background radiation is? “Sofia the First” is full of all kinds of low level background racism, including OMG MYSTIKAL GYPSIES and white people being dressed in Edwardian/Psuedo Victorian clothing while POC characters are dressed almost entirely in “ethnic” clothing. King Roland the First has a huge castle and grounds, and virtually everyone who lives/works there is white unless they are visiting from another Magical Ethnic Kingdom. Disney made sure to mention that Sofia is half-Latina-analogue (with her mom being full Latina-analogue and her dad being, I don’t know, Germanish or something) but there is nothing in the show to support the claim at all. The writing in general is lackluster, and Sofia generally is triumphant in the end because of her naive sweetness, or because someone else solves the problem for her, or because of her magical amulet. Like “Chuck and Friends,” it seems to exist mostly to move toys and keep the Disney Princess line relevant.

There’s other shows he watches that I don’t really feel strongly one way or another about (hello there “Chuggington” and “The Backyardigans,” among others) or that I hate with an abiding passion but he isn’t interested in watching (“Caillou”).

I might do a rundown of movies next, I’m not sure. He’s been on a big “Despicable Me” kick.

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My Little Pony and Dinosaur Train: Kids Television and Messages

My Little Pony and Dinosaur Train: Kids Television and Messages

Niko’s gotten interested in “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic” or as he calls it, “I Love You Pony.” He’s very taken with the show and talks about how the ponies are his friends. He’s renamed various stuffed animals as Pinky Pie (his favorite), Rainbow Dash, Applejack, and Inky Dinky (his own made up pony character, who is a lizard) and sometimes we play Ponies. The show is ostensibly about friendship, and each show wraps up with an explicit discussion of the lesson learned in that show, usually one about friendship or respect or generally not being an asshole.

Sounds good, right?

But actually it’s not.

The show models a lot of negative behavior that’s only resolved at the very end. So there’s 5 minutes of positive verbal addressing of the negative behavior, and 16 minutes of demonstrating negative behavior before then. The main focus is on the negative behavior, that’s what’s given the most attention, that’s what’s modeled for the kids. Kids who watch shows that model negative behavior with a positive ending focus overwhelmingly on the negative behavior. They act on what’s modeled. As most parents and caregivers know, “do as I say and not as I do” doesn’t really work.

I’m not really loving “My Little Pony.” Too much negative behavior is displayed, and the ending lesson generally feels overly prescriptive and too sugary sweet. It’s a lesson, and we know it’s a lesson.

So what show does my judgmental ass approve of?

I really like “Dinosaur Train.” When we first started watching it, I made fun of the show’s premise. It feels like such a marketing thing, you know? Just shoving together two things kids like: dinosaurs, and trains. Woo, hop on that merchandizing bandwagon! But the show fundamentally works. It follows 4 siblings (one of whom is adopted) and their parents and friends as they travel around studying other dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures. The kids play together really well, address and solve interpersonal issues quickly and fairly, and demonstrate great interpersonal skills and problem solving… including shutting down bullying. The parents are involved in their lives, including the dad who is kind of goofy but not because he’s a guy, because he’s a goofy character. He’s really involved and competent as a parent. Social messages in the show are delivered subtly and consistently throughout an episode instead of broadcast at the end.

“Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” is another good one. The social skills messages are more overt, since that’s the purpose of the show and it’s aimed at younger kids. But the messages are integrated and positive behavior is modeled throughout the entire show instead of being spoken about briefly at the end. Again, there’s rich involvement from male parents and guardians.

“Sid the Science Kid” also integrates positive interpersonal skills. The kids might argue or disagree, but it’s done so in a positive and constructive manner and quickly resolved. Sid’s dad is active, involved, and competent at parenting and the show makes an effort at showing a wide range of ethnicities and cultures as a norm and also emphasizing women’s role in STEM fields. There’s a big focus on critical thinking and working together and that’s again woven through the entire show and not just tacked on at the end.

It’s not a coincidence that these shows are all 1) on PBS and 2) relatively recent shows. I think there’s going to be a bigger push, at least for little kids’ programming, to get child psychologists involved in designing and writing the shows. There’s growing awareness of how kids consume media, and what they do and do not pick up on. As parents and guardians we are gatekeepers for what our kids consume. I don’t think occasional episodes of MLP or Scooby Doo or whatever will ruin a kid forever. But I do think that part of my job as a parent is to discuss things Niko watches with him. So, for instance, the last time he watched a MLP episode, I had to discuss with him how most people are terrible at things when they try them the first time but that if you work hard you’ll get good at it… a direct contradiction to the episode’s focus on being naturally gifted at things and great the first time one turns one’s hand at something new.

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