The Best Kids Shows Are Funny Kid Shows. Not Everything Is a Lesson.
Creators of children's television shows seem obsessed with teaching my child moral and emotional lessons. What a bunch of killjoys.
I love the mindless violence of Looney Tunes. When Sylvester the cat accidentally sticks his tail in a toaster and then, in a desperate attempt to prevent a deadly burn, sticks his tail into outside snow, causing said snow to melt instantly, I’m rolling. Throw in a stick of dynamite and a face-carbonizing explosion and that’s me done.
My 3-year-old daughter is the same. She laughs because I laugh and because it’s fun watching Sylvester get obliterated in various ways. Sure, vintage Looney Tunes are a total minefield for inappropriate violence, name-calling, and actual claymores, but there are days — days that are starting to outnumber the other days — when I’d much prefer co-watch Sylvester get blown to bits or smacked in the face with a two-by-four than be taught a lesson about sharing by Daniel Tiger.
I’m not triggered by cartoon violence and my daughter doesn’t seem to be either. But I fear we’re both triggered by cartoon emotions.
Let me be clear. I like Daniel Tiger‘s Neighborhood and I think the people at Fred Rogers’ Productions have created something special with that series. It’s helpful to children and creates good models for parents. That said, Daniel Tiger is an emotional rollercoaster; you can’t get two minutes into an episode without one of the characters having a total meltdown. Now, you might argue that Wile E. Coyote also remains in a state of perpetual emotional distress, but his suffering isn’t traumatic or traumatizing. Kids don’t empathize with the character so they laugh. In Daniel Tiger or even Pete the Cat, when a character is faced with a disappointment, that disappointment is presented as tangible, real, and, most crucially, nearly identical to what children go through. This is a good thing some of the time, a meaningful corrective to the slapdash morality of children’s entertainment, but it’s also exhausting and frequently unfun.
The vast majority of contemporary children’s “entertainment” is so laser-focused on teaching children lessons, that the shows tend to forget how to be fun. I’ve also found that sometimes a socially self-aware kids’ show (like Daniel Tiger or Tumble Leaf) can introduce a concept or fear to my kid that she wouldn’t have possessed otherwise. For example, my daughter is not actually afraid of thunderstorms, but a certain episode of Daniel Tiger set up thunderstorms as scary in order to teach a lesson about conquering fears. This is fine, and the net gain is positive, but it’s also a bummer. There’s a broader thesis that seems to underpin these kinds of plots: Life is hard. I’m not saying it isn’t, but it doesn’t need to be all the time.
The converse of this is that I suppose, Looney Tunes doesn’t teach her to be afraid of firecrackers or 10-ton anvils, and yet, there’s something in the presentation that even a 3-year-old understands that it’s all a joke. Again. There’s nothing about Sylvester that scans as a real cat, and Tweety Bird almost never utters a single “tweet.”
Say what you will about the tunnel-vision stupidity of Sylvester the Cat or Wile E. Coyote, at least they’re resilient. Sure, they never learn their lesson, but if they did, the whole conceit of Looney Tunes would be lost. Few characters in the Looney Tunes pantheon model good behavior for children, but its slightly silly to assume that children only need good role models to be entertained on TV. At the risk of being reductive, people who are obsessed with shows like Why Women Kill or The Sopranos don’t believe murder is good and being a mobster is awesome. And as many galaxy-brain film critics like to scream; entertainment is not required to be a moral or ethical delivery system. It’s okay if it just entertains.
It’s also important to note that Fred Rogers, who first animated Daniel Tiger by moving his hand, was attempting to provide a corrective not just to Looney Tunes but to a lot of genuinely awful programming on which adults visited real harm on each other. He was also reacting to an era of underparenting that we are no longer living through. Like many modern parents of young children, I’m wary of screen time. My daughter is going to learn her moral lessons predominantly from me. Thus my comfort with the odd pratfall.
We also know more about media consumption that we used to. Just as violent video games have no demonstrable link to actual violence, I think its safe to claim (admittedly without data) that Looney Tunes likely doesn’t lead to children attaching rockets to rollerskates — if only because no one owns rollerskates anymore. But, the flip side of the coin might be true, too. Why do we think kids’ shows with “lessons” actually are good at imparting those lessons? And, perhaps more critically, why do we think those shows do a better job at teaching kids right and wrong than parents? When it comes to being more entertaining than an episode of Looney Tunes, I will fail every damn time. But, I think I can comfort my daughter about thunderstorms better than Daniel Tiger.
Some might say arguing for escapism in entertainment is old-fashioned to the point of being irresponsible. But if you can’t indulge in escapism in childhood, have we canceled escapism all together? I certainly hope not. I don’t personally turn on the TV to be educated or talked down too, I turn it on for entertainment. And Nielsen Ratings (remember those?) suggest I’m not alone. That doesn’t mean PBS and the PBS-minded can take a hike, but a day off seems in order. The ratio of heavy-handed new kids’ shows versus ones that are purely entertaining is out of wack.
For my daughter’s sake, and my own sanity, I hope a new regime of kids’ shows comes around in the next few years that’s just a little more fun and a little less worried about making a point. I’ll be honest, these exploding cigars are getting a little stale.
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