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How ‘Thomas & Friends’ Helps Me Respect My Toddler’s Feelings

Sometimes, being a better parent means learning how to let your little trains blow off some steam.

©2020 Gullane (Thomas) Limited.

This story was produced in partnership with Mattel.

My daughter likes to refer to her arms and legs as the wheels of her train. Sometimes this means, she’ll say, “My wheels are stuck” or “My wheels are all dirty.” Other times, she’ll narrate her day not just as the train, but also become the conductor who tells the story. This means, if her shoes are muddy, she might look at me and say, nonchalantly, “‘My wheels are all muddy,’ she chuffed.” If you’ve watched the classic 1980s run of Thomas & Friends, then you know that all the sentient trains on the Island of Sodor almost never just say anything. But, they do sputter, huff, and chuff their way throughout their day-to-day-lives, wearing their feelings on their colorful train exteriors the same way our kids wear their feelings on their sleeves.

Why does my daughter like imagining herself as a train? I think it’s because all the engines in all iterations of Thomas & Friends are basically possessed with the souls of toddlers. Kids huff and puff a lot, they get derailed easily, they need to blow off a lot of steam, and when you have a toddler, your life can be filled with a lot of confusion and delay.

When my daughter first started watching old episodes of Thomas & Friends, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Even though the TV version from the 1980s should have been ideal for someone like me, born in 1981, I somehow failed to get on the Thomas express in my own childhood. So, when my toddler caught her first glimpses of the Island of Sodor, and the bossy, cranky, heroic, kind, and accident-prone sentient trains, cranes, trucks, helicopters, and cars who lived there, I was experiencing this new world right along with her. In the past year, we’ve gotten into the newer animated version of Thomas & Friends: Big World! Big Adventures! but starting with the older shows helped me bond with my daughter over a show I felt had passed me by when I was her age. The series feels like it could have been something from my childhood that I’m sharing with her, but instead, it’s something we got to become fans of together.

One of my favorite things about the classic episodes is the genuine complaining from some characters. Your two biggest culprits here are easily the big engine Gordon and Cranky the Crane. I love these guys. Not because they are supposed to be great role models, but because they represent not only real archetypes, but also, moods that my kid will sometimes embody. We all like to think our kids want to chug along and become Thomas himself – a train who, despite some stumbles, is kind at his core — but what makes his world so clever is the fact that all the other characters also represent feelings your child will have. In other words, we don’t like to think of our kids as Gordons or Cranky the Crane, but sometimes, they just are. The show is called Thomas & Friends, but for parents, I think it should really be called: Here are a bunch of moods your child is going to have, so it’s best to learn to deal with them now.

Like many parents, I struggle with how to act during the tantrum of a three-year-old. I’m not different than any other father on the planet insofar as my first instinct is to try and get the tantrum to end. But, anyone who knows anything about child development is probably aware that this is not the way to go. One of the hardest things about experiencing a meltdown from your threenager is figuring out how to let a kid have their feelings without driving you nuts. And it’s with this specific emotional tug-of-war — the sanity of the parent versus the validation of the child — that I’ve taken some guidance from all iterations of Thomas.

The newer shows are pretty up-front about explaining the lessons embedded in each of the stories, and when Thomas talks directly to your kid, you’re not confused about what he’s trying to tell them. Generally speaking, Thomas wants kids to share more, and sometimes get over their biases. This is all fantastic stuff. But the world is full of kids TV shows that tell kids to be nicer, to figure out how to share, and to try and keep an open mind. What makes Thomas & Friends unique? I would argue it’s simple: The show cleverly appeals to parents too, by reminding you that your child is just as volatile and special as one of these trains.

In the older shows, the lessons are less explicit, and sometimes the outcomes are very matter-of-fact. When Cranky the Crane teases some train engines, he gets knocked over during a storm, and then needs these trains to help him. By the end of the episode, the relationship between Cranky the Crane and the engines is better, but it’s not like Cranky undergoes a Scrooge transformation. As the narration tells us, he’s still Cranky. This lesson is not for children. It’s for parents. And the lesson is simple. Sometimes your kids need to be a cranky crane. Sometimes they need to let off steam and sometimes they need to go completely off the rails.

Sometimes when my daughter loses her cool, she’ll slip back into her Thomas narration and mention that she’s about to “chuff.” Or, sometimes she’ll quote Gordon and say “I’m overheating!” All of these analogies are correct and beautiful because at the end of every story each train is repaired, the steam clears, and everyone is happy. But, the greatest part of all of it is none of the trains are ever ashamed of their derailments or excess steam. On the Island of Sodor, they are allowed to be themselves.