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Every time you turn on the TV you make a choice. Are you tuning in? Or tuning out?
We’re living in a golden age of kids TV shows. Take a second. Soak it in. But, as with so many things in life, it’s all about mindset. If you’re using TV as a crutch for twenty minutes peace, there's no judgment here. We all need a little quiet time.
But I want to take a few minutes out of your day to open your eyes to an opportunity you might have overlooked: how cartoons can be a catalyst for more interesting, deeper conversations with your children, and where you can start.
There's a growing body of research that indicates the right kind of TV shows can help in the development of your child's mind. But it's important to note that most of this is based around what they call "contingent engagement", actively participating in what you're watching, and using it as a basis for conversation. A show that you watch together can provide a common shared language with your child, enabling you to peer into their brain by asking questions like "why did they do that?", "what should they have done?" and "what would you have done in that situation?"
OK, three caveats before we get into it:
Most research shows that it's best to wait until children are at least 18 months old to start watching any show. After this, most advice says not to exceed 2 hours a day. These numbers were all agreed upon before we were stuck at home trying to stay sane, but they still feel about right.
My daughter is almost 7. So I haven't got a lot of knowledge of TV beyond that. If you have, and you fancy adding a bit more to the conversation, let me know.
99% of the stuff your children can watch right now is garbage. But, the other 1% is better than what you used to watch. And you might be surprised why.
A golden age for kids' cartoons
We all know the true golden age of cartoons was whatever was on when you were 7. But nostalgia is a hell of a drug—have you ever gone back and watched Transformers, M.A.S.K. or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lately? They haven't aged very well, and with reason.
Up until the 1980s, there were a whole host of rules around kids’ TV. Action for Children's Television, a US-based non-profit, pushed for laws that limited the amount of advertising and discouraged the over-commercialisation of programming. But then, in 1981, Ronald Reagan (in one of many dick moves) pushed for deregulation in the industry so that "children's television would be dictated by marketplace considerations and not education, health, or wellbeing”:
“Along with the deregulation came many other changes in children's television. Toy manufacturers, for example, became heavily involved in children's programming, developing shows based on toys that, in some cases, broadcasters were enticed to schedule in exchange for a part of the profit on toy sales." New York Times, 1988
So, most of the shows you love from your childhood? They were created solely with the intention of selling toys. And they worked! These shows drove the sale of close to one billion plastic figures during the 1980s.
Today, these types of shows still exist. But modern cartoon makers are holding themselves to higher standards. In 2008, a German whitepaper was published for cartoon creators, featuring best-in-class research on childhood emotional development, and the role of media at this formative time:
“The task of your professional work is to offer today‘s children characters and stories that help them to develop emotional competences and perspectives for their future.”
Creators are one-upping each other with innovative shows that deal with complex emotions, introducing concepts of diversity and inclusion, and helping children become more empathetic and understanding of their place in the world. And if you sit with together, watch along, and use them as prompts for discussion, they can provide you a unique opportunity to talk to your children about some important topics at when they're still figuring the world out.
The New Fatherhood Recommends
Here's a few shows you should consider adding to your watch list.
For young children (2-4 years old)
Yo Gabba Gabba (YouTube): Rumour has it that this show came around when Mark Mothersbaugh, lead singer of Devo, started watching TV with his children and wanted to see something that adults would enjoy too. It's filled with guest spots from Erykah Badu, The Flaming Lips and The Roots, as well as a regular "how to beatbox" bit featuring Biz Markee. It also introduces children to concepts like waiting their turn, celebrating differences, and the iconic (in our house at least) "don't bite your friends".
Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood (Netflix): An evolution of the classic Mr Roger's Neighborhood, this show helps young children understand the powerful emotions they are beginning to feel: disappointment, sadness, frustration, and more; and introduces strategies and skills for managing them: "When you feel so mad that you wanna roar, take a deep breath and count to 4." Solid advice, even for grown-ups.
Hey Duggee (CBeebies in the UK, Nick Jr in the US): Beautifully animated, often hilarious, always endearing. Hey Duggee sees five kids explore the world with Duggee, their scout leader who awards them badges based on problem solving and skill development. The Tooth Brushing Song is a total jam and a great way to get your little ones to spend a full two minutes brushing their teeth.
Bluey (CBeebies in the UK, Disney+ in the US): I adore this show. For my money, it's the best ever representation of fatherhood on TV. Bandit is a modern father par excellence, who balances the chaos of raising children with a playful attitude and a constant drive to make his children smile. This show is the perfect antidote to Peppa Pig, where every episode centres around some idiotic mistake made by a bumbling father.
For older children (5-8 years old)
City of Ghosts (Netflix): A new show from 2021. Through a unique documentary style that blends the real world with an animated one, City of Ghost explores local history, touching on topics of race, gentrification and ancestry in a stunning way.
Avatar: The Last Airbender (Netflix): Nope, not the terrible James Cameron movie. Or the shocking M. Night Shyamalan movie adaptation. Check out the original cartoon, and prepare to be blown away by a wonderful story that touches upon Asian mysticism, mindfulness, and an approach to morality that introduces shades of grey beyond simple black and white. In one episode, Ang meets a spiritual guide who teaches him how to open his seven chakras and it's as good an introduction to the concept than anything else you'll find.
The Legend of Korra (Netflix): The follow-up to Avatar, dealing with slightly darker themes (I watched Avatar with Padme when she was 4, but waited until she was almost 7 for this). The final season explores depression and PTSD, and the time and work necessary to heal. One storyline from this season involves Korra meeting a Yoda-like spirit guide, who tasks her to "collect some mushrooms", which sends her on a very intense hallucination. She comes face-to-face with the people who have caused her that trauma, and this experience helps her move through it. The Legend of Korra helps children understand the important of resilience and how mental strength can help them overcome adversity.
Steven Universe (Netflix): One of the most innovative shows on this list, Steven Universe is the brainchild of Rebecca Sugar, a former Adventure Time writer who wanted to create a show that explored her own experience as a non-binary person. Steven Universe features a cast of primary characters that were initially coded as female, but later revealed to be non-binary. The show's exploration of grief, gender and sexuality is one of the boldest you'll see on TV. And the songs are simply incredible: "Do It For Her", "Here Comes A Thought" and "Stronger Than You" (the last two sung by Estelle, who voices one of the main characters on the show.)
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (Netflix): This recent Netflix reboot explores the story of Adora, a strong female role model who embodies strength, leadership, and bravery. And—spoiler alert—in one of the strongest strides forward for inclusivity in kids' TV, the entire arc between the two main characters is a lesbian love story, with a very powerful payoff of how love can save the world.
Damn, I went long. Again. Of course, it's not just TV shows. I’d written more about movies from Pixar and others that showcase diversity and encourage emotional development. But I think this is a good place to stop for today. I'll save the movie deep dive for another time.
Did I miss your favourite? Or want to share your love for any of these? Don’t be shy:
3 things to read this week
If you're interested in reading more about the LGBTQ issues in She-Ra and Steven Universe, and how the creators pushed the networks for this level of representation, this interview with the two creators is just fantastic. Warning: contains spoilers for some major revelations in those two shows.
A licensed clinical psychologist explores some of the themes in The Legend of Korra: "Korra’s growth is truly an inspiration. It is true that once we have suffered in some way, any way, we are more likely to be able to relate to others around us. Finding meaning in this way allowed Korra to switch from being a victim to becoming a survivor. She was no longer tormented by her memories because she was no longer running from them. This allowed her to discover who she really is and what she wanted to stand for – love, strength, peace, and compassion."
Keeping up the cartoon theme (why not eh?) anyone reading this in the UK might have a vague recollection of the "Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles". This piece explores how the Conservative government drove moral panic around the show, forcing the removal of the word "ninja" from the title and any dialog, and editing out any scenes of Michelangelo using his nunchuks.
The "Life is Beautiful" Edition
One thing to watch with the kids this week
Here’s a few of the best moments of Bandit playing with his kids Bluey and Bingo. Warning: contains multiple uses of the word “bum” and a lot of good ideas for playtime.
Previously on The New Fatherhood
Last week's discussion topic was a simple one. It was Friday night, and I wanted to know "what are you drinking?". The place was packed, the bar was four deep, etc etc ...
"Most evenings at 6pm is now cocktail hour (or 15 mins). Not sure if lockdown or having a child has driven us to it, but with pubs opening again next week it's at least got us a bit bar fit again." Andy
"I realized that I was drinking alcohol way too hard toward the end of 2020, so this year have transitioned to THC drinks - energy level and mood are way up! The kids have been wondering why I don't offer them sips of beer anymore :-P" Dan
"Fizzy water, loads of ice with Robinsons mint and lime cordial, gave up the booze 1st Jan 2019—I do miss a large Cognac though!" Simon
One More Thing
Did you see beautiful illustration at the top of the page this week? I'm ecstatic to have started collaborating with Tony Johnson: a friend, father, and fantastic illustrator. I love what he’s bringing to The New Fatherhood already. Tony told me there are 8 references to the different cartoons and movies discussed up above. Can you spot them all?
Branding by Selman Design. Illustrations by Tony Johnson. Hello to anyone reading with from a pub garden in the UK! Congratulations to "Friends of The New Fatherhood" Nic and Justin, who both became second-time fathers last week (and love to both their wonderful wives Emma and Aleks). Now go watch some cartoons!