We expect morals and lessons to be baked into children's TV programming. If the kids aren't learning anything, then you're just beaming dangerous amounts of overstimulating lights and noise into their brains for nothing. But sometimes you, (allegedly) an adult, can pick up some tips for yourself ...
The Kids' Lesson: What seems weird at first is worth trying
Kids, being new to the world, frequently need nudging and encouragement to step outside their comfort zones. This is true at any age: sometimes a toddler doesn't want to try zucchini, sometimes a 10-year-old is nervous about summer camp. Or, like in the above clips, Pete the Cat and his band have to learn that weird French jazz can be just as fun to play as boomer hippie pop. New things might be scary, but they're worth trying because they make life a little bit better.
The Adults' Lesson: Let your kids enrich your life
I'm going to peel back the curtain a bit and admit this article exists because the whole "limit your kid's screen time" thing has gone out the window during the pandemic. I have a kid that's two and a half, a relatively small apartment, and a living room situated around a TV. And guess what? We can't leave the damn house. So I am inundated with children's TV shows for hours a day. Hours. Sure, we do other things, like playing music or chasing each other around, or reading books, but these cartoons are constant background noise. Instead of re-watching Anthony Bourdain episodes and fantasizing about being able to travel again someday, I'm mainlining Nickelodeon's new lineup. And Summer Sanders doesn't even host any of the shows anymore. It sucks.
You know what doesn't suck? Watching my two-year-old kid develop preferences. Some days he likes one show over another, or he'll remember plots and want to revisit them. Sometimes there's an episode he flat-out doesn't like, and sometimes there's a segment that makes him laugh so hard he gets hiccups. It's endlessly fun for me to watch his brain work.
TV watching transfers to other activities, too. One day, I had my guitar out and learned a couple of songs from Pocoyo; now he regularly asks me to play them. If you'd asked me three years ago, "Do you know any Pocoyo songs?" I would've said, "What the hell is a Pocoyo?" But now there's this thing he likes that has turned into something we can share when the TV's off. Has Pocoyo made my life better? No. But watching my kid enjoy Pocoyo, watching him get the biggest goddamn grin you can imagine when I hit those opening chords, watching him figure out how to sing along--that's absolutely made my life better. Hang on, we need to get to another entry before I start crying.
The Kids' Lesson: When you're riled up, you need to center yourself
The whole format of Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood revolves around taking an easily summarized lesson and applying it to situations. Here, Daniel and Prince Wednesday have plans to play at the beach, but it's raining. Daniel rages out until he can't think straight, so Mom Tiger reminds him to take a deep breath, count to four, and calm down. It's an important skill for all kids, hell, all people, if we're being really real.
The Adults' Lesson: Your kids are going to piss you off, but you're still responsible for their development
It can't be understated what a parenting master class Mom Tiger puts on in this episode. Her son and a goddamn prince of the realm bring sand into her house, dump it all over her hardwood floors, and she somehow doesn't go full tiger and eat both of them. Instead, she applies her own lesson from earlier, calms herself down, and then explains to the two idiots in her charge that sand belongs outside. There's something to her calmness that's worth noting.
Kids are incredibly good at testing your patience. They'll even make a game out of it. Mine currently thinks being asked to do something is the funniest thing in the universe because being asked to do something means you can refuse to do it. Just yesterday, I asked him to go to his bedroom to get dressed for the day. He said "no clothes," sprinted the living room couch, and threw a blanket over himself. Now, that might not sound like a frustrating experience, but it was the eighth time I had asked him. I know intellectually that it's just him exploring, doing harmless boundary-testing, but man, like, I asked you to do something, so do it, y'know?
Here's the thing: if you react to that frustration by yelling and getting mad or worse, all you're doing is teaching your kid to react the same way in those situations. And while maybe it's hard to remember at the moment, it's much better to teach your kids that being calm is better than raging out. I mean, it might hurt their chances of becoming President, but becoming President isn't a goal anyone should have anyway.
The Kids' Lesson: When your parents say to do something, do it.
Admittedly, Peppa Pig is maybe the most conflict-free show in all of TV history. No one is ever more than mildly annoyed with each other, and every segment ends with everyone literally ROTFL. It's honestly a treat to watch something so witty and low-stakes. But you have to imagine off-screen, after the events of the above clip, Mummy and Daddy Pig were like, "Okay, so you see how you screwed up Mummy's whole day of important work, right? And almost broke our computer? Do you have money for a new computer?"
The Adults' Lesson: Your kids are going to mess stuff up, and you have to roll with it
Children are both carefree and careless. Sometimes you'll have plans for a day, but then a kid decides, no, instead of filing your article on time, you need to change eight diapers and clean up four spills and get chased around the living room for 20 minutes and then peel three oranges, all before lunch (no, this isn't based on my own experience, why do you ask?) Those are times where it's important to remember that even if your work gets put off, or something is spilled, or crayon ends up all over your wall, kids are kids. They're intensely curious, mostly because they barely know how anything works. Peppa's parents are a reminder that you can let a minor inconvenience ruin your day, or you can turn the situation into something fun. Honestly, the fact that every Peppa Pig segment ends with all the characters laughing on the floor might be the most important lesson of all.
The Kids' Lesson: Take the time to focus on what's in front of you
Children have the attention spans of a golden retriever in a room with a broken tennis ball cannon. Everything is new, everything is interesting, and focus doesn't exist. In this clip, Daniel Tiger gets a blueberry popsicle, then spends so much time gawking at the rest of the ice cream cart's menu that his popsicle starts to melt before he can eat it. "Quit looking at that stupid menu and eat the goddamn popsicle," the viewers yell at their screens -- until Mom Tiger swoops in to remind Daniel that he needs to enjoy what he has, rather than what he could theoretically have.
The Adults' Lesson: No, seriously, take time to enjoy things
There was a time in my life when I was hand-washing baby bottles six times a day. Every single day, for way more than a year. Then one day, I never had to wash bottles again. They were gone, replaced by sippy cups and an understanding that Growing Up was happening.
While I don't miss washing bottles, I miss my kid being that small. It was annoying at the time because he refused to sleep unless he was attached to either my wife or me. That meant constant clinging -- I'd spend every minute of every day holding him in a way Piers Morgan would find emasculating until when my wife got home from work. Then, she'd be cradling and breastfeeding him until it was time to go to work again and pass him back off to me. It's exhausting stuff, and it makes you feel like you have no independence.
But now that it's in the rearview? I miss it. I miss when he'd be strapped to my chest, drinking until his grip loosened on the bottle and he nodded off for a nap. I miss the thrill of when he learned to hold his own bottle. There's no real way to describe it other than holding your child close and watching them fall asleep feels good. It's essentially a two-hour hug from someone who loves you unconditionally and who doesn't want that?
Besides, just to reiterate, some kind of tallow-faced ghoul, like Piers Morgan.
Now, would I go back to that time? Absolutely not, not for a mill--okay, maybe for a million dollars, but I might try to talk you up to a million and a half. The point is, your kid grows up fast, and it's important to appreciate each stage. It's hard to put into words how much I simultaneously 1) can't believe I've been a parent for two and a half years and 2) feel like I've been a parent for a thousand years. And that feeling is why you have to figure out how to appreciate everything as it's happening, whether it's watching your kid finally learn to walk or it's cleaning up a diaper blowout made of mashed bananas and undigested blueberries. If you can't appreciate the day-to-day, even the tough stuff, you'll go nuts. So, as Mom Tiger says, enjoy the wow that's happening now.
The Kids' Lesson: Your elders and family are important
Coco is a perfect movie, but its central conflict is a little weird when you think about it. Four generations before our protagonist, Miguel, was born, a man abandoned his family to play music. In response, his scorned ex-wife banned all music from the house. For generations! In a town filled with street musicians, who are maybe the most wonderful and underappreciated people in the entire universe. What if the great-great-grandpa had been a dentist? Would the whole family just not brush their teeth? Anyway, after a long journey into the land of the dead, Miguel realizes family is more important than anything; the family learns that music is good, and everyone is happy. Kids, respect your elders, and elders ... don't be so square? I guess? It's hard for me to relate to someone who doesn't like music.
The Adults' Lesson: Listen to your kids before resorting to dramatic punishments
The inciting incident for Miguel's whole journey -- which again involves a trip to the afterlife and discovering the true identity of his great-great-grandpa -- is his grandmother smashing his guitar. It's the only thing he cares about, an object that represents everything in life that he is passionate about, and when he asks them to listen to him play, Mama Elena smashes it to bits before he can get three notes out. If my grandmother did that, I'd run away to the land of the dead, too. (Though I might be biased because I love my guitar so much, one of my first articles for this website was me tricking the editors into letting me write a love letter to it).
The amount of trust broken in that single action can't be understated -- if Mama Elena's whole message is "family is important ... but only on my absolute terms," what kind of love is that? Can you love someone while also suppressing their passion? Can you truly say you care about someone if that care is based on them tamping down a part of themselves?
Before my son was born, a joke I used to have was about how much I dislike musical theatre but have somehow ended up surrounded by musical theatre people. My wife, brother, and best friend all have musical theatre backgrounds; a lot of my social circle is musical theatre actors; it's just absolutely everywhere. So the joke was some variation of "Just my luck, I'll trying to teach my kid jazz guitar, and instead, I'll end up white-knuckling it through a middle school production of West Side Story." But now that my son is here, I don't really enjoy that joke anymore. Because you know what I'd do if he wanted to audition for West Side Story? I'd learn the entire goddamn score and rehearse with him. Then I'd be in the front row on opening night and every night after that, too. Because loving someone, supporting someone -- sometimes it means loving and supporting things you don't particularly care for or understand. Because it's important to that person, and that person is important to you. Family, as it turns out, matters.
The Kids' Lesson: You're growing in a lot of ways; keep it up
Kids can't stop growing. One day their arms won't stick out of a T-shirt, and before the week's done, they've outgrown it. Also, they somehow now know how to count to 10, despite you having never gone over that information before. I haven't bought new clothes for myself in like a year and a half, but it seems like I'm buying new clothes for my kid every other week. Sesame Street captures this wonderfully in its end credits song, a catchy track that celebrates the process of growing up. Your body grows, your mind develops, and all of that is worth being excited about.
The Adults' Lesson: You haven't stopped growing, and you have to keep going
Having a kid, the cliche goes, is a full-time job. Even if you have another full-time job, like one that pays (babies are notoriously cash-strapped), things in your life get sacrificed. I'm lucky enough that I can stay home, raise my son, and freelance as much as possible when he's sleeping, but if I'm being honest? I got a little directionless when I quit my job to be a dad. When the only thing you do all day is watching a baby, it's easy to let significant things slip. Have you ever heard someone talk about quarantine means they've stopped working out or showering as much or getting dressed? That was me, but for like a year before COVID-19 hit. It honestly took the pandemic to make me realize how much I needed to take care of myself as well as my son. He needs me to be the best version of myself, and I certainly don't want him growing up thinking his dad is some unshaven, out-of-shape loser who never leaves the couch.
Just because your priorities (rightly) shift away from yourself and towards your kid, that doesn't mean you can stop going. In fact, it super means you can't stop going. If you work, you gotta to keep that job. Maybe you exercise less, but you gotta keep yourself healthy. Then there are things like hobbies and friends, which preserve an important sense of self, something you can focus on that gives your brain a break from parenting. You, the parent, still have to get stronger, smarter, and kinder every day. At the bare minimum, you have to keep yourself from being as lame as Elmo's dad.
Top image: Disney, 9 Story Distribution