Parenting guides can provide valuable information, as any new parent can tell you. These guides will tell you how to bathe, wean, dress, discipline, soothe, encourage, and diagnose to your child. For the most part, they have good advice. You will find yourself utterly alone, however, when you venture into the world of preschool television.
This is a no man’s land inhabited by anthropomorphic creatures in various states of undress who treat each other abominably in many cases. Experts will simply tell you to not let your child watch more than a certain amount of television. None is the preferred amount. However, most parents at some point find it a losing battle to restrict television severely. Preschool shows in particular boast educational content without gratuitous violence or foul language. Given a rainy day and the alternative being complete mayhem, most parents opt to let their preschoolers foray into this strange world where problems are minor and everyone is cute. Few parents can find the time or state of mind necessary to preview the offerings. With no one to tell them which shows are the best, they randomly select one and enjoy the resultant peace.
I have no special credentials in the field of preschool entertainment, but I have watched these shows extensively. Not deliberately, but with three children spaced four years apart, I have been an unwilling observer for more hours than I care to contemplate. Amazingly, my twelve year old watched many of the same shows my four year old does now. Apparently these shows are never threatened with cancellation in the face of declining ratings. Another batch of preschoolers is right behind this one, and so the producers see no reason to spend money on new shows. All shows are “new” to children. So the information I have gleaned over the last decade will probably remain relevant for a long time to come.
Little Bear is perhaps the most innocuous of the animated shows. I offer only minimal criticism. It features a young bear, named by her unimaginative parents “Little Bear,” and her adventures with other young animals, named in the same creative fashion: “Goose” “Duck” “Beaver” etc. Aside from the very basic naming technique, there is the fact that I watched the show for ten years before I realized that Little Bear was a girl. Given that she wears no clothes and has an androgynous name, most assume that she’s a boy. My sons were astonished when I informed them of her gender, many years after they were done watching such shows.
Other animated shows featuring talking animals are ubiquitous: Franklin, Angelina Ballerina, James the Cat, and Kipper. They all follow the same theme: animal has a challenge; is tempted to disobey or break the rules; gets caught; has to apologize. Many feature animals with British accents. Whether this will affect your children’s language development, I don’t know. It seems that it may render them unable to recognize accents. Perhaps the British have some kind of invasion plan, in which these shows will play a role. But probably not.
Franklin features a school-aged turtle whose friends are named by their species, as in Little Bear. For some unknown reason his parents broke from tradition. The theme song from Franklin will haunt you. The folksy tune rings out clearly, “They’ve got time to spend with you.” This subtle insult is directed at parents who apparently don’t have time for their kids (and are thus letting them watch television). If you can deal with the guilt trip, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with the show itself.
Animated shows with Spanish-speaking characters are new on the scene. My daughter has in fact picked up a variety of Spanish words from them. Dora the Explorer and Diego are her favorites. Diego helps various creatures find things, and teaches children about nature as well as animals. Dora uses a map as she evades a creature called Swiper who tries to abscond with her stuff. Dora encourages her watchers to yell “Swiper, No Swiping!” at which Swiper gives up and slinks away. If you want your children to use inside voices at all times, this probably isn’t the show for them.
We now move into more treacherous territory. “Thomas the Tank Engine” details the trials and tribulations of steam engines forced to coexist on an island. Each engine features an expressive face on its front. Otherwise it appears entirely engine-like. It seems that, given a limited space they inhabit, there isn’t enough room for these engines. The ego of any one of them would easily fill the entire island. Each vies for position and takes any perceived slight as a serious affront to its dignity. These engines are treated with kid gloves by the station master, who must be counting the days to retirement. Thomas seems determined to teach children that junior high is right around the corner, so they’d better prepare themselves.
Caillou features the antics of a four-year-old miscreant by the same name. The show is narrated by his ever-forgiving grandmother, who provides an excuse for each of his misbehaviors. “Caillou was angry,” she explains, or “Caillou was disappointed.” His parents are perhaps the most resourceful people on the planet. No matter what the situation, they always have some trick up their sleeves to calm Caillou. Apparently they’ve learned what a monster he is if not immediately pacified. For example, when Caillou doesn’t want to come to dinner, they somehow had anticipated this, and made his favorite food. So he comes running. Even his babysitter seems to have learned the art of distraction. After watching a few episodes of Caillou, your child may well know more about handling problem children than you ever will.
If you want to restrict your child to the best shows, I can offer nothing better than Sesame Street. It has endured through the years for good reason. It’s educational without being addictive. No body lies, cheats, or acts out vindictively. It is a haven of childhood in a world where children grow up too fast.