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“Tee-Vee, Daddy,” or Kid’s Shows That Won’t Make You Want to Join a Cult

We all say that when our child is born s/he won’t watch TV. Nope. Our lil one is going to learn the treasures of play and literature early, and while the TV won’t be off-limits, it will definitely be regulated more than when we were kids. I said that back in 1997 and early-1998 when my first daughter, Courtney, was in gestation and shortly after her birth in April 1998. By the following April, she loved Teletubbies, Elmo, and Blue’s Clues. By two, she was an avid fan of Bear in the Big Blue House, the Muppets, Rolie Polie Olie, and Little Bear. Throw in Franklin as well. I hated Sesame Street back then, and Barney, too. She got those when she was with her cousin or when I wasn’t home, which was rare.

Fast forward nearly 15 years. In March 2012, Pamela found out she was pregnant. She declared not long afterward that our child wouldn’t be raised on the glass teat. I agreed, but without the force that I had 15 years prior. I knew better. After you’d gone from reading to playing puppets to playing dolls to playing blocks to reading to more blocks to running around to…you need a break. And that giant rectangle in the corner will help with that.

G is 2-and-a-half. She loves to read. She loves to draw. She loves blocks, playing, jumping, exploring, dancing, puppets, make-believe, and so much more. She also loves TV. I’m not passing judgment on myself or my wife, we do our best to limit her TV-watching, but there’s shows she likes and, damnit, we kinda like them, too. So if you’re feeling guilty about your toddler watching TV, here are some shows that we watch and I think they’re good entertainment, as well as a little (sometimes a lot) educational.

Sesame Street

All right, I know this goes without saying, but you have to understand something: I grew up hating Sesame Street. I loved The Muppet Show, which would air on Saturday nights at 7 PM, but Sesame Street was never my thing. Even when Courtney was a little one, I didn’t like it. And by then they’d gotten Elmo. Ugh. The sound of his voice sent shivers down my spine and goosebumps over my flesh. I was in my early-to-mid-twenties. Now I’m in my mid-to-late-thirties and I’ve finally discovered Sesame Street. And that high-pitched, bright red monster? Yeah…he’s kinda cute. He’s still not a favorite of mine, and I’m no fan of Abby Cadabby, but I’ve finally discovered why Sesame Street has been around for 46 years. From parodies on Game of Thrones, Star Wars, the failed Spider-Man Broadway musical, to the simple stories and whimsical moments, I’ve become a fan.

Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood

I’ve written about how Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Fred Rogers have been there at important moments in my life. Thanks to Amazon Prime (or the PBS Kids website), the classic show is easily available for binge-watching. It’s by no means complete, but it’s still great. However, if you don’t have time for fussing with that, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is a great modern take. Produced by the Fred Rogers Company and Out of the Blue, the show is created by Angela Santomero, who co-created Blue’s Clues and Super Why! The titular Daniel Tiger is not the Daniel Striped Tiger that you and I grew up with, but rather his son. DT, as my wife and I call it in code, is a kinda-sorta sequel. It takes place in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, which has the giant clock, the castle, the treehouse and tree, and the Museum-Go-Round, and familiar characters like Daniel Striped Tiger, X the Owl, Henrietta Pussycat, Lady Elaine Fairchilde, and King Friday XIII and Queen Sarah Saturday with their son Prince Tuesday are all there. However, the new characters are the real stars of the show. Daniel Tiger, O the Owl (X’s nephew), Katarina Kittycat (Henrietta’s daughter), Miss Elaina (Lady Elaine’s daughter), and Prince Wednesday are the focus of the show. There are other new characters like Mom Tiger (the original Daniel, who is now an adult, is known as Dad Tiger) Music Man Stan (Lady Elaine’s husband and Miss Elaina’s father), Dr. Anna, and Baker Aker are all new additions. And of course, the neighborhood wouldn’t be complete without Mr. McFeely.

The show is broken into two segments with neighbors from our world (usually from Pittsburgh) in between and its focus is emotional development, just like Mister Rogers. Santomero’s work on Blue’s Clues and Super Why! comes into play as Daniel will greet us each day with, “Hi, neighbor!” and include us in the story, asking us to participate throughout. Small jingles help teach the lesson of the show. Pamela and I have found these jingles useful as we try to navigate G through the world. “Use your wor-or-ords. Use your words!” has come in handy when she’s been frustrated. “When you have to go potty, stop! and go right away! Flush and wash and be on your way” is another good one.  And this past winter, with all the sickness we all seemed to get, singing “When you’re sick, rest is best, rest is best,” has come in quite handy. She’ll sing these lessons to us as well. When I made a mistake recently, G chimed in with, “Keep trying, you’ll get beh-etter!”

My one complaint is some of the creative choices that were made. Harriet Cow is no longer a resident or teacher in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, instead it’s a human woman named Teacher Harriet. And poor Anna Platypus is nothing more than…a puppet at the pre-school. Her entire family is wiped out. There doesn’t seem to be a Westwood, no mention of Lady Aberlin, and nearly no outside conflict. Lady Elaine, the biggest grump in Fred Rogers’s day, has had work done, married, and never plots, schemes, or even complains. Other than those few small things, it’s an excellent show.

Daniel Tiger

Curious George

Neither Pamela nor I were impressed when we first watched the PBS/Imagine Television adaptation of the classic book series by Margaret and H.A. Rey, but Curious George has grown on us and G loves it. Yeah, the plots are far-fetched and silly. I enjoy making fun of the fact that all these humans can’t seem to figure out what a monkey can, but it’s fun and, more or less, educational. Fluff, but good fluff.

Doc McStuffins

A show starring an African American girl as a play doctor, whose mother is a real doctor, Dad seems to be a stay-at-home dad, and a fun little brother may seem foreign, even to Gen Xers like me, and it’s wonderfully so. I can happily turn this show on and know that, if nothing else, my daughter will see a positive female role model as well as an intelligent, beautiful, and fun person of color as the lead. Creator Chris Nee and her staff also write some great stories for this wonderful little girl with a huge imagination. The lessons aren’t just medical-based, though they often are, but they also cover the landscape of the human heart. A wonderful show if you haven’t checked it out. And if you have a boy and are afraid it’s a “girl’s show” (which I’ll get to in a little while) it’s a great show for him, too. He should also be inspired.

DocMcStuffins

Peppa Pig

It’s British. It’s funny. We love it.

Sofia the First

When I first heard of this show I though, Nope. No need for Disney Princesses in this household. Now I’m a fan. So is my wife. And, more importantly, so is my daughter. The show has a feminist ideology that is proud to be “girly,” but isn’t hampered by it. What I mean is…well…let me tell you about the show and I think my commentary will make sense.

Sofia and her mother, Miranda, are commoners. Miranda is a cobbler who is hired to make shoes for King Roland II. The King and Miranda fall in love at first sight (this is Disney, after all) and they marry. Now Sofia is a princess with two step-siblings, twins James and Amber. There’s no mention of their mother that I know of. Anyway, Sofia is the average girl who’s been thrust into this new world of magic, royalty, and etiquette. She handles it well. James is a typical boy who is sometimes real nice, and other times a fool. But it’s Princess Amber, Sofia’s new sister, that I really want to focus on. Amber is the typical “princess.” I put the word in quotes because she behaves in the way a woman (or girl) who fancies herself a princess and makes demands of those around her in a fashion that is unbecoming, rude, and can never be fulfilled would behave. For instance…

I know of a couple a few years younger than my wife and I who married around the same time we did, and had their first child around the same time G was born (Pamela’s first child). The guy is a public servant. Let’s say a firefighter. Good guy. Stand-up guy. Nice guy. His wife is a “princess.” Her engagement ring not only had to have this, but this and that, as well, and it better not be under…ooohhh…$XX,000. She must have this, and have that, and she simply cannot work with two children (they’ve had another) though she’s constantly dropping them off with grandma and grandpa so she can go to yoga, or for coffee, or…. She is a “princess” and has called herself one. You know these kinds of “princesses.” Unfortunately, I’ve known a few myself. Get it?

Amber is that kind of princess. She is the kind of princess that girls growing up on a steady diet of Disney Princesses believe they should be. Of course, none of the Disney Princesses are actually like that. These Real World Princesses base their princessism on “And they lived happily ever after…” assuming that these women would become those kinds of princesses. She is full of herself, wishes to do as little work as possible, is rude, is narrow-minded, and is obsessed with appearance both in terms of clothes and what others think. This is not the complete picture of Amber. The show’s writers are very good at adding dimensions to the characters and Amber can be quite kind, giving, and selfless. She’s also quite intelligent. But the overwhelming portrayal is of the typical mythical “princess.”

Sofia, on the other hand, is Disney’s reinvention of the Disney Princess. She is kind, intelligent, imaginative, quick-to-laugh, inclusive, open-minded, strong, resilient, and human. She has faults. Sometimes she gets a little full of herself. Sometimes she’s jealous. Sometimes she does wrong. She is given an amulet that, unknown to anyone, gives her the ability to speak to all the princesses that ever were. This means that she sometimes gets to speak to Cinderella, or Belle (from Beauty and the Beast), or Ariel (The Little Mermaid), or any of the other Disney Princesses. The classic princesses aren’t in every episode, not even close, but are in enough to help move product–I meant…er…to rewrite some of the less feministic aspects of their original stories.

Sofia makes Amber a better person. Amber isn’t one- or two-dimensional. She is well-written and changes a over time.

This is a show that teaches about emotions, tolerance, how to treat people, and kindness. Like the aforementioned Doc McStuffins, it tells girls that they can do anything. I am a fan and highly recommend it.

Sofia the First

Arthur

I have to mention Arthur. The PBS series based on the Marc Brown books is great. I used to watch it with Courtney, and now G loves it. Yeah, it’s a little old for her, but she still digs it, and so do I. Their stories have skewered standardized testing, the loss of original intent with the American Girl doll line, and other topics that one wouldn’t expect in a children’s show. It’s really not a pre-school show but it’s on when I get home from work and G watches it and enjoys it.

Summation

I could go on and on, I’m sure. Sid the Science Kid (G loves it, Pamela and I don’t, though it preaches science and we’re for that, so we stomach it), Peg + Cat (also from the Fred Rogers Company; Pamela and I love it, G isn’t as fond), Dinosaur Train (fun show), Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, and Caillou (which I used to hate, have now grown more fond of, but Pamela hates; G loves it) are a few of the others. If it sounds like G consumes too much TV, it’s because that is a lengthy list, but it’s not watched all in one day, and she rarely goes above the 2 hr limit that researchers have found is bad for kids. On the rare days she does go over the 2 hr, she’s sick, I’m sick, or Pamela is sick, and it’s a good way to keep her calm while someone rests.

And if you’re thinking that a lot of these shows are girl shows, I suggest you chill out. I think Sofia the First, the “girliest” of these shows, can be great for boys to watch if they sat down and actually watched them. The stories are often filled with adventure and Prince James is a great role model for them. Basically, if they’re not interested, fine, but I think we should be beyond worrying about such things.

Now I’ll climb off my soapbox and go watch some TV. Maybe Doc McStuffins has an interesting new case, or Sofia has a new adventure.

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On Being a Divorced Dad & a Married Dad, or I’m Making It Up As I Go

This year marked 10 years since my first wife and I split. I think we’re both happier now, which is great, but I wonder how my 16-year-old daughter deals with it. Having had parents that stayed together, I don’t know what it’s like to have to schlep between houses, between rules, between parenting styles. And I know I feel as guilty now as I did the first night in my new apartment in March 2004, the first night in many that I did not read a book to C, or sing to her (usually Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”). The choice I made back then, I’m still convinced, was the right choice. Unfortunately, the collateral damage is sometimes more than I can handle.

This is all the more on my mind now that I’m a married father again. G turned 21 months yesterday. She recognizes the letter G (or Geeeeeeee!, as she says), loves to draw and color, and loves music. She sings better than I do. There’s a huge difference between her at 21 months and C at 21 months, namely, me. I’m 36 (very soon-to-be 37) instead of 21 (soon-to-be 22). I have a career. Two. Teaching and writing. Back then, I had dreams. I’d sold one story to a small press zine, price: one contributor copy.

My 16-year-old has spent her 3rd summer in a row with my sister in Florida. She comes back this weekend. I’ll be tracking her flight. If I know when it’s overhead, and if it’s during the day, maybe I’ll take the 21-month-old outside to look up in the sky and try to see the plane. Unless she’s landing in Rhode Island instead of Boston. I’ll know soon enough. Anyway, I’ve missed her. She’s spent less time at my house this year than the previous 8. I see her every day since we go to the same school. Hell, I was one of her teachers during her freshman year, and will be again during her junior year. Still, I miss her. Her stepmother misses her. And her sister misses her.

She has another sibling on the other side who is older. She’s missed by this one, too, I’m sure. To her younger siblings, C’s like Wonder Woman, Beyoncé, and Oprah mixed together.

I hope I’ve taught her everything she needs to know. And while I’ve made mistakes, I hope I’ve set a good example. But I guess that’s what every parent hopes, married or divorced. You lead them, then you guide them, and then you let them go. It’s an odd dichotomy to be on both ends of the spectrum, leading one and letting go of the other (she turns 18 in less than two years…egads!).

I love my girls. They’re both insanely intelligent, talented, and beautiful. Sometimes I wish I was a better father, but I know that I give everything I can.

And I always will.

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C in March/April 2000, right before she turned 2.

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G last month, at 20 months.

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C and G in June.

It’s a Beautiful Day In This Neighborhood, or Why Mr. Rogers Matters

This will be my second time writing about Fred Rogers, the first was back in September 2011 when I was still attempting to write my ill-fated MediaBio blog. The reason I’m returning to the man the world knew as Mr. Rogers is because of his importance.

My wife and I have introduced Genevieve to TV. More precisely, our TV. I mean, the shows we watched as children. She’s been on a Muppet Show kick (which kind of sucks because the 3rd and, so far, last DVD set came in yesterday, and while the show had five seasons, only three have been released) and via Amazon Prime my wife introduced her to classic Sesame Street  (being my daughter, she prefers The Muppet Show). Prime also has Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Now, I’ve known the power Fred Rogers had for a long time, but especially since the incident I related the last time I wrote about him:

It was 2005, somewhere between May and July, and things had been a little bleak. I’d been separated from my soon-to-be-ex-wife (we finalized our divorce in September 2005) and was working at a local bookstore, which I would’ve loved had they paid me what I deserved, treated me the way I deserved, and otherwise didn’t have their heads up their asses (not all of them, just those who were in charge). I sat down to eat my lunch around 11:30/noon, and I only had twenty cable channels. My choices were game shows, talk shows, or PBS. One PBS channel was running Sesame Street. Blech. Another was running Teletubbies. Barf! The last had on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I decided to leave it on. I quickly realized that I remembered the episode from my childhood. I sat watching this show that I hadn’t seen in twenty years, mesmerized. At the end, Mr. Rogers looked into the camera and said in that way he had, “Just remember that you are special. That there’s no one else in this world like you, and that you are important.”

I can’t explain it. I began weeping.

***

I remember that day nine years ago like it happened yesterday. It was exactly what I needed to hear at that time.

So now Genevieve will ask to watch it and she was sick for the last few days so we put it on. She’ll end up playing, but Pamela and I are good with that, because we’re really the ones watching. I’ve seen episodes from before I was born. I’ve seen episodes from long after I stopped watching. I don’t understand why I never had Courtney watch it. I’m ashamed of myself.

The thing I keep noticing is how actually good and kindhearted Fred Rogers was. His meticulousness is evident in the show and the fact that he kept it pretty much the same from 1968 through 2001 is astounding. While Sesame Street changes with the times, Mr. Rogers’s set didn’t change in all that time. Picture Picture didn’t suddenly become a flat screen TV. The Neighborhood of Make Believe never got more complicated puppets or 3D characters. Hell, the same actors worked with him throughout!

I’ve cried several times recently watching episodes. Here’s a for instance for you:

So today, we were working our way through his 5-episode arc about work called “Mister Rogers Talks About Work.” The next-to-last episode featured him going to Wagner’s Market to buy some groceries. We get to meet some neighbors and see how a grocery store worked in 1984. While walking down the cereal aisle, he comments on how when he was a little boy, he’d want to get one of everything in the aisle, and the rest of the store, but how his parents wouldn’t let him get one of everything and he learned that people couldn’t get everything they wanted.

After getting his items, which shows him being friendly to everyone, he returns “home” and puts everything away, explaining how as a parent, there were reasons he had to say no to his children and that children can’t get everything they want. Then he announced it was time for make-believe.

So Mr. Rogers goes over to the bench where he operates Trolley and there’s a top hat there, closed. He pops it open to show his Television Neighbor, and as he takes it off and sits down says, off-hand, “All kinds of things you can think about and do in this world.” And then he sits down and gets Trolley.

The main theme of this episode is that not everybody can have everything. That choices have to be made and it’s the grown-ups in a child’s life who makes the choice. Once the child grows up, s/he can make the choice. This isn’t said with a snarl, or a wagging finger, but with love and respect. And even though that should be enough, it was the off-hand comment made as he was sitting down, “All kinds of things you can think about and do in this world,” that got me.

And there are! You and I, as adults, don’t need Fred Rogers to tell us this…but we do! How often in the busy grind of our lives do we stop and really pay attention? How often do we let life beat us down? The human mind is nearly limitless with imagination yet we begin to kill it the moment a child goes to school and is told to stand in line. Lines are important, so is order, but, as Mr. Rogers states at the end of the episode, so is play.

Fred Rogers ended his show in 2001. In December 2002, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. On February 27th, 2003, he died.

There has been no one before his death or since that has been able to sit down and speak to a child through the television without talking down to him/her but still being the adult. Some critics say his message to children, that they special, is the wrong message to send. I disagree. We are all individuals, there is no one else like the person we know ourselves to be, yet Mr. Rogers also gave us a message of love, of helping one another, of tolerance. Of peace.

I feel, in this time when 24/7 news talking heads, Twitter and Facebook hate and shaming, and mass-violence and teenage suicide rates are through the roof, Mr. Rogers’s message is needed more than it ever has been before.

Thank you, Mr. Rogers, for the love you showed me. Thank you, Mr. Rogers, for what you taught me when I was five, 28, and now 36. Thank you, Mr. Rogers, for being you. There is no one like you.

Hoping to Write Words, or The Virus: A Week In Review

I’m writing this on the iPad, so if there are major typos or just seemingly illiterate stuff that pops up, that’s probably why. I dare not try going into the office because I may wake–or alert–the Toddler, Genevieve.

This week, G has been sick. Last weekend her normal morning congestion was extremely bad and went on throughout the day, which made it not morning congestion but, rather, a cold. After a slight fever Monday night, Pamela stayed home with her on Tuesday and took her to the doctor. G has a virus that needs to work its way out.

Wednesday she went to day care but had a bad day, so I stayed home with her on Thursday. Back to day care yesterday. She’s a little better but is still sniffly, ooey-gooey snotty. The cough isn’t as bad. I put her down for nap about an hour ago and she wasn’t happy. She’s either sleeping right now or daydreaming; making only small sounds every now and then.

Due to her being sick and my worrying (our worrying), as well the the typical stressors of being a high school teacher, I dropped the ball this week on writing. I’d been doing real well with editing, revising, and rewriting the novel but this week I did nothing. I was too goddamn tired. I read a little before bed (Supergods by Grant Morrison) each night but that was all. With vacation being this coming week, I’m hoping to play a little catch-up. We’ll see.

How anyone with full-time jobs and families make the time to write is amazing to me. At least I’m just over halfway done with this draft of the book.

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