One of the great worries of being a parent is not only deciding how much television you will let your children watch, but what they can watch when. Of course, being as I am dead set on having my children be children of the 80s two decades displaced, I have an extra large volume of material to consider. But, that aside, there is even just the consideration of this generation’s material. Little Einsteins, Dora the Explorer, Spongebob Squarepants, and Avatar: The Last Airbender are all major contenders. So, what to pick?
Well, the first three are all just fine. From being educational and attention grabbing it their own way (Einsteins, Dora), to having plenty of humor at both the child’s level and the adults (Spongebob), but there is just something missing in all of these, and that, in my opinion, is their treatment of spec-fic material.
See, for all the Nick Jr., Nickelodeon, and Disney I have watched, very few of them really treat spec-fic with anything outside of childish fancy. Does that make sense? Yeah, I’m accusing a kid’s show of being childish. As a counterpoint, I hold up Avatar and Phineas and Ferb.
The first is an honest to goodness fantasy that, while written for a younger audience, obviously has the good, strong themes that can even resonate with an adult, as can be seen by the Tor.com Avatar: The Last Airbender Re-watch. Phineas and Ferb is far more slap-stick, yet there is just something about Dr. Doofenshmirtz as the hapless evil inventor that I just can’t place on transcending childishness and striking true genius. And a secret agent platypus. I mean, come on! It’s awesome.
But the true test was letting my three- and four-year-old boys watch the shows. Now, don’t get me wrong, they love Dora, et al, but if I hold up a Nick Jr. DVD or an Avatar DVD, they pick Avatar every time. They know the characters by heart, they express worry when someone is hurt, and they re-enact the bending fights on a regular basis. My four-year-old even hums the Avatar music when he is playing.
And the final way I know the more “adult” show is the better? My children already are coming to understand death, war, love, and respect. It seems so many children’s shows want to shy away from these poignant, real, world-wide themes, as if a child cannot understand them. And when they do, it is with a heavy-handed lecturing tone.
Yet, a show that is technically marketed for pre-teens has quickly become two preschoolers’ favorite thing to watch, and they understand it. Perhaps children are a little more sly than we give them credit for, eh? And perhaps this is why I still want to tend to the late 80s and early 90s for things to let my kids watch, like the Saturday Morning Sonic the Hedgehog and X-Men: The Animated Series. Shows like that had no issues showing their themes without having to directly sing about sharing and caring. And it is because there are still people out there willing to make shows like this that I can say, without reservation, that both my children and I eagerly await Avatar: Legend of Korra. And in the meantime.
Richard Fife is a writer, blogger, and according to his older son, a Water Bender. You can read more of his ramblings and some of his short fiction on his website, and you can also follow him on Twitter and Facebook.