For today’s topic, we will be discussing Paw Patrol and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.
Yeah, I know those are shows for littles, but I’ve got littles, and a big conversation when you’re a parent of littles is what’s appropriate for them to watch. But also, since I’ve been swirling in the declarative-statement-ridden world of Twitter Romancelandia for the past few years, I think the lessons I’ve learned from thinking about the media my littles consume is helping me to process my feelings about what romance “should” be.
You see, I do not expect my leisure reading always to be totally checked in. I don’t expect authors to have superior knowledge and training such that they are responsible for exclusively creating socially responsible content. Some people want that reading, and I can be supportive of that. Sometimes I also want that reading. But I can at times also have a load of fun reading books with various problematic elements. I process the problematic content however it appears and move on with my life however that goes.
I am also a high-strung person who likes to do things right, so being awash in some social media conversations that make me feel wrong is extremely stressful. Bottom line: this has been on my mind a lot.
Back to the littles.
If you’re unfamiliar with the show, Paw Patrol is about a 10-year-old kid, Ryder, who has six very well-trained talking dogs, and together they rescue the town from a variety of troubles.
Ryder lives alone in a high-tech tower, he and his dogs have a variety of vehicles (including flying and aquatic vehicles) and tools (like excavators and projectiles) that should really only be used with the supervision of an adult, and he—the child who is ten—solves the problems of every adult in town. I have never seen an episode of this show in which Ryder consults with any kind of guardian figure. This kid functions as an independent adult, and all of the real adults are pretty incompetent at life.
I resisted for a long time, but eventually I gave in, and my kids loved this show for a couple of years. There’s action! There’s adventure! There’s silliness, there’s teamwork, and there’s problem-solving. Ryder and his dogs can get the job done. They are independent, confident, and successful. It makes sense that kids would enjoy the content (it is also bright and somewhat frenetic), and it also makes sense (even if they aren’t quite processing this) that they like to see a fictitious kid who is getting things done and doing those things well when there is very little in their own lives that they are able to control.
At the same time, I’m aware that I do not want my 10yo to be driving all around town on an ATV thinking he can or should be solving problems for grown-ass adults. If we’re looking for life lessons, Paw Patrol is probably not the place to be doing it.
Bring in Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, which is commonly held up as amazeballs children’s programming that teaches great life lessons.
We started our childhood TV journey with DT, and I probably liked it more than my kids did. Oh well. I, too, like action movies better than dramas, so I can’t blame them.
If you are not a DT aficionado, it’s an animated spin-off from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, with characters that Mr. Rogers originated (remember the puppets?). Daniel deals with all the things that come up in life, from going to the dentist to playing nice with friends to coping with things that aren’t going right. (I really felt for him when his birthday cake got messed up. That’s the pits.) So DT is pretty much exactly what you want from a show for your littles who need their minds to be molded with good things, right?
Here’s the thing: a Texas Tech University study from 2018 showed that watching DT did develop the desired (expected? hoped for?) emotional skills in a group of littles, but the watching had to be accompanied by regular parent-child conversations about the content of the show. Now, I haven’t seen this study replicated yet, and we must take studies with a grain of salt. BUT here’s my takeaway:
It’s more important to be educated about healthy social and emotional things than it is simply to ensure we’re solely ingesting healthy social and emotional things.
I mean, the first problem with that latter idea is that it pretty much relies on other people having the knowledge and doing the work so that the ingester doesn’t have to worry about what they’re ingesting. I sure as hell don’t know everything about everything, but at least I know I don’t know everything about everything, and I can work on learning more about the things that are important, healthy, and inclusive. Having the knowledge is useful in a variety of settings, and my active rather than passive acquisition of that knowledge means I’m emotionally invested.
The second problem is that we don’t always need to have our intake be perfect. Life is messy, people are messy, people like what they like, and not everyone is reading through a social justice lens. Rather than implying that readers should desire a certain kind of content (or, more to the point, that they shouldn’t enjoy certain content), it’s probably better to ask: what is the goal of the reader who is consuming the content? If the goal is pure escapism, then I would argue that, by definition, the reader is aware that there might be things going on in the background that are possibly undesirable, but the fantasy—letting go of the reality—allows for the escapism. I’m thinking of someone enjoying a billionaire or royal archetype, knowing that real life versions are pretty terrible, but also enjoying the idea that someone with a lot of money and a lot of power could sweep in and take care of the problems and the struggle that our everyday selves deal with. (Plus the bestest orgasms EVER.)
There’s the argument that what we read influences us (“OMG, reading all these alphas makes me want such bad boys!!!”) and the counter argument that we should be presumed to be self-aware enough to understand that fiction is fiction (“Beauty and the Beast did not, in fact, make me feel like it’s okay to stay with an abusive partner”). These ideas are not mutually exclusive. We are influenced by media that we consume (there’s, like, this whole industry devoted specifically to doing that), but when we are educated, we are also able to think critically about that media. This of course becomes more challenging as we negotiate content that touches our personal pressure points (and yes, while I have the privilege of having very few pressure points, I do have my own). Or really challenging when we consume content with an extremely limited education about that content. But I’m not sure that it’s the responsibility of others to do that emotional or educational heavy lifting for us, though of course we can appreciate content creators who support us by creating safe content as we do that heavy lifting. It’s Daniel Tiger teaching us our life lessons, but it’s also us needing to go over those life lessons with our parents in order to really understand them.
There’s a recurring conversation that we have on our TSR chat, and it goes something like this:
Erin: Why do people have these expectations of romance? I don’t see anybody asking why <fill in the blank> isn’t better.
Holly: Well maybe they should be.
And there probably should be these conversations occurring in every sphere where reality meets fantasy in maybe not the best ways. The status quo is not always good, and thinking critically and understanding the pitfalls of our media or our desires is important. (I would argue it’s especially important where marginalized identities are concerned.) But also maybe it’s important to acknowledge that sometimes, be it good or bad, it’s just really fun to watch a 10yo and a bulldog rescue the distraught mayor and her pet chicken.