When it comes to TV shows and cartoons for toddlers, there’s a simple rule of thumb: The kids love them. The parents love to hate them.
I never understood this deep and almost bloodthirsty hatred that kiddie shows inspired in some when I was younger (and childless). I’d watched these shows off and on, with my little cousins or just because there was nothing else to watch on the tube. They all seemed so harmless, really. The Teletubbies were super goofy but cute, Barney the dinosaur — a little overwhelmingly purple, perhaps — but still, so cheerful and upbeat, and Dora the Explorer was so perky and can-do. I couldn’t see how anyone could hate these loveable creatures with such intensity. I put it down to general curmudgeonliness. I get it now.
You see, the problem isn’t the characters or the show per se. They are all perfectly well-meaning creations that try to be educational and entertaining to kids at the same time. No, the problem is the sheer mind-numbing repetition of said shows and characters that parents of young children have to bear. Initially, you’re happy to watch with your little one. You delight in her delight. You clap when she repeats things from the show and learns new songs or phrases. You’re pleased with yourself — yes, your child is watching TV and that’s not great, but she’s learning as she has fun. Plus, you always monitor the amount of time spent in front of the TV. It’s all good, right?
Wrong. The trouble begins when the kid gets well and truly hooked to a particular show. Around 18 months, my daughter went from adoring solid foods to simply refusing to eat, and at my wits end, I finally gave in and did what I used to (in those good ol’ childless days) judge parents for: I started putting on the TV in order to shove the food in. And the only thing she wanted to watch was the Teletubbies.
So, we had Teletubbies at every meal time, morning and evening, day in and day out. Not only that, for a long stretch, she’d ask for the same episode of Teletubbies each time — Dance with the Teletubbies — until I felt like sobbing at the very sound of the African beat they danced to over and over again. There’s only so many times you can watch four furry things shake their bottoms to the same song without something snapping. When she moved on to Dora , I breathed a sigh of relief. That was until she got hooked to one episode of that, and I had to listen to Dora sing “Rain rain go away” 400 times a day (this is not an exaggeration — I had to rewind and replay the song endlessly to make lunch go down).
It’s not just the couple of hours a day you spend watching the shows. It’s also the way they start to permeate your very existence. When she’s not watching the shows, the kid’s singing the theme songs (Barney’s “I love you, you love me” is a particularly pestilent earworm). When she’s not singing the theme songs, she wants you to read her the books. And then there are all the branded products flooding the market that friends and relatives buy for her with loving regularity…
What happens with such ridiculous levels of exposure is that things you didn’t even notice about the shows at first really start getting to you. For instance, it bugs you no end that Barney’s arms are so disproportionately small in comparison to his enormous body or that Dora’s head is so absurdly large in relation to hers (and shaped like a rugby ball to boot). Ditto with Barney’s fixed, toothy grin and Dora’s shrill “C’mon vamanos!” — with each repeat viewing, it grates on your nerves a little more. At one stage, dinner conversation in our house consisted of me ranting about the gross parental negligence on display in Dora The Explorer . I mean, who lets their five-year-old cross rain forests and broken bridges and volcanoes with just a monkey and a backpack for company?
This is about the stage, I would imagine, that the hate websites get created, and the violent deaths of fictional characters begin to be plotted…
But in the end, the characters always redeem themselves, just because of the joy they bring to your kid. Like when we were travelling recently and my daughter saw the Teletubbies dancing ‘live’, and got to take her picture with Po. Or the time she got to see the Barney Christmas stage show in a mall. The sheer happiness, the squeals of pleasure had to be seen and heard to be believed. Suddenly, those irritants didn’t seem like such a big deal. And so, rugby ball-shaped head or not, we’ll be right there, braving the mob scene of tiny tots, whenever Dora comes to town. After all, what’s childhood without a few favourite cartoon characters?
‘Toddler Talk’ is a light-hearted weekly column on the challenges of bringing up this generation of tech-savvy, high-maintenance toddlers.