feature image photo by FG Trade via Getty Images
When the TV writer’s strike started, I talked with my dad about it, and he told me he thinks I could and should be a TV writer one day. I scoffed, mainly because he’s my dad and thinks I can do anything, but I did tell him it was something I had considered.
TV writing is incredibly time consuming, and even if I wanted to, I can’t at this season of parenting I’m in. My son is older, but he’s still young enough to demand a lot of my time. Plus, I want to be home at night to make dinner and tuck him in, to be able to volunteer in his classroom and to chaperone field trips. He’s the only kid I’m ever going to have, and I want to make sure I am there for everything.
I went to a Writer’s Strike picket and ran into a friend. I told her my feelings about wanting to be a TV writer one day, and she asked what I would like to write for in the future.
“I want to create a children’s TV show,wp_postsI said without hesitation.
Children’s television has always held a special place in my heart. As a middle-aged millennial, TV was a huge part of my childhood. We had cable when I was really young, and the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon were the only two channels I watched from when I got up until dinnertime. Shows like Eureeka’s Castle, Under the Umbrella Tree and Shining Time Station were some of my favorites.
Once I became a mom, I was thrown right back into watching children’s television, but I quickly learned it was a much place than it had been when I was younger. Shows for toddlers and preschoolers were a lot more literal with the lessons they taught; you didn’t subtly learn a lesson about sharing or empathy. Shows like Paw Patrol teach kids the importance of being an upstanding citizen through service. My son is a loyal devotee to Thomas and Friends, which teaches lessons about empathy and being a good friend and citizen, but people find issue with the totalitarian rule of Sir Toppham Hatt. I’m sorry, but the man runs a railroad — if something goes wrong, there are dire consequences. Maybe it’s because I’m from NYC, but you need a railroad ruled with an iron fist.
Besides Thomas, my son really loved Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood as a toddler and preschooler. I loved it because it taught really important lessons that could be reduced to a pithy little song.
”When you’re feeling mad and you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four…”
“If you have to go potty, STOP and go right away. Flush and wash, and be on your way!”
He learned a lot, and I did too. Because I was the adult watching these shows, there were things I noticed. One of them is how many shows for preschoolers enforce a very cisgender, heteronormative binary lifestyle for kids. As a single mom, I noticed a severe lack of single-parent households on the shows my son loved to watch. There’s also a real lack of racial diversity in many of these shows — unless they are about animals. Those seemed to be the most inclusive spaces, and I have a lot of thoughts about why that may be true.
Of all the shows he watched as a kid (and he’s almost 10, so keep that in mind), Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood was one of the most inclusive shows. Daniel, Prince Wednesday, and Miss Elaina all live in two-parent households, but his friend Katerina Kittycat is being raised by a single mother, and his friend O the Owl is being raised by his uncle. Miss Elaina is biracial: Her mom is white and her dad is Black. I loved seeing that as a parent raising a mixed kid. A newer character, Jodi Platypus (who was introduced after my son grew out of the show) lives in a single-parent, intergenerational home with her mom, twin brothers, and grandma. Prince Wednesday has a disabled cousin named Chrissie who comes and hangs out in the Land of Make Believe.
There are more shows that are inclusive to varying degrees, but many of them are more racially diverse than anything else. My son loved Doc McStuffins, and I loved that he could watch a show for kids that featured a Black family where the mom was a doctor. I remember how significant it was for me to see Black families with strong moms on sitcoms when I was kid, and I was glad he was getting to see that on a show made for the intellectual level he was on at the time. Disney Junior really had a time where they were cranking out racially diverse shows for kids, including Sofia the First and Elena of Avalor. Kids really do need to see reflections of themselves.
In those early mom years, I didn’t realize how much I was looking to children’s television to validate my own feelings about being a parent. Even though I knew it wasn’t the job of a show for toddlers to tell me it was okay to find being a mom hard, I still craved it, because that’s what I was watching the most. If you find that feeling relatable, then I can’t recommend Bluey enough. I wrote something longer about TV moms, and I had to shout out the creators of Bluey for keeping it real about parenthood. Chili Heeler is a real one, and it amazes me that I can find kinship in a cartoon dog on a show for preschoolers, but I’ll take it. The show never shies away from the fucking hard parts of being a mom, including burnout and even miscarriage. It’s really one of the few shows that remembers adults are usually also watching shows for kids.
Queerness is something still severely lacking on shows for the five and under crowd. You get the occasional same-gender parent families, like the lesbian mom polar bears on Peppa Pig or a two dad family on the Netflix show Chip & Potato. But those characters don’t usually become consistent recurring characters. I still remember when there was a family with interracial lesbian moms on Doc McStuffins and the controversy it caused. The creator of the show, Chris Nee, is a lesbian and a parent. She was just trying to give kids like her own a glimpse into their reality. As far as I know, that’s the only time you’ve seen a human same gender couple on a preschool show. (Please correct me if I’m wrong!) Chris Nee also created the first nonbinary character on a preschool show: Fred the bison on Ridley Jones, which is on Netflix. Fred was voiced by Iris Menas, who is also nonbinary. Netflix didn’t make an effort to promote the show and, following backlash due to Fred’s existence, they quietly canceled it after five brief seasons.
It’s frustrating that shows that are more inclusive largely feature characters that aren’t human. Sure, it’s cool to see a little Black girl being besties with a cat or a dentist that’s a platypus. But how much more impactful would it be to have those characters also be human? I don’t want lesbian polar bears; I want two moms who look like the moms I see on the playground.
Now that I have an older kid, we’re in totally different TV territory. Shows for kids over seven become more niche, which creates an entirely different set of issues. It’s harder to find shows that appeal to everyone; they’re usually tailored to kids of a specific gender, which is frustrating when you’re trying to raise inclusive kids. They’re also tailored to specific interests like Power Rangers or Lego Friends. I’m lucky that my son has a broad set of interests, but he definitely leans more towards “boywp_postsshows like Dino Trucks or Lego Ninjago. I don’t remember that being as blatant and pervasive when I was a kid as it is now.
One show that stands out as pretty gender neutral is Ada Twist, Scientist, which was also created by Chris Nee and is based on the popular book series. Ada and her friends Rosie Revere and Iggy Peck are a curious group of third graders. Rosie is being raised by a single mom, and Iggy’s parents are divorced and co-parenting. Those topics aren’t deeply discussed, they’re just presented as fact. As much as I love that for normalizing different family structures, I would love more conversations about it between the characters to tell kids that their families are okay.
Children’s television is an ever changing landscape that reflects the world those in charge of creating it want to see. I do truly hope that in the future, that world is more reflective of more kids and their experiences. And if I have to be the change, I’m willing to take that on.
What kind of shows do your kids watch? Do you love them or love to hate them?
Queer Mom Chronicles is a column where I examine all of the many facets of queer parenthood through my tired mom eyes.