BACK-TO-SCHOOL means back to new TV, especially for those of us who grew up hooked on the thing, as I did — despite the fact that my mother banned certain kinds of it. “Tom and Jerry”? Not in her house. “The Three Stooges”? Definitely not. Before I had kids, I also vowed never to let them watch anything ever ever. Now that I am forehead-deep in kids, we have a shamefully long list of shows I have approved because without them I might end up “with all the nuts and the squirrels,” as Miss Hannigan sings in the musical “Annie.”
In this September’s bevy of new shows for small people, the most noteworthy is “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” on PBS. If you’re a Gen Xer, or a savvy Millennial, you might remember Daniel, the shy Tiger puppet who lived in a clock in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” so many decades ago. He now has a son, also named Daniel, who is the focus of this new series. I catch bits of it in between writing and preparing classes, as I do laundry, scrub stuff, and defrost things.
The tone is gentle: In one segment I watched, Daniel has a preschool classroom full of friends and activities to help him combat his shyness. What probably isn’t helping Daniel is that he only wears a sweatshirt. I too would be shy if my parents sent me to school with no pants. Of course, this aspect of Daniel does not faze my kids, who seem to enjoy him. But, they will watch the Luna Carpet commercial if it means the difference between TV on and no TV at all.
For me, at least, watching Daniel go through his day was painful. That is in part because of what I learned from Mister Rogers, whom I adored and who seemed to speak directly to the 3-year-old me about real things.
As time passed, I heard the usual jokes about how “lame” or “creepy” he was. But Fred Rogers understood children well. Just read the series of books he authored — books that tackle some of the big events of childhood, the life events that rattle even the most stalwart of adults but can really freak the H-E-double-hockey-sticks out of a little kid. Moving day, pets dying, that new baby your parents carted home one day and for some reason did not give back even though you yourself are more than enough and were here first: Mister Rogers was on all of it. This Daniel spin-off has the same sincerity, a quality that is hard to come by in most children’s programming.
Kiddie-aged characters are supposed to be developmentally commensurate with their audience. Yet in show after show, they exhibit a troublesome maturity, an all-knowing precocity. There’s little appreciation of the feelings that tug at your 5-year-old conscience. Characters may “problem solve” — a skill that today’s children’s TV shows eagerly promote — but they don’t feel stuff. That’s for suckers without pants.
Perhaps with the onslaught of cynical characters, not just on TV but also in a plethora of present-day kids books, our kids have changed, too. A teacher friend of mine reports that she played a YouTube clip of Mister Rogers for her students and was met with groans about his supposed creep factor.
Last winter, when it was too cold to head outside, I played some episodes of his show for my two very small kids, instead of the commercial fare they’re used to. Huddled under a comforter, we watched Mister Rogers feed his fish. We listened as the puppets in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe discussed the consequences of lying. At first, both kids looked bored. Their eyes grew wider as Mister Rogers talked about feeling lonely. But soon enough, there were cries for Tinkerbell and Lightning McQueen, for me to get up and make pancakes, for Disney Jr. and more juice.
It was sad-making: my kids, still babies really, annoyed by this man talking so earnestly. They were desperate for something quicker. You might respond, “Then turn off the TV!” But there’s more to it. As parents of my generation give our children the hipper, snarkier upbringings we now wish we’d had, we’re eroding some of the very basic qualities of childhood. Dwelling on worries and fears like Daniel’s is messy and difficult. It’s not the reason we all decided to have these kids, right? Is it?