You wouldn’t let just any nose-picking knee-biter into the house to play with your preschooler. Remember that before you pick up the remote.
Children, especially under the age of 5, shouldn’t have a lot of screen time. But sometimes you need to make dinner. Sometimes you need a break from answering the 976th “Why?” question of the day. It happens.
If your kid watches no cartoons ever, congratulations! Have a kale smoothie and bask in your superiority. Everyone else, though, will be a lot happier if they make shrewd choices about which shows their little ones get to watch.
That means adults-only screenings of any potential show before your kids have a chance to get attached, then using streaming services, DVDs and your DVR wisely. This will cut down on the number of Clorox commercials your kid ingests, too.
One would think that a reliable resource like PBS would put only smart, slightly stuffy shows on its PBS Kids block of programming. But PBS Kids is where my little guy first encountered the bane of my existence, a bald little French Canadian brat named Caillou, the worst role model to come out of Canada since Justin Bieber.
Four early episodes of “Caillou” have been permanently banned from PBS Kids because the kid is such a demon seed: lying to his mother, tormenting the family cat, swatting his baby sister with a book. Even in later versions, where his bad behavior was toned down after criticism from parents, he’s thoughtless, selfish and impulsive.
I hate Caillou (pronounced kai-YOO) so much that I assumed he was whining in the show’s intro theme, singing, “I’m just a kid who’s poor, each day I grow some more …”
“He doesn’t seem poor to me,” I ranted. “He’s got his own tricycle, bunch of toys, trips to the beach. The show hasn’t even started and he’s complaining.”
My husband, who might stuff Caillou in a laundry chute if he were a real live boy, had to correct me. “He’s singing, “‘I’m just a kid who’s 4.’”
“Oh. Well, he’s still a spoiled little ingrate.”
It doesn’t help that the show’s animators have been given only four crayons. “Caillou” is rendered in minimalist settings splashed with blazing primary colors. The family cat is gray … with blue spots. It’s a kindergarten teacher’s bad acid trip.
Here’s what constitutes an emergency to this kid: “These hiccups are messing up everything! I need them to go away!” So his parents drop everything and spend all day humoring his hiccupy behind. So much for your jobs, Mom and Dad!
Despite his frequent tantrums, Caillou never actually gets disciplined. He keeps whining about the tiny scratch on his new bike and how he wants those shoes that light up until he has an epiphany. You know, because 4-year-olds are great at self-reflection and making moral connections.
Yes, he’s a realistic preschooler. The thing is, I already live with one of those. And mine doesn’t need further instruction on foot-stomping and how to hog his toys. That stuff just kinda comes naturally. And when he watches “Caillou,” it happens more often.
“Caillou” is in regular rotation on Sprout, a preschooler-focused channel that is a blessing and a curse. Nothing on there is going to poison your kid forever, but extended exposure might reduce adult IQ by dozens of points.
In the morning, it’s “The Sunny-Side Up Show,” where frustrated actors introduce segments with the help of a yellow chicken puppet named Chica. Chica has its own show and communicates only in squeaks, like a dog attacking a chew toy in your ear.
In the evenings on Sprout, “The Good Night Show” features Nina, a soothing, gently smiling brunette with pigtails. She’s evidently been trapped for years in an abandoned farmhouse with a talking starfish pillow. Dads across America have confessed their impure thoughts about Nina and her pastel pajama sets on social media.
She sings songs, talks to a firefly named Lucy and tells feel-good stories with sand on a light box. Then it’s time for another show worth avoiding, the ubiquitous “Thomas and Friends.”
“Thomas and Friends” is the latest venue for the cleverly marketed British blue steam engines clogging the toy aisles at Target. Earlier versions of the show featured crude stop-motion animation and voice work by Ringo Starr, Alec Baldwin, Pierce Brosnan and George Carlin, but they’re rarely aired these days.
These days, the show is a great way to teach your kids to never follow a simple set of instructions. Thomas, “the cheeky one,” is a likable steam engine, but he can’t just take the pigs to the fair for the nice farmer. No, he has to let them play in mud first. He can’t just take the nice old lady for a scenic ride across the island of Sodor — how about a trip over the Shake Shake Bridge?
At least once an episode, the rich old man who owns the railroad will appear, exasperated, and survey the damage. You’ll hear the narrator explain that “Sir Topham Hatt was cross.” Of course he’s cross. He has his own private island and his own railroad, and none of his employees can carry out a simple task. Thomas wouldn’t survive a single shift at a Wendy’s.
There is hope. “Sarah and Duck” and “Stella and Sam” teach kids to solve problems through imaginative play. Another great show, if you can find it, is “WordWorld,” where barnyard animals make objects with letters while being wacky but kind to one another. “SuperWhy” has an earworm theme song that sounds like a Rick Astley B-side, but it will help your kids learn to read with its creative takes on fairy tales.
Also worth checking out: “Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear,” “Max and Ruby,” “Peg + Cat,” “Dinosaur Train,” “Kipper” and “Sid the Science Kid.”
It’s all about finding something you can all live with. You owe it to your kid to make sure he’s not learning bad habits. You owe it to yourself to make sure he’s not watching something that will make your brain bleed.