There’s no shortage of mediocre children’s programming out there. In fact, with a few exceptions, the majority of the shows my now-seven-year-old son has dragged me into over the years have been mind-numbingly dismal at best. When I happened to hear about Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, therefore, I had no reason to believe it would be any different. The warmly nostalgic reference to Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood gave me hope, but there isn’t a television-loving human alive who hasn’t been burned by the promise of a quality spin-off. Much to my delight, this beautiful show defied my expectations, and in fact delivers on so many levels that I was compelled to share my discovery, and delve into the brilliance that is Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.
The Legacy: Would you be my neighbor? Even just hearing the word “neighbor,” conjures an image of a calm, warm, friendly face from childhood. Can you still hear the trolley chimes that signaled a return to the neighborhood of make believe? Daniel is full of nods to his predecessor. The little preschool-aged tiger wears a red sweater, puts his shoes on and off during the beginning and ending credits, and all of the puppet characters you remember from the old show (Lady Elaine Fairchild, X the owl, Daniel Striped Tiger, etc) are still present, featuring as parents or relatives of the new animated lead characters. I was even more pleased to read that The Fred Rogers Company reached out to producers interested in creating a show that would not only promote Mr. Rogers’ legacy, but follow a curriculum that is based on his teachings, as well as current science on child development and emotional learning.
The Science Behind the Show is legit. I’m a behavior consultant who tries to keep up on the latest parenting knowlege (rather than trends), and have specialized in emotional development and social skills, particularly in children with disabilities. What has amazed me about watching Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is that not only are its lessons well-planned and accessible, but they seem to transcend the gap between neurotypical children and those with cognitive challenges. Anyone can learn something from watching Daniel Tiger. The show uses something they call “strategy songs,” (written and performed by Voodoo Highway) to teach one concept per 15 minute episode. The this isn’t a new idea. Shows like Dora the Explorer, Barney, Yo Gabba Gabba, Sesame Street, and scores of others use songs to teach lessons. What does seem to set the show apart is that they sing one phrase–the key lesson–at strategic points throughout the show, which not only cements the idea in the mind of the viewer, but serves to generalize the concept in multiple contexts, teaching the child that, stopping to use the potty, for example, is something you do everywhere–at home, at preschool, and in the community.
One of my favorite strategy songs goes like this: “It’s okay to feel sad sometimes. Little by little, you’ll feel better again.” My older son, Lock, thought it was hilarious that everyone in the town of make believe seemed to know the same song wherever Daniel went, but my younger son, Key, Is incredibly calmed when I hold him and sing this song. Not only does it teach a child to identify their feeling as being “sad,” but it tells them that it’s a normal feeling, it’s okay to feel that way, and that they won’t be sad forever, which is a very real fear in the mind of a child.
Other brilliant strategy songs include “When you need to potty, stop and go right away. Flush and wash and be on your way!” “Grownups come back,” “You’ve got to try new foods ’cause they might taste good!” “It’s almost time to stop so choose one more thing to do,” “When something goes wrong, turn it around and find something good,” “When a baby makes things different, find a way to make things fun!” and “Saying I’m sorry is the first step, then how can I help?”
The last song is brilliant. I have struggled with my older son, Lock, in helping him understand that saying sorry isn’t enough, and that your actions are the true apology. Daniel Tiger isn’t really aimed at his 7 year old demographic, but in all honesty, I am grateful that my 2 year old loves the show, because it means my 7 year old can still benefit from the lessons. Lock still has a lot to learn about empathy and social skills, and I love that I catch him singing them from time to time.
The strategy songs are a gift to any parent. They are easy to remember, catchy, well-written, beautifully performed by Voodoo Highway, and if you sing them to your children in real life situations, it instantly gives them a context in which to understand what you’re trying to teach them. What kid wouldn’t prefer a 3 second reminder-in-song to a lecture or nag session from Mom?!
Daniel Teaches Diversity, but not in any weird, uncomfortable, in-your-face way. They don’t preach it. They simply present it as reality, and that is so rare these days. Miss Elaina’s parents are an interracial couple. Prince Wednesday has a cousin who is a recurring character that wears braces on her legs. O the owl is being raised by his uncle X. Daniel’s doctor has an Indian accent. Miss Elaina always wears her dress backwards. Prince Wednesday’s older brother may be royalty, but he also babysits Daniel and works in the produce department of the grocery store. One episode features a song about differences, where they unabashedly compare skin colors. I love it. I love that they will openly discuss differences, and I also love that there are times when they let the differences speak for themselves. In both cases, it totally works.
Daniel Isn’t Annoying, and this is a big deal. Any parent can give you a list of shows that make them want to gouge out their eyes or stick Q-tips in WAY too far. Mention Caillou, and a few of my parent friends will tell you the intricate ways in which they would murder Caillou AND his “we’ll always be better than thou” parents. Any parent who has let their kids watch Max and Ruby can tell you that their child probably stopped speaking in full sentences and reverted back to using a single word per day just like Max, or became intolerably bossy like his OCD sister Ruby. Parents who used to fondly watch Mickey Mouse will now find that Mickey Mouse Clubhouse is nearly devoid of education, and seems more intent on branding and teaching our kids to drop their “G’s.” Is that somethin’ to worry about Mickey? Dora and Diego are full of good lessons, but Dora’s voice is hard to handle after a thousandth viewing, and every parent will eventually find their kid “swiping” valuables just like that kooky Swiper the Fox.
I’m being a little flippant, because in the end, it’s just TV, and lessons in theft ultimately lie in my hands as Mom, just as they should. I don’t think Dora needs to get rid of Swiper, and I don’t think Max needs to develop more mature communication skills. I do think we as parents need to exercise our right to choose quality programming. I choose the show that makes me smile along with my kids, supports me as a parent, and gives unexpected tools in the form of brilliant songs. I choose the show that explores racial differences, disabilities, and age limitations in a way that’s lighthearted and fun. I choose the show that doesn’t make me want to write death threats to the producers after the thousandth viewing. I choose Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.