A Love Letter to the Neighborhood

Well, it’s time for me to step into the confessional. Arthur…enjoys screen time.

pearl clutching firstNow that you’ve recovered and I’ve passed off my World’s Best Mom mug, time for confession #2: I. Love. Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.

For the uninitiated, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is a PBS show based in Mr. Roger’s Land of Make-Believe and centered around a new generation of characters. Daniel is the son of Daniel Striped Tiger and is friends with the children of other beloved characters from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Each episode teaches an age-appropriate lesson about love, family, friendship, or growing up. And when I say “age-appropriate”, I mean even as young as 2 (like Arthur). The format of the show makes absorbing the lesson both easy and fun (except, apparently, for the episode about cleaning up around here…)

Lessons in the Neighborhood

The lessons in the neighborhood seriously run the gamut, from rest and self-care when you’re sick to using the potty, and helping children identify and handle their big emotions. Some of our favorites:

  • Anger: “When you feel so mad that you wanna roar, take a deep breath and count to four.”
  • Adjusting to a new sibling: “There’s time for you, and baby too.”
  • Safety: “Stop and listen to stay safe!”

Every lesson has a similar tag, set to music, that pops up throughout. They’re easy to remember – Arthur doesn’t know number yet but can still count to four when he’s angry and trying to calm down. Best of all, though, is how emotions are accepted and treated as normal. Every character is given the room to feel whatever feelings are going on inside of them; the focus is not on hiding feelings, but on processing them in a healthy way. I know several adults who could benefit from that kind of lesson.

Because we use streaming services to spend time in the neighborhood instead of watching on PBS, it was a surprise to find out that *SPOILER* Daniel gets a little sister in the second season – but the timing of finding those episodes was perfect for our own family. Arthur got to see some of the changes that happen when a new sibling joins the family, and I firmly believe that some of his excitement over his own baby sister is a result of meeting baby Margaret.

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Families in the Neighborhood

At first it may not even register that the families in the neighborhood take so many forms, because each one is treated as a matter of course rather than an abnormality that must be explained. That said, children in so many situations can identify with the different characters’ home lives:

  • “Nuclear” family (two parents, child(ren)): This is the default; Daniel, Prince Wednesday, and Miss Elaina all live in two-parent households.
  • Multiracial family: Children identifying with two or more races will become the majority in the United States in just a few short years, so it’s great to see a biracial family presented so matter of factly.
  • Single parent household: As the child of a mostly single parent, I really identify with Katerina Kittycat. It’ll be interesting to me to see whether the series ever addresses her father’s absence, but even if they don’t it’s nice to see the family presented as a real, normal one.
  • Living with a non-parent relative: I don’t know the statistics, but many children live with a relative who is not their parent. In the neighborhood, O the Owl lives with his uncle X the Owl. Again, no explanation of circumstances but it opens the door to an honest conversation that is appropriate to the individual child who may ask questions.

Above all, every family in the neighborhood is understood as being a safe place for the child as well as their friends. While this isn’t always the reality in the world, it offers hope and a picture of how things should be.

Diversity in the Neighborhood

Family structures aren’t all that distinguish the neighbors. There is also a beautiful abundance of diversity that makes the neighborhood a great teaching tool for parents and caregivers. The initial differences are obvious: the characters are split about 60-40 between humans and different animals. There is some racial and ethnic diversity between characters as well, and other small differences (like Prince Wednesday’s glasses) that may not even register to an adult but can be a source of comfort to children.

http://www.kpbs.org/news/2013/nov/22/daniel-tigers-neighborhood-snowflake-day/
http://www.kpbs.org/news/2013/nov/22/daniel-tigers-neighborhood-snowflake-day/

There are two examples of diversity in the neighborhood that I love above the others. One is obvious and actually serves as the launching point for an entire episode (“Daniel’s New Friend/Same and Different”, episode 1.31): Chrissy, Prince Wednesday’s fun and friendly cousin, walks with canes. She candidly explains her physical difference to the friends and in the second half of the show it prompts Daniel to discover what’s the same and what’s different about his friends and others in the neighborhood.

The other is sweet O the Owl. I admit that O didn’t immediately occur to me as being “different”, but doing a quick Google search just now shows that I’m not alone in my thoughts despite nothing official in his character description. O exhibits several behaviors that, together, lead me to believe he is non-neurotypical (NT). He has sensory issues including sensitivity to noise; discomfort with some things that are non-routine or different (different ways of playing, not being in school during “school time”); and varying levels of anxiety with things that are unfamiliar.

Here’s the thing. I am NT, my kids are both thus far NT, and I do not work with the non-NT community. The last thing I want to do is diagnose a fictional character based on some circumstantial behavior that NT individuals may also exhibit. That said, I feel so happy and comforted to see a character who does exhibit non-NT behavior in the neighborhood, and here is why – because O the Owl is always treated like he is perfectly normal. Others never look at O and call him strange or keep him from experiencing things because he approaches them a little differently. His concerns are validated and he is allowed to become comfortable with situations in a way that gives him both agency and dignity. And this is how it should be. This is how I want my children to learn about knowing and being friends with others who approach the world differently. Most importantly, I want children who are non-NT to recognize something of themselves in a beloved character and to see how they should be treated – so they won’t grow up thinking that anything less than full dignity and respect and love is okay.

Maybe my love for Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is just the latest sign of my children’s TV-focused Stockholm Syndrome, albeit far less cynical than my critiques of Blue’s Clues (which was also produced by the brilliant children’s television powerhouse Angela Santomero, who developed Daniel Tiger). Maybe not. Either way, if I’m going to let Arthur rot in front of a screen there are many worse ways to go.

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