What the U.S. Can Learn from European Children’s TV

March 14, 2012 |
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The girl on the screen is 5 years old. She’s got chubby cheeks and big eyes, and she’s wielding a long knife, calmly cutting a piece of raw fish. Soon she’s slicing up a huge seaweed-covered roll she’s made by herself. Her little fingers move out of the way expertly with each push of the blade. Smiling and proud, she pops a piece of sushi in her mouth and waves to the camera.

The video clip, from a Dutch TV show for preschoolers, is a beautiful example of the confidence that radiates from young children when they recognize what they are capable of. It also looks nothing like what is on American television for young kids. Adults and puppets are nowhere to be seen. There are no cautionary notes about mom supervising the knife work. First released years ago but still attracting buzz among media producers worldwide, the episode would probably never make it into the lineup of American preschool TV — at least not if American lawyers have anything to do with it.

And that’s a pity. We need more examples like this in the U.S. — shows in which children can see their peers as independent thinkers and doers, able to take on challenges and overcome difficulties. In fact, we don’t just need these shows for our kids. By portraying children as competent, capable human beings, we could also do Americans adults some good. Preschoolers and their parents in the United States have a growing array of educational shows (Super Why!, Sid the Science Kid, Between the Lions), lots of animated fantasy and adventure (Wonder Pets, Little Einsteins, Dora the Explorer), and plenty of song and dance (Yo Gabba Gabba!, Barney & Friends). But capable real kids are hard to find. Sesame Street offers clips of kids on their own once in a while, and Elmo is a loveable stand-in for an independent and curious 3-year-old, but let’s face it, he’s a puppet.

I realize American parents may already feel a little beaten up over what they should be exposing their kids to. First there was The Dangerous Book for Boys by British authors Conn and Hal Iggulden, which reminded parents that children used to climb trees. Then came Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy “Don’t Cut Them Any Slack” Chua. This month we have Bringing Up Bébé, the book about French parenting that examines why French children so rarely have tantrums. As author Pamela Druckerman writes, it’s not that the French simply raise children differently. It’s that they have “a different view of what a child actually is.”

American TV recognizes that young children are capable of soaking up stories and ingesting new concepts, but it doesn’t typically give them a sense of agency, that feeling that they are creators in their own destiny, that you see in TV shows made for kids across the pond. Jan-Willem Bult, the head of creative for KRO Youth, the Dutch company that produced the “Reika Makes Sushi” episode, says his mission is to portray children as independent thinkers who can tell their own stories. Too often, he says, “we always protect them, we always patronize them.”

Programs produced by KRO, which are among the top-rated shows for 3- to 5-year-olds in the Netherlands, show real kids doing real things. The Toolbox Kids, a KRO program that dubs itself the “ultimate preschool tech series,” shows kids working as a group to dismantle an old dishwasher and a recreational vehicle by themselves. Shows with real children also part of the culture in Scandinavia and the U.K. Although I Can Cook, a preschool show in Britain, is led by an adult woman, the camera follows actions of competent young children in the kitchen. “We try not to underestimate them,” says Adrian Mills, chief adviser for children’s learning at the BBC.

To be fair, a sprinkling of American TV shows also portray children — though often older than 5 — doing projects on their own. (Check out Fetch! with Ruff Ruffman, which features kids experimenting with code breaking and chemistry.) But in addition to being more risk averse, American producers have to grapple with the much higher cost of producing live-action vs. animated programs. In Europe, Bult and Mills don’t worry much about public broadcasting getting chopped out of the government’s budget. But in the U.S., subsidizing the media is politically charged issue. Government funding is on the wane. We need a new model where American producers can stretch their wings and show off American kids who are creative and self-sufficient.

I would not have left my children alone with a sharp knife when they were 5 years old. But I appreciate this Dutch program for pushing me out of my comfort zone and giving me a different view of what children’s TV — and young children — can do. After being exposed to Reika making sushi, I started showing my daughters, then ages 6 and 8, how to chop tomatoes. Now they don’t need my help.