Last week, a new show for two to four year olds aired on most PBS stations. “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” is a neighborhood in animation, and features a four year old, red cardigan wearing Daniel Tiger who talks directly to viewers. Inspired by the long running and much admired “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”, the new show’s creators say that despite stylistic changes the important elements from the original show have been retained.
In a N.Y. Times story about the show, a co-executive producer is quoted as saying, “What you saw in Fred (Rogers) was that he talked about feelings, he talked about difficult things. The death of a goldfish was not a discussion of the alphabet. It was a discussion of life. It was social and emotional, not cognitive based.” When a PBS Kids Advisory Board was asked to identify curriculum missing from the PBS lineup, it specified social and emotional development which hadn’t been taken on in many years. Filling that gap was an impetus for the new “Neighborhood” show.
In keeping with this mission, Daniel Tiger’s life lessons will revolve around disappointment, sharing, separation anxiety, fear, waiting and empathy. This is certainly a welcome addition to the TV fare currently available to young children. Not only on television, but in life, adults in general as well as parents in particular find it hard to talk about feelings and difficult things – especially to children – in a real way. Sometimes this difficulty comes from our own upset or angry feelings with which we may not be ready to deal. At other times, as parents we worry about upsetting our children. Parents often express the fear that they will be putting ideas in children’s heads that aren’t there.
The ideas may not be in children’s heads but the feelings surely are there inside them. The fact that young children in particular may not know what those feelings are serves only to make them more overwhelming. The feelings are then expressed through behavior, often behavior we don’t like, or that may prove worrisome to parents. One reason talking to children in a real way about feelings is so important is to help them begin to identify such feelings in themselves. Recognizing a feeling is a first step in expressing it verbally, rather than acting it out in behavior. If you know you are angry because someone took your toy, you can express that feeling and ask for help in getting it back instead of punching the other person.
The segment of the show I saw dealt with children learning to play together in school and at home. The situation shown was certainly realistic; two children playing harmoniously together intruded on by a third child who wants to join in and does so in an objectionable way. This is a most familiar nursery school scenario. In most early childhood classes there are always one or two children whose social skills are not well developed. They very much want to join in the play of others but don’t know how to do so in an acceptable way. Unhappily, their attempts to join are often aggressive or intrusive, leading to rejection by others, reinforcement of the feeling that one is disliked, and, as a consequence, even more aggressive behavior.
In this episode, the children themselves worked out a solution to the problem, finding a way to include the third child by incorporating the character he wanted to play into their play. The children were empathic enough to identify with the third child’s plight and find a way to include him. This is a solution to which teachers and parents aspire. Of course, at times children who themselves may have just mastered the ability to play together, may not yet be ready to find a way to include a third child. Three is always a difficult number, especially for young children whose social skills are just developing. Here is where teachers and parents have a role to play in helping children find a solution, and perhaps even in its implementation. In this way, rather than criticizing children for their lack of inclusiveness or failed attempts to play with others, we help them move forward in developing the very skills they are still lacking.
Life lessons can be challenging and often involve unhappy or angry feelings, perhaps feelings of failure, frustration or disappointment. We wish our children didn’t have to suffer through such feelings. That wish can interfere with our ability to acknowledge these feelings with our children and talk about them in a real way. At times, we may instead respond with “happy” talk, hoping in that way to dispel the “bad” feelings.
In fact, recognizing feelings and talking about them with our children is what leads to mastery, both for our children and ourselves. We can learn together that such feelings do not mean the end of the world, even though it may seem at the moment as if they do.