Political Physics: From Sid to Kai-lan to Dora – Race in Pre-School Network Programming


a blogumn by Monique King-Viehland

Sid the Science Kid Family

As you may or may not know, I am the proud (and extremely tired) mother of a beautiful little boy named Sekou.  Sekou is almost 20 months old and is quite a handful.  You know people tell you lots of things before, during and after your pregnancy.  I thought I was prepared for everything – getting up in the middle of the night, fighting to get him to eat his dinner, tantrums that last only minutes but seem to last hours.  Yup, I thought I was prepared.  But no one could have prepared me for the greatest of horrors…..Nick Jr.

That is right; I said it, Nick Jr.

For you lucky individuals who don’t know it, Nick Jr. is the name of a cable network in the United States. The channel was known as Noggin up until September 28, 2009.  It is a 24 hour channel (e.g., no commercials) that is targeted towards pre-school age children.  Their slogan is “It’s Like Preschool on TV” and the programming is designed to simulate a preschool class environment and promote social and thinking skills through interactive play.

And then there is PBS Kids, which is one of the PBS brands, that is also a 24 hour children’s programming channel.

My son feels the need to watch it every time the TV is turned on.  I spend a great deal of my life watching kids programming lately, which is a bit like being trapped in the midst of a psychedelic haze!

But in the midst of the haze, I have found something very interesting.

Nick Jr. and PBS Kids have some of the most positive and assorted portrayals of race and “color.”

I mean I am not a specialist in early childhood education or child development, but I think several of the shows on Nick Jr. and PBS Kids show positive images of “color,” e.g., multi-ethnic characters, interracial families, etc.

There are the obvious shows that most people are familiar with, like Dora the Explorer, but then there are shows where the racial and/or cultural components are not quite as obvious, like PBS’ Sid the Science Kid. Sid is an inquisitive 4-year-old who wants to be a scientist when he grows up.  But what I find the most fascinating about Sid is his family.  The show typically opens at home where we see Sid and his family.  While Sid’s father is sort of a yellow color, his mother is bright orange and Sid is somewhere in between with purple hair.

Then there is Princess Pesto on Super Why! also on PBS Kids, a biracial princess who uses her Magic Spelling Wand to write letters, building on phonetic principles to spell relevant words.  Or The Backyardigans on Nick Jr., where three of the main characters are Tasha, Tyrone and Uniqua.  Uniqua (yes, you may think I am reaching but how many white girls do you know named Uniqua), is a curious, confident creature who is pink with polka dots and typically wears overalls.  Uniqua is not only her name but also her species.

And those are only a few shows.  There is Go, Diego, Go or Ni Hao, Kai-lan or Maya & Miguel or Little Bill.

When I was an undergraduate, one of my majors was African American Studies.  I took so many classes about race, ethnicity and identity, and as you know, I write about those topics quite often.  But none of that is as powerful as watching my son stand mesmerized in front of the TV staring at Sid with wonder or trying to say “ni hao” back to Kai-lan.  There is nothing as comforting as watching him learn from a variety of multi-cultural characters, especially ones who are meant to “look” like him.

I know there are some parents and perhaps non-parents out there who have serious issues with allowing children to watch television.  I know that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that “kids under 2 years old not watch any TV and that those older than 2 watch no more than 1 to 2 hours a day of quality programming.”  Mainly because they argue that because the first two years of life are critical to brain development, TV and other electronic media get in the way of exploring, playing, and other social interactions that encourage learning, physical health and social development.

Listen, this is not an argument for or against pre-school age children watching television.  My point here is if you are going to let your pre-school age child or children watch television and it is important you that they see positive, multi-ethnic representations, then there are a variety of options for you on both Nick Jr. and PBS Kids and as a mother raising a biracial son, that is extremely important to me.

The only drawback is the horror I was speaking about earlier.  It really does feel like being caught in a psychedelic haze.  Plus you end up knowing all the characters, all the songs and all of the dances!

I walked into my office yesterday and I got caught humming….”Yes-a-roony, pos-a-toony, we’re going to the story box, where Pinky’s really good at making up stories, and every story rocks!” And yes I just typed that from memory!

The horror!  Oh the sacrifices I make to ensure that Sekou develops a strong sense of identity.