Would it be overly dramatic to compare working in children’s media to having a superpower? Well, when you create content for kids (be it shows, apps, marketing), it’s like being able to get into their houses, sometimes all at once. That is a power and, as Spider-Man says, with great power comes great responsibility.
Last weekend, the 8th international Consuming Kids Summit was held in Boston and Erin McNeill has posted some of the important takeaways from that here. Especially interesting to me is the comparison to the tobacco industry. Firstly, because it comes from Alex Bogusky, a modern day Don Draper who famously quit and said that it was immoral to advertise to children and, secondly, because who wants to wake up and realise they are today’s tobacco industry?
Another point well worth considering is the last one on the page, about responsibility. We can try and try to shift responsibility to the parents and, sure, parents are responsible for what they do. But, as a parent myself even being very aware of media messages, it is so hard to compete with the millions spent on marketing, whether targeting my children or not (my kids know all the TV heroes ‘ Mickey Mouse, Peppa Pig, Cilit Bang’s Barry Scott).
Ultimately, we are responsible for what we create. We are responsible for the choices we give to parents and their children.
So where does that leave us as content creators, writers or producers?
We want children to watch our shows, don’t we? Of course we do. I know I do. So am I marketing to children? I guess with promos for my shows going out, I am. Would I love it if a Planet Cosmo toy hit the shelves and children wanted it? Yes, I would. I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t.
But that’s where that Spider-Man quote comes into play.
We can also do a lot of good with media. As I have said so often in this business ‘ children are going to watch television. They are going to play games. They are going to play with toys. So we may as well make sure they’re getting good television, good games, good toys. Content that enriches, educates and, yes, entertains too. Content that works with parents.
Not everyone is going to agree on what good content is and so we need to draw our own lines. To do so, I think it’s important to keep up with things like the Consuming Kids Summit. Hearing the criticism is key. Listening. We may not always like what we hear but that means we need to listen even more. And then we can create better content or, if one day we find we don’t like where we are, choose not to make it at all.
For those possibly thinking this is all very idealistic, I’ll leave you with this thought ‘ more and more parents are becoming aware about the media their children are consuming. Parents want their kids to do well. They want their children to grow up strong, confident, able to think independently, girls and boys alike. Good content for children is good business. You only have to look at Dora to see that ‘ a show with educational content, positivity and a very strong active female main character.
My special area of interest is preschool content and, more and more, I find myself introduced as an expert in that area. After a recent panel discussion on character at which I gave the preschool perspective, someone found me and asked why I specialise. Why preschool? Would I create content for older children or adults?
It just so happens that I have previously given talks warning of the dangers of specialising in such a fast-changing world so it’s something I have considered myself. Although, in those talks, what I am usually referring to is specialising in the technicalities, or the tools. Every year, new tools become available that render old skills redundant. The classical animation world I was trained for no longer exists, for example.
For me, it’s the difference between specialising in the medium or the genre. If I specialise, it is in the genre. The medium is open to change.
But why specialise at all?
For me, the core answer is actually quite simple – there is just so much to learn about effectively communicating with young children that it has to be something you are pretty dedicated to in order to do it well. Preschool is one of those areas that, from the outside, can look very simple and yet every new discovery opens up whole areas you realise you know nothing about. So am I an expert? Is anyone? The truth is that the real experts are preschool children themselves and, even with all I have done to date, they still have a LOT to teach me. Creating good content for a preschool audience requires study, it requires experience, it requires time.
Is the same true in creating content for audiences beyond preschool?
To an extent but, as your audience gets closer to adult age, you can start to rely on your own instincts as an adult and ask, what would I like? You can’t do that for a preschool audience. That question will often lead you astray.
That’s also one of the reasons I love making preschool content – it has a built-in fail-safe to prevent self-indulgence. You have to look beyond yourself and think of your audience. Even with all our other interests and creative outlets (and I have many of my own and, as it happens, have actually written and directed for audiences well above preschool age), creating for a preschool audience gives a wonderful sense of focus. Oh, I love to keep myself amused working for preschool but I know I can never do it at the expense of my young audience.
So why specialise? So that we can do better. So that we can put in the time and work to deliver content not just adequately, but do it really well. So that we can focus on our audience and give them something really good, something enriching.
And if all that isn’t enough of a reason, well, we get to make kids smile.
One question I get asked quite often in various forms is - if we simplify ideas for children, are we not giving them enough credit for how much they understand? In other words, are we talking down to them?
In my experience, there are two reasons people ask this question:
1) They would genuinely like to challenge children, present them with new ideas and help them learn and grow.
2) They don’t want to put in all the work it takes to actually find out just how different children are, how best to communicate ideas to kids and to learn just what is appropriate for their audience.
Now because you are here reading this, I’m going to guess you’re far more likely to ask this question for reason 1 and that’s a great reason to examine how you approach children’s content. But an overwhelming amount of people who have asked me this question actually do so for reason 2. That is a huge mistake. That is how work ends up self-indulgent, not age appropriate and risks children picking up all the wrong messages or being left plain baffled. That’s really not giving children credit for who they are ‘ creative, curious, wonderful kids. Not little adults.
Should we talk down to children? No. But worse than that is talking right over their heads. Ignoring that they are actually children and just blabbing out whatever we think makes sense to us as adults.
Communicating to children through television, games, apps, anything is really not all that different to communicating to a child in person. You don’t talk over them. You don’t stand tall and talk down to them. The best way? You hunch down or get down on the ground so they can look you in the eye. You get down to their level, smile and speak softly. That’s direct communication.
When we take ourselves down to their level, truly try to understand their point of view and how they see the world and tailor our communication with all that in mind, we can present children with new ideas, new words and even some very tricky concepts in a context that children will appreciate, enjoy and really comprehend.
Kids aren’t stupid. And yes, most are very resilient. They’re still kids. It’s not about talking down to them. It’s about getting down to their level and seeing the world the way they do.
Many broadcasters and parents are pretty savvy when it comes to violence on children’s television, some areas of Europe in particular being very strongly against it.
And it’s fantastic to see so much positive preschool content on children’s television out there at the moment ‘ there are many shows that I’m very happy for my girls to watch and quite a few I enjoy myself (for research purposes obviously).
But there’s much more to it than violence.
Everything in a child’s environment contributes to their newly-forming world view, a sense of self and our perception of others. Television and other media exposure is a big part of that. That is something parents and anyone involved in children’s entertainment need to be very aware of. When children are learning at such an accelerated rate, everything they are exposed to teaches them something. All content is educational, whether intentional or not, and we are not always going to agree on what should be taught. So it’s important that parents know what their children are watching or playing and important for us as content creators to give children and parents the absolute best to choose from, always trying to keep in mind just what contribution our content is making to the lives of our audience.
What type of adult will watching Planet Cosmo contribute towards? Or Fluffy Gardens? Or Batman? Mickey Mouse Clubhouse? Bratz?
If we can offer children and parents a positive experience, enriching content, messages that build up a child’s sense of self and confidence, all while making children laugh and smile, we’re doing something wonderful. We’re giving gifts through our content that could turn today’s children into tomorrow’s happier adults. Isn’t that something worth striving for?
We really aren’t ever just entertaining, we’re contributing to a whole world view.
One little extra on today’s post…
I’d like to thank everyone who has got in touch about Planet Cosmo (which is airing here in Ireland on RTE right now). The reaction has been absolutely fantastic. Children are singing along to the songs, dancing, shouting out at the television screen and, best of all, laughing. More than that, all the feedback I have been getting tells me that this show works – children are learning about the planets and they’re asking more and more questions. I couldn’t possibly be happier about that. So thank you so much to everyone who is watching the show and especially to those of you who spread the word. You’re all awesome!