Here we go. The definitive rules to children’s content:
1 – Characters must be aspirational. Make them older and cooler.
2 – Girls will watch shows for boys but boys won’t watch shows for girls.
3 – Think second screen. For some reason.
4 – Your animal character must know a martial art of some sort… urrrggh…
Sorry, I can’t go on. My fingers won’t let me type any more. Really, I’m just going to give you one piece of advice here: if someone insists there are rules to successful content, run far away. There is a huge amount to learn and research, studies you should look for, people you should follow for information (David Kleeman, for example), many guidelines, important case studies and stories that will greatly inform your decisions (and your decisions should be informed). But rules? No.
This is not an exact science. Or at least, it is such a complex and ever-changing science that we will never fully understand it. It is certainly not a box-ticking exercise. Use the knowledge and stories and experience you can gather, carefully consider your options and go with what feels right for your project, your audience and you.
Let’s make an aspirational character, someone who the audience will want to be. Someone to inspire them and motivate them. A little older, a little wittier, a little cleverer and with a great set of skills. We can do this in cartoons with snappy, cool heroes. We can do this in reality television with stories of amazing achievements.
Good, right? Not always.
There is a very fine line between inspiring children and putting them off altogether. What you see as aspirational can sometimes seem to the audience as unachievable. Out of reach. Showing them a champion gymnast might demonstrate what is possible with hard work and dedication. Or it might just tell a kid that their awkward forward roll that they were so proud of was actually nothing and highlight the massive chasm between where they are at and where that champion is.
Having something to aspire to can be great but I’m sure we have all tried something at some point in our lives and found it so tricky that it just doesn’t seem worth the effort (me with a Rubik’s Cube, for example). It has to feel within reach or have smaller, more achievable goals.
Children’s art shows historically seem to get this right. It is quite rare that they create something on these shows that children can’t have a good stab at themselves. The idea of making a bird out of coloured paper can have kids running to the kitchen to try. Fifteen minutes later, there is a new picture on the fridge and a very proud happy child. But had they shown a master portrait painter instead, fifteen minutes later there would likely be torn up pages and tears. And that’s if any child even bothered to try.
So I feel we can learn from the art shows even when it comes to creating fictional characters or building all sorts of other entertainment. Be careful not to undermine the amazing things that children are capable of right now. Keep in mind that what might seem normal to you (buttoning up a coat) can be amazing to kids, depending on the age group. Aspirational can still be good but be careful not to frustrate. As with anything else, always keep in mind your actual audience.
Children are soaking up the world at a phenomenal rate. This is not always easy. For younger children, I often liken it to Superman being overwhelmed by the sound of voices everywhere or that guy in Scanners hearing the thoughts of everyone at once. The amount of information thrown at us is incredible and, as we grow, we build filters. We can pick and choose what gets by our filters and what we focus on.
So when making content for kids, this leads to a whole bunch of things to consider. Firstly, they do take in information. They’re taking in probably far more than we are, just like Superman. They are smart, they are trying to interpret, they are using context and knowledge to inform and they are actively learning all the time. They see and hear and know often much more than we realise.
And they get subtlety.
The difficulty is that, with the amount they are processing, they don’t always get the subtlety you want them to. It’s like leaving a post-it with ‘get milk’ on the fridge when the fridge is covered with a hundred other post-its. Sure, you might spot it and get milk but you could just as easily end up having your tea milkless that evening.
So where does that leave us? Well here’s my take: when making content for kids, you can allow for subtlety. You can let those grey areas happen, because not everything in life is black or white. Especially when this is approached with an honesty about the lives of children. Give children a sense of the variety in the world, even the unpredictability.
But when it comes to core story points or messages, be direct and as crystal clear as possible. Hit those things hard. No ambiguity. Clarity is key. Somewhere out there, Superman is listening to a million voices. If you want yours to be heard, shout louder and say what you mean.
The Children’s Media Conference last week was interesting as always. Lots of positive ideas and people making great things with great missions behind them (the mission is important!). A lot of talk of YouTube which, of course, most of us are very aware of both in terms of opportunities but also challenges. We know a lot of children are going there for their entertainment. My own girls, for example, adore Stampy and his seal-like laugh and gaming fun.
What is a concern for me as a parent are the ads that play before these, which are in no way age appropriate. The last Stampy marathon I watched with my girls was interrupted with ads for Orange Is The New Black, for example. There is a YouTube Kids app in the U.S. It has come under fire but I at least find it encouraging that it is an acknowledgement that kids can and do access content there. Hopefully that will get better and, when right, will go global.
Kids exist. They watch YouTube.
So it was a little disappointing when one speaker who makes excellent YouTube videos was hit with the question: who should be watching your videos? The speaker had already talked about how much kids get from the videos, even using a slide of a toddler watching one of the videos. The answer to who should be watching: well, as per YouTube terms of service so… I guess that’s 13 and over. It was just a little moment where someone was put on the spot and was hit with a question they weren’t quite expecting (though certainly should have been) but it was an abdication of responsibility. That’s always a problem. Kids exist. They watch YouTube.
On the other end, there was a great panel on the 4-6 age group and age appropriateness presented by Mellie Buse and it was fantastic to hear Dave Ingham (Boj, Clangers) and Lucy Murphy (Bing) talk about how they want to tackle subjects relevant to the lives of kids, challenge them, reflect their lives and their world with honesty in a way that is right for the age group. They really think about who is watching what they make. I love that.
So let’s side with Dave and Lucy on this one and remember that kids exist and they watch what we make. And isn’t that fantastic?
NOTE: This piece was written for Irish parenting site Dad.ie when my two daughters were very young. It gained a lot of attention and struck a chord with many parents, fathers and mothers alike. Unfortunately the site is no longer around so, for International Women’s Day, I thought I’d repost it here.
I was waiting in a shop queue a couple of weeks ago. Beside me was a card rack with personalised birthday cards, each one with a child’s name. Of course I looked for the names of my own girls.
Daisy. Ooh, a princess. Alice. Another princess.
And then I looked at the others.
Every card with a girl’s name featured a princess, mermaid or ballerina. Well that’s pretty, I thought. Beautifully pretty and pink. But I couldn’t help notice that there seemed to be much more variety in the cards with boy’s names. Those cards featured pilots, firemen, policemen, mechanics and more. Real jobs. Active jobs.
That got me thinking about role models.
I have two young girls, princesses of my very own. Giving them every chance at being anything they want, doing anything they want, is a priority for me. But I don’t think the pretty pink princesses are doing my girls any favours.
Is there a problem with the princesses? Girls love princesses, right?
Yes. They do.
But what are princesses? What do they do? Mostly nothing. They wear pretty dresses. Being beautiful is a priority. But really, what is important about a princess is how they become a princess. Unless you’re a king reading this right now, the unfortunate truth is that your daughter isn’t actually a princess. So how does she become one?
Well that’s simple. She marries a prince.
And that’s the glorious end to the story. She find a man, he falls in love with her (her love is optional) and he asks her to marry him. They have a big wedding, she gets to wear a beautiful dress and they live happily ever after. That is how your daughter or my daughter becomes a princess. Just like the lovely Kate Middleton. She needs a man to make her a princess. Without finding a prince, she can never realise her dream. Will never have that lovely wedding. Will never live happily ever after. So on top of not really doing anything, it seems a princess is defined by her man.
What kind of message is that to our girls? How does that affect the power in their relationships? Their priorities in life? Their self-confidence?
So what about mermaids? They just sit on rocks and are total fantasy. Ballerinas, well, at least they’re real and girls can put the work in to becoming one. That’s got to be a good thing. But then… they’re performing for the adoration of their audience. They might need the validation. I’m really not so sure about that one either.
But look at the role models for boys: pilots, firemen, policemen, mechanics and so on.
They’re not just sitting around like mermaids or princesses. They’re active. They’re real. They’re getting stuck in and really contributing to society. Unlike the princess, these role models say to boys – there is a place for you in the real world. You can make a difference. Get active. Get involved.
Where are those real life role models for girls?
I wonder how many little princesses on their pink tricycles know they can actually be a pilot? A fireman? Or even an astronaut? Some girls do become these things of course. But they have to fight a world of gender stereotyping to do it. They have to break away from their own perceptions of themselves that have been formed from what they see around them. That’s a whole other battle for our little princesses that they don’t need on top of everything it takes to do those jobs.
Now I know the ‘market’ will tell me that girls love pink. Love princesses. Sure they do.
But I have to smile when I realise that the biggest preschool hit of the last ten years has been Dora the Explorer. An active role. Dora is not about pretty dresses. She’s about getting stuff done. The market went for Dora in a big way. It turns out that going against an outdated passive princess gender stereotype can be a winner. Well that’s good news!
So I find myself wondering why a rack of cards still only presents the view that girls are just princesses, mermaids and ballerinas?
This difference between female and male role models is something that, once you see, you’ll see it everywhere. Toy aisles, ads, posters. I even found myself taking steps to de-pink the bedtime stories. And, to be honest, my kids get so much more fun from ‘Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus’.
As the men in our girl’s lives, perhaps fathers like us can really think about the pink, the princesses and the messages they give our girls, and we can filter some of it out. Mix in some better role models. Make clear to our girls that they can be whatever or whoever they want be it mechanic, scientist, astronaut, anything. And they can lead happy and fulfilled lives doing so, prince or no prince.
Recent figures in Ireland have revealed that women still earn less than men doing the same job. To an extent, it is still a man’s world.
Hopefully we and our lovely, bright, funny, hard-working, curious daughters can change that.
Children’s media is is like a warm, difficult, thrilling, heartbreaking, wonderful vortex of conflicts. Too many to cover in a single post. The obvious example is: what is the product? If you’re making television shows, that’s the product, right? No. Because that’s not what most people are paying for. Your target audience gets it free. Commercial broadcasters are selling ad space and so in a way the audience is the product while others sell products to that audience. What were once secondary revenue streams in licensing are now primary revenue streams for many in the business so toys are the product. And it goes on. That realisation can taint everything. It could make you disillusioned and cynical, unable to put your heart into it. Or it could motivate you to milk those kids for all they’re worth and I’m not sure that’s a good thing either.
What about the audience themselves? Who are you making the content for? Regular readers will know that audience awareness is a huge thing for me and years of time, experience and research goes into shaping content that works for my audience: young children. For me, they always come first.
But the buyers are adults.
TV channels are run by grown ups. Distributors? Yep, grown ups. Even parents who are the gatekeepers of content in their own homes are grown ups. And as is well covered on this blog, children and adults are not the same. They like different things. Some of those adults are very in tune with kids. But not all. And even those who know kids well can still be swayed by their own adult sensibilities just as we all are. That’s normal and to be expected.
So you can pitch to the adults and get your show on television but will it work for kids? Or you can make the best content for kids that few adults see the value of so it never gets a chance. Can you satisfy both? Should you?
These are just the tip of the iceberg. Conflicts everywhere.
So how we resolve these conflicts? Unfortunately most of them can’t be resolved. They are tied into the very core of kids’ media. What is important as you work in this area is that you recognise the conflicts when you find them and you make an active decision on where you stand with them. Otherwise you are navigating at random. For me, my focus is delivering the best for the children themselves. On forming Mooshku, our mission became: if it’s not good for your kids, we don’t make it. On content not being the actual product, I made the decision years ago to treat it as the product regardless. That way I know I’m always aiming to deliver the best package in a TV show, app or anything else. But these are not the only ways to look at children’s media. The conflicts still exist.
Your approach, your own stance on all these conflicts will be your own. What is key is that you have a stance.
A couple of other things:
Next week on Thursday the 12th, I’ll be presenting a case study masterclass at Animation Dingle titled FROM BLANK PAGE TO THE BIG PITCH. Using MILLIE AND MR FLUFF as a case study, I’ll be talking through the process of taking a concept from the beginning of an idea all the way to being ready for that green light – development, pitching, tips and pitfalls and a glimpse into our rather unique production methods for Millie. Details will be up on the ANIMATION DINGLE site!
Lastly, it’s great to announce that a few of my projects have been nominated for the Irish Animation Awards. Planet Cosmo is nominated in the Kids’ Choice category and Best Writer. My app Dino Dog is nominated for Best Animation For Apps And Gaming. And Punky, which I script edited and was creative director on is also in the Kids’ Choice and Best Writer (Andrew Brenner) categories. So that’s nice!
Yesterday I saw this article about how children often miss the moral of a story. The article is true whether we’re talking preschool children or whether we’re talking kids in the 6-10 age group. Time after time, children walk away from a story having completely missed the message. Or worse, having badly misinterpreted the message.
The reasons for this are numerous. As the article points out, understanding the outcome requires stages of judgement throughout the story as cause and effect is revealed. As we approach stories as writers, we often work under the assumption that children know why characters are doing certain things whereas it is common that the audience hasn’t looked for a why. The why can be integral to understanding the final message.
Then there is that issue itself – that the moral or main message usually comes at the end. Your one-line sum up about how great it is to be yourself is simply not as likely to stick as the lead-up where each character wants to be just like the other kids and we get a song about trying not to stand out. In providing the negative example to lead to your wonderful positive message about life, chances are you may be planting that negative as the key takeaway of your story.
And then there is the fact that, as covered here recently, kids often miss bits. They’re busy, busy little people and they may not get a key line required for that “aha!” moment.
So what do we do? Well the one place I disagree with that article is the idea that we can’t predict whether a message will stick. I think it’s more likely that people just don’t ask the question. If we accept that getting the point across is difficult, we can do many things to ensure the success of that message. Many are already covered on this blog already so here are just some key suggestions:
- Make sure the message is itself simple and easily illustrated.
- Ensure that your moral/message realisation is as big and exciting as any negative parts.
- Really take the time to celebrate that message.
- Have your message run through the entire story, not just the end. Make it a running theme.
- State any key message clearly without surrounding clutter. Leave no ambiguity.
- Find a way of asking the audience to pay attention. It’s a simple trick but it works.
Do these things and the chances of your core message sticking will increase dramatically. And at that part of the process, there is one great way to know whether it is working: try it out on children and talk to them about your story.
Young children, especially early preschoolers, don’t always retain the key pieces of information your stories depend on. No, it’s not because they don’t take in information. Quite the opposite. They soak up information like sponges. The challenge for them is the sheer amount of information they are taking in while their filters and memories are developing.
So when writing, directing or creating for preschool, you can’t take it for granted that the most important line of your script was not overwritten by a child hearing a bird outside and filing that away as what bird calls sound like. You can’t assume they weren’t in the halfway point in the changeover between watching upside down and watching with their face buried in a bag of popcorn when you showed your key visual. Even if they took in the information, it leaves too much to chance to hope that it wasn’t nudged out by them wondering why the car had four wheels in one scene but they could only see two in the next.
Children are always busy.
So if your story depends on key points (and most do), remind them. Have a recap. Have several recaps. It ensures the essential points are remembered. If they missed a point completely the first time around, it gives them a chance to pick it up. Don’t fear the repetition – young kids love repetition. Just recap. The now-classic Cbeebies show Ballamory uses this perfectly, offering well-timed recaps that fit into the flow of the episode so it’s well worth studying that show if you get a chance.
One more little reminder just for you: while we’re often trained in a ‘show, don’t tell’ approach in media, for preschool children it is important you tell.
So remember to remind. Your story will thank you for it.
In the first Friday the 13th, Jason kills Kevin Bacon’s character by sticking an arrow through his neck. In the second one, he manages to impale two people together on a bed, using a spear to make a sort of human kebab. In Jason X, he picks up one girl in a sleeping bag and uses her to beat another girl to death. It goes on with death after death. The Friday the 13th films are rated 18 (or R in the US) and, whatever about kids in their mid to late teens, I imagine we wouldn’t find too many people happy to show them to kids under 10. At the very least they could inspire some severe nightmares. Of course it is important to keep in mind that those scenes are designed to make you uncomfortable, to make you wince. These scenes usually aren’t thrown out there casually. They’re set pieces in horror movies. And we wouldn’t show them to young kids.
But what about other movies?
One of the movies I enjoyed the most in 2014 was Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s rated 12 but I was watching it again (3rd time) over the break and wondering what age I would show this to my girls. I mean, it’s a huge amount of fun and adventure, has lots of laughs and I actually think Daisy would love most of this. I’d love to watch it with her. Maybe even now at age 7 she’d be fine with it?
As I was wondering about this, Groot impales two enemies through the abdomen, picks them up and uses their dying bodies to beat other people to death. Kind of reminded me of a cross between the Friday the 13th double spear kill and the sleeping bag one. Then Groot gives us a big smile and on with the show. What struck me as odd is that I have seen the movie twice before and barely noticed the level of violence in that shot. Because, contrary to how it would have been handled in a Friday movie, it is thrown out there so casually and ends with a laugh. But it’s actually pretty horrific if you think about it and it’s hardly an isolated incident in the movie.
I suddenly had a flashback to Flash Gordon movie from 1980. A character (I won’t spoil it) dies by being impaled. The movie is a fun, silly adventure romp but I saw that as a kid and what stuck with me is that one character being impaled. It burned into my mind. And now I wonder if the grown-ups even noticed.
So this all left me with some thoughts…
Firstly, most movies have their rating for a reason. Guardians is 12 and I’ll likely wait until my girls are that age to show it to them. By the way, I like Common Sense Media as a handy guide for media I haven’t seen or movies I can barely remember.
Secondly, we have this desire to share things we like and it seems like it’s about the other person but I’m not convinced it is. I have to acknowledge that a big part of that is wanting to be that person who introduces them to it for the first time, who gets to watch their reaction and gets to be the guy who is loved for showing them something awesome.
Last, and most important, is this: too easily we forget how desensitised we get to violence or anything else over the years. Think of the most basic example of seeing young kids being truly amazed by going to a train station or something like that. The sense of wonder as they look around and take everything in. But to us everything just becomes normal and boring over the decades to the point where we don’t even notice. And so it is with violence. Kids are not as desensitised as we are. Nor should they be. They might be fine with a lot of what we show them and we think we know our own kids but it is impossible to predict just what will haunt them, what will shake them inside and stay with them. And they may never tell us.
I guess it all comes back to a recurring theme on this blog: we always have to remember that we aren’t kids any more. Those extra decades count.