What’s Up With The Adults In Kid Shows?
One of the most well-known shows of my childhood was Rugrats on Nickelodeon. While I certainly enjoyed watching the group of cartoon babies and toddlers get into all sorts of trouble, even as a child I recognized that they only got themselves into those situations because they all had some seriously negligent parents. I mean really – they got INSIDE the putt-putt ice cream tower!
Luckily, that was not the norm for kids shows in my generation. I grew up viewing the Winslow family as the model atomic family (despite one of their children disappearing without mention after season 4), watching Danny Tanner utilize his village to raise his three girls after the death of his wife, and watching Frank Lambert and Carol Foster navigate the challenges of blending families. Parents were ever present and wise characters in the shows of my childhood, and when a character did have absent or neglectful parents, such as Shawn from Boy Meets World, the shows made sure to both emphasize the negative impact that had on the child and to provide that child with other adults that supported and guided them. Even the supernatural cartoons had mentor adults like Splinter and Captain Planet.
My girls access their favorite children’s shows in a very different way than I did. They are not limited to whatever show is playing on one of the few channels geared toward children or to reruns of I Love Lucy and The Golden Girls on Nick at Nite. Instead, they can stream entire series of shows, current and past, at a moment’s notice and watch them on repeat as often as they’d like. With COVID and the writer’s strike, there haven’t been too many new kids’ shows in the last few years, so it has been nice to have this nearly unlimited access to kids’ shows that have since ended or turned into spinoffs. For the most part, I don’t have too many issues with the shows my kids watch, but I have noticed one disturbing trend that has really started to bother me: absent or idiotic adults are not just frequent in these shows, they are regularly a source of comic relief.
Certainly, there are some great shows that still have present and wise parents, such as The Babysitter’s Club and Alexa & Katie. And there are other shows, such as Liv and Maddy, that, though they treat adults as side characters, still present adults as mentors and authority figures. But too many of the shows have started writing adult characters as clueless and absent figures whose idiocy is taken advantage of by the child characters and laughed at by the child audience.
For example, one of my girls’ favorites is Henry Danger. In the show, the main character, Henry, becomes the sidekick of the town superhero, the invincible Captain Man. Captain Man is an arrogant, foolish 30-something man who spends his time hanging out with a bunch of teenagers who are “mothered” by the book-smart female character, and the more time Henry spends as Captain Man’s sidekick, the more conceited and reckless he becomes himself. But Captain Man isn’t even the most oblivious adult in this show. Henry’s parents are frustratingly clueless, and that cluelessness is clearly intended to act as comic relief. Not only are they unaware that their son is saving the town from all the local villains, but they also don’t question why he spends so much time with his boss, and they allow his younger sister to keep and use a driver’s license that is erroneously sent to her. Audiences are also supposed to find it humorous that Henry’s superhero boss has the hots for his mom and openly flirts with her even though she is married. But I don’t find it funny that Henry’s mentor encourages him to be reckless or that his parents are so easily misled by their children.
Another show my girls love to watch is Jesse, a show that ran on the Disney Channel from 2011 to 2015. The show is pretty cute, but the premise is that a recently graduated teen moves to NYC in the hopes of making it big as an actress and instead finds herself working as a nanny for a celebrity couple. The jet-setting parents are rarely present and leave the rearing of their four adopted children to this teen, still very much a child herself. The only real adult in the show is the crotchety Butler, who is more often the victim of the children’s pranks than a model of intentional parenting. When Jessie ended, her four wards became the central characters of a spin-off called Bunk’d. In this show, the kids are campers at a dilapidated and poorly managed summer camp that no one would ever believe a wealthy celebrity couple would actually send their kids to unless (as they are) they were too negligent to notice how awful the camp is. As with the previous show, the kids are mostly supervised by the lead counselor, again a teen herself, while the camp director knowingly neglects the kids and the camp as a whole and also serves as a regular source of mockery for the child characters. There isn’t one intelligent, respected adult in the entire show.
I still let my kids watch these shows, because otherwise, I don’t have any real problem with them, but I have also made sure to have conversations with my kids about why these shows and their portrayals of adults bother me. I’m not suggesting that television shows should revert back to Leave It to Beaver days or that the shows of my childhood were completely unproblematic. I think modern shows need to reflect modern times and modern issues, but I do question what message is being sent when kid-centered shows lack any portrayals of dependable adults. When these shows portray adults as too unaware to notice what is going on or as easily deceived, they suggest to their impressionable audience that the adults in their own lives can be viewed the same way. And when kids actually don’t have dependable adults in their lives, these shows suggest that all adults are the same, rather than assuring these kids that trusted, helpful adults do exist.
With modern technology, there are too many influences in kids’ lives that conflict with the guidance and authority of the adults in their lives. The shows from trusted children’s entertainment sources shouldn’t be contributing to these challenges. Instead, they should be offering models of diverse and healthy relationships between children and adults.