And the Academy Award for Best Animated Babysitter goes to…

First, a history lesson for any teen parents out there who are reading this in between classes. In the days before file-sharing, there was a device called a VCR. Using a complex system of levers and pulleys, the VCR allowed its owner to record television broadcasts onto a removable storage device called a video cassette tape. This process was colloquially referred to as “taping”, and was highly illegal.

When I was a kid, I taped Star Wars off TV and watched it over and over and over again until I could recite every line of dialogue. I did the same thing with Superman and – much less successfully in terms of my playground credibility – with Oliver, the musical.

Decades later, some things haven’t changed. I’m still struggling to maintain credibility in the playground, and children are still watching the same things over and over and over again.

It doesn’t happen immediately, though. Children need to acquire a taste for video based entertainment. I was disappointed to learn this, as my parenting classes had led me to believe that I’d be able to use the television as a babysitter from birth.

My daughter was aware of the television when she was younger. Sometimes she’d even stop what she was doing to watch it for a minute or so before moving on to the next activity. But try as I might, I could not get her to sit in front of it like a vegetable for hours at a time like she was supposed to.

This was a major setback. I had important things to do. But more and more, it was looking like I’d have to be an attentive father instead. And then, when all appeared lost, and the powerful undertow of adult responsibility threatened to pull me beneath the waves, I flicked on ABC 4 Kids one day and there was my sky blue saviour.

Yes, his name was Igglepiggle.

Igglepiggle is the star of a children’s TV show called “In The Night Garden”. With its colourful characters and infectious musical motifs, “In The Night Garden” tapped into something primal in my daughter’s brain. It would hold her spellbound for thirty minutes at a time, which may not sound like a long time to some but, for a new parent, can be the difference between holding onto your sanity and howling at the moon.

My daughter loved “In The Night Garden”. She loved it so much that her love for it started to become a problem. When each thirty minute episode finished, she would become distraught and burst into tears. It would then take another thirty minutes of sustained comforting to talk her down. Thirty minutes of peace and quiet followed by an intense thirty minute one-on-one counselling session is a neutral value proposition when you’re trying to shirk your parental responsibilities. There had to be a better way.

A feature length motion picture works a ninety minute babysitting shift; longer if your kid likes Coppola. Even if you have to follow each movie with thirty minutes of grief counselling, you still come out in front. I had to get my daughter interested in cinema.

The first movie in which she took an interest was “Finding Nemo”. But she only liked it when Nemo was on the screen. As soon as she saw a single frame that didn’t contain a handicapped clown fish, she’d lose interest and walk away. I can hardly blame her for that, though. I was the same way at the Louvre.

Eventually, she came to enjoy the entire movie. Then she expanded her viewing interests to include “Toy Story”, “Madagascar” and “Ice Age”, along with their respective sequels. With nine movies now in our arsenal, we were spoiled for choice.

Then we watched them all again.

And again.

And again and again and again.

I knew that this was coming – in fact, it had been part of my plan from the beginning – and yet I found myself totally unprepared for the scale of the repetition. Did I really watch movies this many times when I was a kid? I found it difficult to believe.

And if there’s one thing worse than watching the same movies over and over and over, it’s watching random fragments of the same movies over and over and over.

Because watching a children’s movie as a parent is a very different experience to watching one as a child. A child watches a movie from start to finish, in a simple linear fashion. A parent watches it over a number of days, weeks or months, in non-sequential two minute segments. With the children distracted, you have an opportunity to do other things. This, of course, is the driving force behind the entire children’s entertainment industry. But you can’t just ignore your children altogether while you take care of your own business. You have to revisit them occasionally to check their eyes for right angles, and when you do this, you catch a snippet of their movie. Today, you see these two minutes. Tomorrow, you see those two minutes. The next day, you see these two minutes again. Three months into a regimen of daily viewings, you’re still seeing parts of the movie that you’ve never seen before. And in another three months, if you’re lucky, you might finally see the bit that explains how they ended up in Madagascar.

I’ve seen enough lemurs to last me a lifetime. I’d like to introduce some fresh new blood into our stale viewing line-up. This is proving difficult, as my daughter’s film festival has very strict admission criteria. Like a Hollywood studio, she’s only interested in known quantities – sequels and the like – and is very reluctant to take a risk on an original concept. I’ve tried to show her “Cars”. I’ve tried to show her “WALL-E”. But her tolerance for anthropomorphism extends only to wild animals, and only to certain species at that. When we added “Ice Age” to the rotation, we had to wait until she got the flu so we could slip it on when she was too doped up and feverish to spot the difference between a woolly mammoth and a clown fish. She recently deemed “Shrek” to be acceptable viewing, but that’s only because she thinks he’s a turtle.

Some parents disapprove of the television. They’d prefer their children to be playing outside, or interacting with others, or doing their homework. All of those things are great, in moderation, but sometimes I just need my kids to be vegetables. Just for a couple of hours. Vegetables don’t fall off their bikes and require urgent medical attention. Vegetables don’t want to know if it’s true what Sienna said about where babies come from. Vegetables don’t ask you annoying questions about long division and make you feel like an idiot. Vegetables sit quietly on the couch and give Daddy a bit of breathing room.

Yes, of course, I believe that there’s such a thing as too much television. And yes, of course, I believe that physical activity, social interaction and homework are all important. Well, two out of three at least. But I also believe that raising your children without television and movies is like climbing Mount Everest without oxygen and a Sherpa. It’s a very impressive achievement, no doubt, but really it just looks like you’re showing off. Personally, I’ll be happy if I can just make it to the top without losing too many fingers.

2 Responses to 'And the Academy Award for Best Animated Babysitter goes to…'

  1. Mark says:

    Sound reasoning, I can see where I’ve been going wrong. Shows like Peppa Pig only go for 5 minutes, requiring me to constantly go in and either start them again or move on to the next episode. I need something longer.

    Extrapolating from your examples, I also need something based around a comic or cartoon. I wonder how many minutes Sin City goes for…

    -m

  2. Kevin says:

    I have similar pbleorm with my son, he never grab my hand and running away like crazy. I hurt him by pooling his hand to not let him fall. although I was so against it, finally I decided to buy him a child harness with Elmo’s doll on it. He loves his harness . and well I have to run faster!

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