The Backyardigans And An Opportunity To Teach Spirituality
My two year old son loves the Nick Jr. show The Backyardigans. The show is a computer generated animation about five neighborhood kids who play in the backyards of their house. There’s Tasha the yellow hippo, Tyrone the orange moose, Pablo the blue penguin, Austin the purple marsupial, and Uniqua the pink spotted little girl with a couple of antennas on her head. Whenever this series comes on, baby boy stops what he’s doing and gives the show his full attention. If he doesn’t watch, something’s seriously wrong. Each episode runs about thirty minutes. I think he can go through about three episodes before he gets ready for something else. So the Backyardigans are good for about ninety minutes of distraction.
Not too long ago there was a new Backyardigans episode titled It’s Great To Be A Ghost. In this episode, Uniqua, Pablo, and Tyrone are pretending to be ghost and do their best to try and scare each other and Tasha, who is not a ghost. Tasha has no fear of ghost and the others are challenged to scare her with tricks of haunting. One turns invisible and wave things in the air. Another pops out of a painting. They imagine themselves floating through the air and going in and out of objects. But Tasha is true to her word and remains unfazed. Tyrone plays the most inept ghost. He’s running around trying to find something to scare Tasha with when he accidentally winds up under a sheet. He looks and sees himself in the mirror and finds the image pretty scary. He then has the idea to use his new look to scare Tasha. He sneaks up to her and says, boo. Tasha turns, sees the floating sheet, and screams. She runs away and Tyrone is right behind her taunting her with an occasional boo. Each time Tyrone goes boo, Tasha lets out a little scream.
I watched my son as he watched this particular episode. And while he loves the Backyardigans, this one episode has a unique affect on him. While he will watch the other episodes without much of any reaction, when watching this ancestor themed episode, he’ll watch it from the comfort of the reassuring arms of one of his parents. When Tyrone starts going boo, he starts to try and climb into our laps. He’s not comfortable at all with what he’s seeing. And I notice the subtle programming that is taking place.
When Tasha reacts with fear to the sight of a ghost in a sheet, she is teaching my son to react with fear to supernatural manifestations and unnatural aberrations. This is troubling to me. As a practitioner of Ifa, the ancient African spirituality that embraces the supernatural, this is a potential conflict. The ghostly characters in the show have only one concern and that is to be as scary as possible. But the African tradition teaches that our enlightened ancestors, the people who have passed on from this plane of existence, are part of our lives to help guide us and develop our spirituality so that when we can become enlightened and when we pass on we will help lead our descendants to true enlightenment. When we respond to our ancestors with fear and suspicion, we cut ourselves off from their assistance thereby making it much more difficult for ourselves to get through this thing called life.
In order to counter the messages this particular program is giving my son, we started our own little game of ghost. Baby boy will come up to us and say, boo. But instead of reacting with outright fear, his mother and I act with surprise. Instead of a little scream of fear, we’ll respond with an exaggerated, Oh! And right after our dramatic surprise we will smile and reach down and give him a big hug. We’re trying to teach him that it’s okay to be surprised when we see something that we don’t know or didn’t expect or didn’t recognize. But we shouldn’t respond with fear. It is a subtle difference and it might be a little too nuanced to be picked up by a two year old. But we have to start somewhere.
We like The Backyardigans. Although I really appreciate the fact that the show can grab my son’s attention for a few minutes, I have to admit that I find the episodes pretty entertaining myself. The episodes feature music and some very imaginative songs expertly executed by some very professional musicians. My all time favorite episode is Pirate Camp. I don’t know who the drummer is when they do the song titled the Scalawag. But if you ever get a chance to see it or hear it, you’ll understand when I say he or she really earned his or her pay that day.
And I like the way the show teaches lessons of cooperation and listening from the perspective of five unique youngsters without making it so obvious that it’s trying to teach cooperation and listening. There is no race. Everybody is a unique color and shape and nobody is associated with any race, although it is pretty hard not to notice that Tyrone and Uniqua are indeed voiced by black people. And with a name Pablo it’s a sure fire bet that he’s Hispanic or Latino. They do an excellent job of not putting one type of person or race ahead of the other.
But even the people who develop this show can slip every now and then. When it comes to showing how we should interact with the supernatural I think they missed the boat on this one. It isn’t helpful to teach children to fear that which we might not fully understand. And one thing that is easy to misunderstand is our relationship with our ancestors and other spiritual entities. It’s not something we should automatically fear. Hopefully, this will be one lesson from this program that my boy won’t learn. Regardless, I still love those Backyardigans. Those animated characters are allowed to get it wrong every now and then. Although they look like colorful animal characters, in all honesty they are only human.