Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Anti-Dora

We turned the TV on last night for the first time in weeks. Our vacation from the world of PBS Kids and Treehouse was not an extension of Turn Off Your Screens week or the result of some new, ambitious model of parenting. It was the fallout from my children's discovery of their grandmother's stash of Disney videos and DVDs. For weeks I have been subjected to a continuous round of Brother Bear (dreck), The Lion King (in which the cuteness of toddler voices singing "Hakuna Matata" only partially compensates for the traumatic storyline and violent plot), and Lilo and Stitch (which, I must confess, I absolutely love - it's Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden with the roles of Yorkshire and India taken by Hawaii and, um, outer space).

So when we conceded to a half hour of TV before bedtime last night, it was the first time I had come across Ni Hao, Kai Lan. Have you seen this show? It follows the formula of Dora the Explorer - plucky heroine surrounded by animal friends, interactive second-person dialogue, and end-of-episode recaps - but instead of riding zip cords across Emerald Canyon, Kai Lan directs her problem-solving abilities towards dilemmas like a koala bear who doesn't want to share his toys, or a little monkey who has a hard time waiting. Instead of teaching Spanish, Ni Hao, Kai Lan introduces Mandarin Chinese, and instead of celebrating adventure and independence, it promotes empathy and friendship.

"Look at his face," Kai Lan beseeches her viewers. "What is he feeling?" Tolee looks angry and miserable. "WHY is he feeling sad?" Kai-lan asks. Tolee clutches his panda bear possessively, confirming Kai Lan's theory that he's sad because he doesn't want to share. Kai Lan sympathizes with his feelings - sometimes it's really hard to share - and stays with him until he "gets it": when you share, everybody gets to play!

It's hard to imagine a show better suited to the kind of learning Bub is working on right now. Facial expressions, "why" questions, episodic memory - it's all there. According to the Nickelodeon website, the show's Chinese-culture-based curriculum promotes perspective-taking and awareness of the physical sensations associated with emotional states. Hubby's favourite part is the emphasis on calm. Where Western culture (and most children's programming) focuses on states of excitement and enthusiasm, Chinese culture values the state of calm. Hubby, I suspect, would feel far more at home in East Asia than he does here, since his natural inclination is towards courtesy, moderation, and calm.

The show's format, with its obvious debts to Dora the Explorer, makes its message all the more startling. Habituated as I am to Dora's trademark confidence and independence, I find the plot lines of Ni Hao, Kai Lan an almost comical change. The episode list on Wikipedia highlights themes like bragging and competition. It's okay to lose sometimes. Bragging makes your friends feel bad. Where Dora voyages triumphantly across the seven seas and through the dark forest, Kai Lan faces dilemmas such as "Kai Lan and Lulu can't agree on what games to play together" and "Rintoo gets mad when Hoho copies his hat."

Dora is a show about power and success; Kai Lan is a show about deference and wisdom. The irony, perhaps, is that the latter does far more than the former to arm my son with the skills he needs to succeed.

47 comments:

david santos said...

Hello, Bea!
I loved this post and this blog.
Have a nice day.

painted maypole said...

i'll have to check out the show... haven't seen it yet. MQ is addicted to Noggin right now. Thankfully she is still into the preschool shows. I shudder at the thought of what is to come once she realizes she's not in preschool any more.

Mouse said...

I'd seen some ads for it on Noggin (our channel of choice here) and couldn't decide what I think of it--though apparently it has taken only 30 seconds for me to know I can't stand "Yo Gabba Gabba." For all the same reasons as you have, this might be something to show Scooter.

minnesotamom said...

Finally, a show that sounds like I wouldn't mind letting my toddler watch it! She won't be getting any TV until age two, probably, but the choices out there seemed like zip to nil. This show may change my mind. Thanks for the post.

cinnamon gurl said...

Ooh, I'm going to have to track this down. Sugar D will love it! And maybe Swee'pea too... ;)

cinnamon gurl said...

Ha ha, just noticed that you're on a weekly schedule now instead of your previous 48-hour schedule. Surely that can't be an accident with you?

Bea said...

Sin - Yup - the internal "time to post" alarm clock seems somehow to have been reset, without my conscious consent. :)

Karen said...

that was one of our regular shows over the winter (currently obsessed with cars movie). My children actually began to speak mandarin words after about a week's worth of episodes and in typical toddler style used them in place of english words. They sounded odd the grocery store. I agree, the show seems to be about sensitivity. The one about the ants needing their own playground just about brought LP to tears. Now he builds stuff for the ants all over our yard.

Magi said...

I have only been able to see a few shows as I work when it's on, and we're the last family without a TIVO, but my daughter and I love it. My daughter is two. I will admit that we first watched it because of the Chinese factor, my daughter is Chinese, but I loved the lessons on empathy and awareness of others it was teaching.

Mrs. Who said...

I was excited to read this post for two reasons:

1. I knew what Ni Hao meant! We have Chinese class here in the library this year, so I have learned quite a few words.

2. My little grandson will love this show. We'll have to watch it next time he comes over.

Kelly @ Love Well said...

Interesting. I've seen snippets of Kai Lan. It's similarity to Dora is hard to overlook, but I hadn't picked up on the different tone.

For what it's worth, I'm a huge fan of Noggin. I truly think children's TV today is better than it was 20 years ago.

Rachael said...

My 2 year old loves this show - in fact we're watching a recorded episode right now!

Mad said...

We don't get Treehouse with our cable package and as such we've never seen the Dora show. When we were in Toronto last week, Miss M did make me read her about 15 Dora books at the World's Biggest Book Store. I hated them. Every single book had the plot of Dora is plucky in the face of Swiper trying to steal her material wealth. It was all too icky for this left-wing gal. (Yes, it would appear that I can even muster an anti-capitalist rant against Dora. I must have a bad case of it.)

I saw the add for Ni Hao, Kai Lan while we were at my sister's place but we didn't get a chance to see the show. Now I am sorry I missed it.

Beck said...

My kids find Dora infuriating - they're always shrieking that "THE MNR NEEDS TO SHOOT THAT FOX!". Okaaaaaaaay.
We like Kai Lan okay. Our current favorite very little kid show is The Night Garden, which is just so freaking TRIPPY.

Mimi said...

Huh. I wondered why I found Dora so annoying: so gung-ho! Empathy and calm, huh? That sounds a little more up my alley, personally ...

Cyndi said...

My daughter is really into Playhouse Disney right now, but we will have to check that show out.

I do not like the Lion King and I refuse to watch Brother Bear. My daughters favorite is Lilo and Stitch. The cartoon is okay, too.

kgirl said...

hey, you're back! bored of paint chips?
i am really enjoying kai lan, a happy alternative to my well-documented dislike of dora

Bri. said...

This is very interesting, because there have been studies that have shown that those people who were raised in Asian cultures - specifically in Chinese cultures - are far better than Western cultures at reading nonverbal cues to judge the emotional state of others (love to give you the refs, but I don't have them at hand). This may be because of their social emphasis on the collective, rather than the individual. A very high importance is placed on social harmony in Eastern culture; we tend to be very individualistic.

I think we all could benefit from a few lessons in social sensitivity.

Robbin said...

Sorry - the previous post was from me - I was logged into an account that uses the nickname that most of my friends call me. Long story.

nomotherearth said...

I was a bit sketchy about this show at first (to be fair, I'm usually handling a screamy Little Guy at bedtime and I can't give it my full attention.), but last night I caught a small bit about the sharing (between screams) and I'll definitely be trying it out again.

Kyla said...

We LOVE Ni-Hao Kai Lan. Love it. Just like Bub, KayTar is working extra hard on emotional awareness (her Social-Emotional age equivalent is 16 months!) and this show is great for that.

Jess said...

This is fascinating to me. I was just reading a book about raising your kids bilingual and it had a whole section on TV and how even shows designed to teach a language do not promote language learning at all, particularly for young kids, although they can be a good supplementary tool for grade school aged children. I'm glad that this show is about more than just the language, though, and that it is helping Bub in other ways.

Lady M said...

Thanks for the peek at the show. I was interested, since I'm always looking for other Chinese-language shows, but knowing that it had a Dora-esque style worried me (We've done our best to have Q forget that Dora exists and don't want to jeopardize that!). I'll check in out!

luckyzmom said...

Will be looking for this for my grandkids. Thanks for the heads up.

Bea said...

Robbin - I wonder how children with autism fare in Chinese culture. Does the additional emphasis on teaching social cues improve their outcomes? Or do their social-skill deficits weigh against them even more heavily in a culture that places so much emphasis on empathy and perspective-taking?

Omaha Mama said...

We have a new favorite show on PBS. Word World. It's good.

My kid was addicted to Dora from ages 2-3 1/2. She taught my B some good lessons, but not great. I like the idea of this other show - we might have to check it out.

Emily said...

My little girl is into *vintage* Teletubbies...which is to say her brain is rotting between her ears at the non-plots format, repetative dancing, repetative dialog, repetative...repeating.

We don't watch tv much. She's only 2. I just can't stomach the preschool shows.

Today, we had 3 dance parties: one to The Umbrellas, one to The Beatles, and one to Beck. Surely these are culturally relevant and building bridges in her psyche.

Poor third kid.

Swirl Girl said...

We are big Noggin fans here. No commercials (that's what i like) and my 4 year old just loves "Little Bill" and so do I. Life's lessons as taught from preschooler to preschooler. Easy concepts in a fun and imaginary way.

You should check it out!
www.swirlgirlspearls.blogspot.com

Major Bedhead said...

As long as it's not as shouty as Dora, I'm good. Some of the Nick shows make me itch - have you seen Yo Gabba Gabba? Horrible. Just horrible.

canadacole said...

Thanks for a wonderful recommendation! I'm going to have to track this down. I'm assuming you can get videos somewhere? We only get the 3 Canadian channels our bunny ears will pull in and the videos Granma sends. I really need a Dora antidote!

Becoming Me said...

I've got to check this out. Great post as always.

kittenpie said...

I have been curious about this, but it's not on at the few times we watch tv, so I' haven't seen it yet. Now I'm even more curious!

Janet said...

Elyse isn't interested in Dora, just Diego. Of course, I realize that Diego is just Dora with a hang glider. It's the only show she will watch and it drives me freakin' crazy! We'll have to check out Ni Hao, Kai Lan. Or just stop watching TV altogether. That would work, too.

the dragonfly said...

I am thankful for information about good shows for kids. My son is only 11 months old, and won't be watching tv for awhile (a long while) but info for the future is good. :)

NotSoSage said...

Ooh. I may have to turn Mme L on to this one. Mme L definitely needs a lesson in it's okay to lose sometimes.

Now the real question is, does Kai Lan speak in annoyingly loud voice? 'Cause that might be a deal-breaker...

Aliki2006 said...

I've never heard about that show--I'll have to keep my eye out for it...

Robbin said...

Bea,

That's a really hard thing to estimate - there is more stigma attached with mental disorders in Chinese culture, so there tends to be a lag in therapy and treatment. The current diagnostic scales and treatment programs tend to be modified from American models, so I think the jury will be out until Chinese mental health professional have time to develop their own paradigms.

Bon said...

i might get cable for this...

Anonymous said...

We've seen the show--Geister and Boo tolerate it (as well as the aforementioned Yo Gabba Gabba and In the Night Garden--indeed, very trippy) but Dora still rocks. A female heroine! A show about a girl that even boys love! Yay for the adventure and independence and all of that!

Jenifer said...

Both my girls love this new show and you are right about the messages it promotes qualities often overlooked in children's programming.

b*babbler said...

Ooh - this sounds like a terrific show. Thanks for the heads up.

Around here all we watch is Sesame Street -both a blessing and a curse really. She refuses to be distracted by anything but Sesame Street, but at least it's a tolerable and fun show.

Karianna said...

Very interesting. This sounds like something from which my son would benefit.

dawn224 said...

What is it with Disney? If those movies had real people in it, NO ONE would want their kids to watch them!

Mary G said...

Thank you! I'm frantically searching for new titles for the Granddaughter Who Has Seen Everything.

that girl said...

Haven't seen it yet.

Does she yell at you like Dora? Or make sentences that end with periods sound like exciting questions? My children don't really respond to anything that doesn't reach a vein-bulging level of annoyance..

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