I, along with others who’ve been signing a petition in protest, am devastated. While my older children no longer watch it, CBeebies was definitely a part of the childrearing plan for my baby son. Hell, perhaps I’d have thought twice about getting pregnant again had I known that Timmy, the Octonauts and Mr Tumble might not be on hand to help me raise my child. Whatever today’s toddlers might think about being deprived of Captain Barnacles and Kwazii, it’s the parents who’ll be suffering.
Clearly it is not a good idea to allow one’s children to watch TV all the time (by the way, this post is brought to you by my older kids working their way through a mammoth session of Stampy videos on Youtube). Nonetheless, I genuinely think that one of the reasons why letting children watch TV is considered a terrible thing is because it makes parenting easier. Parenting today is not meant to be easy. It’s supposed to be an incredibly stressful, sackcloth-and-ashes affair. If you don’t feel like you’re on the edge of a nervous breakdown, so the story goes, then you’re doing it wrong. Hence we seek to justify kids’ TV only with reference to the children (“it’s educational!”), glossing over all that it does for us.
There was a time when it was fine for parents in general, and mothers in particular, to be less self-sacrificing. As Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English document in For Her Own Good, around the middle of the 20th century one of the worst things a mother could be was too involved in meeting the needs of her child.
While such a view was fuelled by misogyny and mother-blame, it did have its plus side. For instance, as Rachel Cusk notes with regard to today’s trend for feeding on demand:
“The feeding goes on for hours. In the old days, I am informed, women breastfed their babies for strictly 20 minutes every four hours. They weren’t ‘allowed’, they say, to do anything else. Those who adhered to it were, I imagine, delighted with this imaginary prohibition.”
Back then, most mothers didn’t have television sets and kids’ TV channels did not exist. So you left your baby in the playpen or in the garden in the pram while you got on with other things. If everyone had owned a TV set and Muffin The Mule and Flower Pot Men had been available 24/7, I suspect things would have looked very different.
Since then we have seen the rise of what the sociologist Sharon Hays calls “intensive mothering”: “methods of appropriate child rearing [that] are construed as child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labour-intensive, and financially expensive.”
Plonking your kids in front of Chuggington is quite obviously none of those things. So then we try to find ways to justify it in line with the new parenting ideology – and CBeebies, more so than any other children’s channel, has colluded with us in this enterprise. The grownups’ area on the CBeebies website seeks to persuade us that pretty much everything, from The Clangers to Zingzillas, is educational.
Like most parents, I have not bothered to examine this in any great detail (I just know that anything with a story is literacy, anything with numbers is numeracy and Tree Fu totally counts as PE). But, if I’m honest, this isn’t why I value CBeebies. I value it because most parenting advice – particularly that of the intensive variety – assumes you only have one child and so the minute you have two or more, you’re screwed. You just can’t be doing with all this finger-painting-cupcakes-while-walking-through-autumn-leaves nonsense.
Whatever the ethics of plonking one’s kids in front of Chuggington, sometimes you just need somewhere to plonk and there are worse places than a children’s channel that remains a Thomas the Tank Engine-free zone (if you’re a parent, you will be aware of the deep political divisions between Thomas the Tank Engine and Chuggington. Say what you like about Dunbar but there’s none of that “really useful engine” totalitarianism with him).
Whatever the pedagogic justifications, the bottom line is that CBeebies stopped me, and many other parents I suspect, from going insane. After a bad day with the kids, I could switch on Big Cook, Little Cook and rest assured that those actors seemed to dislike children way more than I did. When my toddler refused to eat his greens, I could sit him in front of Mr Bloom’s Nursery and pretend that knowing the Meet the Veggies song counted as one of his five a day.
When neither my partner nor I had a clue what was going on in the news, we’d discuss the politics of In The Night Garden (come the revolution, Iggle Piggle and Upsy Daisy will have their backs against the wall, cowed by the alliance of the Pontipine/Wottinger bourgeoisie and the Makka Pakka proletariat). We pondered the Wicker Man remake potential of Balamory, debated the Freudian symbolism of Evie’s spell on Mike the Knight’s sword… CBeebies was a central part of our lives; we felt like we knew those presenters, not in a creepy way … Well, not always in a creepy way (a CBeebies presenter crush is embarrassingly obligatory).
Kids’ TV forms a cultural reference point for parents and children, both within and across generations. Recently my children started watching episodes of Mr Benn and Jamie and the Magic Torch. The fact that they loved them filled me with an odd sense of pride, as though I’d written the programmes myself, not just watched them while sitting on the potty in the late Seventies (I may have watched them in other circumstances, but in my memory it’s always on the potty; analyse that if you will).
Due to the absence of other media to distract us, this cultural referencing stayed with us as we grew older. I don’t think it’s the same for children today and I pity a generation who will have no equivalent of the shared trauma of seeing the camera close in on Zammo’s heroin-stricken face. At least they’ll always have Miss Hoolie and Archie the Inventor (aka Britt Ekland and Christopher Lee) to give them nightmares, but it’s still not the same.
The main beneficiaries of this bonding are not the children, however, but the parents. We get something to talk about that isn’t based around feeding or sleeping or potty-training or some other mundane process that’s been made incredibly complicated because reasons.
For us, CBeebies offers a way to reconnect with humanity. We shall know one another based on which of the Tumbles we prefer (for me it’s the rakish Lord Tumble, every time). Being able to recite all of the “lyrics” of Yes, my name is Iggle Piggle is a rite of passage (knowing the whole of Makka Pakka akka wakka is, on the other hand, a step too far). In some deep, profound, sleep-deprived way, each of us is CBeebies. Please, BBC, do not take it away. A parent cannot survive on Milkshake alone.