Caillou: Love Him or Hate Him?Miriam Axel-Lute
Since my family aren’t big TV watchers, I was a little slow to be introduced to Caillou, but I recently got a chance to plow through a pile of books based on the TV series (which is based, apparently on an older set of books).
For those unfamiliar with the phenomenon, the series stars a four-year-old boy in “real life” situations like getting lost at the grocery store or having his first sleepover. They’re written with a lot of participation from a child psychologist, with the goals of showing a realistic kid experiencing realistic emotions and being treated with respect by the adults. Sounds thrilling, doesn’t it?
Oh, it sounds boring? It is.
(Which may be fine for TV, but not a book I have to read several times a week.) And while they involved psychologists, they seem to have forgotten about, oh, say, writers. The books sound like high school students watched the shows and wrote clunky summaries of what they saw. It’s painful.
Don’t tell me that realistic stories about real kids facing real problems can’t also be well-written and fun. Sally Jean the Bicycle Queen proves that dead wrong.
But hey, kids like insipid stuff sometimes. But then there’s the message: apparently I fall in a rare middle ground between love it and hate it factions. I can see the usefulness in some of the stories and the way they model dealing with difficult emotions: Acknowledging that Caillou is sad that he can’t fit into his favorite T-shirt any more and putting it on his teddy bear instead is decent problem solving, and I like the model of the mom being willing to apologize for having given the shirt to his younger sister without checking with him. Ditto on the first sleepover book—he’s sad and nervous, but after a call to his mom, who reminds him he brought his teddy bear, he gets over it.
On the other hand, much as I shudder to associate too closely with the no-empathy, “spare the rod, spoil the child,” “what’s all this touchy-feely crap, he should obey” Caillou detractors, there are cases where I share their discomfort (if not their preferred remedies). In one case, Caillou is asked to watch his younger sister at the grocery store and instead he wanders off without asking to look for cookies—and he’s never once told “You shouldn’t have done that.” Never. Sure, don’t scream at a frightened kid who just got himself lost, but come on now? No pointing out the problem at all, even later?
Ditto for the time he paints a clown face on his younger sister’s doll. It’s like they have a saboteur on the production team who wants to destroy the good name of empathic, non-punitive parenting by showing that yes, it really is about never saying no.
Similarly, after a book all about how Caillou’s toys are strewn all over the house, his parents suggest that he has an awful lot of toys, including some he never plays with. Maybe he could give some away?
His response: No. I like all my toys.
Their response: Oh, OK, we’ll build you a big toy box instead.
Is his response realistic? Yes. Do either his or his parents’ responses model anything useful for the kids reading this? No. In fact, they are awfully counter-productive. I’m inclined to agree with Alison Wonderland when she opines that perhaps parents, as well as writers, were left off the Caillou consulting team.
The fact that he’s so damn popular anyway means there’s a niche screaming to be filled.
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