Why I’m Letting Daniel Tiger Teach My Toddler About Feelings

Have you ever tried to grapple someone else’s sand toy away from your toddler? You’re better off trying to wrangle a mouse from the clutches of a hungry street cat. Last week I watched from a short distance as my two-year-old daughter charged another little girl in the sandbox and attempted to wrest a turtle mold out of her hands. The toy belonged to the other child, but that was beside the point in my daughter’s eyes. She needed it, and that was that. Some grabbing ensued, tears were shed on both sides, but the little girl’s dad and I were able to settle them down. “Think about her feelings”, I heard myself saying, and all of a sudden my daughter looked me right in the eye, and softly sang a little ditty: “Think about how someone else is fee-ling.” She was instantly calmer, and looked over at the other girl, now playing happily in the sand, and said, “That’s her toy. I’ll play with mine.”

Lest you think I’ve brainwashed my kid, I’ll explain–a few weeks ago while on vacation in Florida, away from our Tivo trove of Peppa Pig and Gaspard and Lisa, we discovered Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood on PBS. A sweet animated series that features the eponymous four-year-old tiger and a menagerie of friends, all descendants of the original puppets from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, Daniel Tiger and his buddies have shown both of us how to cope with some of the signature traits of the terrible twos that I’d been struggling with, namely recognizing feelings and safety issues. My daughter has taken to running away from me on the sidewalk, which she thinks is hilarious and I find maddening and terrifying. Enter Safety at the Beach, an episode that seems to have remedied the situation. I’ve also had trouble explaining to her the merits of sharing–surprise, surprise–especially in public parks and situations where we encounter other kid’s things like scooters, toys and snacks.

Fred Rogers’ original messages live on in this modern-day Neighborhood; gentle, empathetic themes that help children recognize their feelings and that of those around them, while teaching them age-appropriate methods of understanding and coping. Short songs (like the one my daughter recounted in the sandbox) often with only a few words and a gentle, lilting melody, help zero in on how to handle difficult moments. When Daniel’s mom gets angry when she realizes that Daniel and Prince Wednesday have brought sand inside the house to make an indoor beach, she sings this tune: “When you feel so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breath; and count to four.” After calming herself down (how often we parents forget that we need time-outs sometimes, too!) she explains her emotions to the boys. Another episode which deals with anxiety about drop-off at school featured the easy-to-remember ditty, “Grown-ups come back.”

While that song didn’t make it easier to drop my daughter off at babysitting at our local YMCA last Friday, when I sang it  to her gently she said “like Daniel!” before her rousing cries started again. I think that recognizing her own emotions mirrored back at her through such a likeable, parallel personality makes digesting these small lessons much more effective than if I had doled them out. And while I’m always struggling with the amount of TV that she watches, this is one instance where I truly feel like she’s getting something from every moment in front of the screen. While strolling to the grocery store the other day, she noticed a little boy heading our way, crying in his stroller.

“He’s feeling sad,” she said. “Can I give him a hug?”

“We don’t know him, but I think it’s very sweet that you’re thinking about his feelings,” I told her.

And there was that song again: “Think about how someone else is fee-ling. Daniel teached me that, mama,” she said.

Boom–there you have it. If it takes a cartoon tiger in a hoodie to teach my kid about feelings at the tender age of two, I’ll take it. Though I might take the credit the next time she gets a compliment on her sharing abilities, which happened this morning. Sorry, Daniel.