Like many parents out there, I've spent entirely way too much time watching programs aimed at an audience 20-plus years younger than I am. I know an embarrassing amount of songs and sing-a-longs, and I can name all of the characters in my son’s favorite shows, too. I consider it a parenting rite of passage to have such a wealth of kid’s television knowledge, and I’ll be honest: sometimes I enjoy watching them. One in particular is my favorite, and I’ll tell you why: Doc McStuffins addresses real issues. While some cartoons are nothing but bright colors and noise, there’s substance to Doc McStuffins that kids (and adults) can grasp at any age level.
After a marathon of watching Doc when my son was sick — because every human loves binge-watching when they don’t feel well — I noticed just how awesome the show really is. They tackle such important life lessons and challenges in a kid-friendly way without making it seem like a “very special episode.” I thought it would be really great to take some of the best teaching moments from Doc McStuffins and her fictional parents.
Obviously I couldn’t recreate the whole talking toys and stuffed animals part, but I really wanted to capture what is at the heart of so many Doc McStuffins episodes: embracing individuality and not being afraid to use your voice. My partner and I already try to be as supportive as we can when our son faces challenges or new experiences, but I really wanted to make a conscious effort to recognize when those types of situations arose.
I wondered if I would see a difference in my son’s self-esteem and mood if I tried to be like Doc McStuffins’ parents for a week.
1. I Stopped Feeling Guilty For My Work
Thankfully we live in a time when it's not uncommon for a woman to work and be a mother. Though it's still an issue that men aren't typically asked if they can juggle a career and parenthood, we've definitely come a long way. Yet sometimes, I struggle with feeling guilty about working. So I took a cue from Doc's mom, who's the primary breadwinner in the series and a doctor herself, and tried to be less critical of myself and more of a positive role model to my son.
Even though my son is in nursery school during the day, I often have work to do at night as well. When my husband gets home from his job, I'll tag out and he'll watch our son while I work in our bedroom. I'll occasionally pop my head out and apologize that I'm taking so long, or something along those lines. But then I started thinking about what effect this might have on our son. If he only ever sees his mom apologize for working, but rarely sees his dad act that way, what does that say about gender equality? More importantly: What does that say about me?
So I caught myself every time I started to feel guilty about working and surprisingly, my son didn't even seem to be bothered by me taking the time I needed to complete a project. I didn't pop out to apologize for my work — instead, I powered through.
2. Watching TV Helped Make A Trip To The Doctor's Easier
This past year my son has had quite a few ear infections, which means he's had to go to the doctor more than usual. For a small kid, it's difficult to understand that the medical staff is just there to help. I've also struggled with how to convey things to him since he's so young. For instance, it's hard to tell a toddler that he has a boo-boo he can't see (an ear infection) and that the doctors have to touch near where it hurts so they can figure out how to make it better.
So recently, when I knew he had an appointment coming up, I selected an episode ("Ben Anna Split") that deals with a monkey being nervous about getting medical help.
While we watched it, I made sure to explain what was happening on-screen and tried to compare it to real life. We even brought his toy Lambie (a character from the show) with us to the appointment. He still wasn't thrilled about the visit, but it did seem to help me be more prepared.
3. We Talked About The Word "No"
When a toy gets upset because another stuffed animal didn't stop tickling it, Doc drops a huge truth nugget even some adults don't seem to get: No means no. Doc references back to a time when her parents told her that she tickled her brother too much and he got upset. So her very wise parents taught her that you have the right to refuse touch and you also have to stop if someone doesn't want you touching them.
My son seems to be pretty good about sharing, being kind, and stopping when someone says stop, but I've worried in the back of my mind if he really understands consent himself. So I really made sure to pay extra attention to how I respected his concerns. I love snuggling him, but if he said no or pushed me away, I stopped immediately. I made a point to say out loud that I heard him say no, saw him resist the touch, and I listened and stopped.
We even played with his stuffed bear and spent a few minutes saying "stop" or "OK" if the bear wanted hugs. He really seemed to appreciate the experience, and I loved that my son was learning about consent.
4. I Encouraged Personal Expression
In one episode, Doc is working with a toy patient who doesn't like having curly hair. She decides to ask her mom for some input, and Dr. McStuffins reminds her that she, too, didn't like her hair when she was younger. But her parents worked with her, trying out different styles, and let her choose what made her feel best.
Sometimes it can be easy to get caught up in the rush of the day and ignore your tiny tot's opinions. Most mornings my husband and I are the ones picking out my son's clothes, and I wondered if that is taking away his freedom of expression. After all, there aren't many things young kids get to have a say about.
So both my partner and I were more mindful to listen if our son voiced that he wanted to wear the monkey shirt instead, or he'd rather have oatmeal than yogurt. Those may seem like small things, but to him they seemed huge. When I listened, he had a chance to tell us what he wanted. It made all the difference.
5. I Didn't Shy Away From Differences
When Doc McStuffins finds a toy without legs, her first instinct is to try to reattach them so he can walk again. But after many failed attempts, she builds him his very own wheelchair. At first Wildlife Will is unsure of the idea, but Doc reminds him that different can be good. What's even more heartwarming is that everyone still treats Will with kindness and invites him to participate.
It's inevitable that children will see someone who is different than them and they might feel confused or curious. But if life (and Doc McStuffins) has taught me anything, it's that we shouldn't ignore differences.
So if my son ever points at or ask questions about someone, I try to remind him to be kind, but that looking unique or having different abilities is normal and nothing to shy away from. By not reacting like it's taboo, he reacts to my vibe, and just goes with it.
6. We Talked About What We Ate
Eating healthy is an underlying theme throughout the entire series. I especially love that they show the dad as the primary one to cook and stay home with the kids. Men don't have to do those things, but it's nice for my son to see that there's nothing wrong with a man having a domestic and nurturing side. But beyond that, I appreciate that they highlight the importance of eating good food without vilifying dietary habits or "bad" food.
Even though eating disorders are usually portrayed in movies and TV as affecting females, men can have eating disorders as well. So it was important to me that my son have a healthy relationship with food. So I continued to offer fruits and veggies during snack time, but also decided to talk about why they're so good to eat. Obviously I had to use age-appropriate terms, but he seemed excited to "get energy to go fast" from his raspberry snack.
7. I Gave My Son More Responsibility
Another great aspect of this show is that the parents always seek to incorporate their kids into fun activities and difficult tasks alike. When Doc discovers her beloved Lambie has a rip, she knows she needs an adult's help with the needle and thread. But her mom still makes an effort to involve her in the experience. She gives her a sense of ownership and also allows her to feel proud when the job is done.
Just like with allowing my son to have some say in what clothes he wears, I figured it would be good to allow him to do more (within reason, of course). I wouldn't say I'm an impatient person, but when it's the end of the day and I'm running on empty, I usually opt to do things myself because it's faster than taking the time to let him participate. So when he accidentally knocked over his snack cup of Cheerios, I resisted the urge to just clean it all up. Instead, I spent a solid five minutes with him while he delicately picked up each individual Cheerio. It was a tad frustrating, but he was so stoked when he was done.
Do Animated Parenting Lessons Work In Real Life?
The McStuffins family may be fictional, but the issues they tackle and the teaching moments that arise are very real. The show has a great balance of letting kids explore and experiment on their own while emphasizing the necessity and benefit of open communication with adults. It really did feel like I captured some essence of the McStuffins parenting style and I think it made me notice just how perceptive kids can be. You might think that your child is just zoned out watching TV, but I'd argue that they're picking up more than you know. The biggest lesson I took away, was that if my son is learning things just from watching a half hour show, then I need to remember that his eyes are on me and his father, too.
Images: Disney (8)