Most parents don’t like to admit how often they plop their children in front of the TV as a temporary babysitter. However, with the public murder of George Floyd, along with other police attacks, political injustices, and pandemic disparities facing African Americans over the past year, stress has hit us like a ton of bricks. The aftermath from outrage, protests, and the unrest has continued to put everyone’s stress on an all-time multi-level high. And all this on top of the many prior numerous attacks and injustices upon black men and women and a polarizing pandemic.
Now, imagine the traumatic effects on our children.
In many households, kids were just as glued to the television as the adults. And not only were they watching the tragedy onscreen, they were watching us; our outrage, anxiousness, frustrations and heartbreaks. I have a cousin who has two young boys who get along quite well. But after stay-at-home orders and watching her do her job as a local government civil servant, the boys watched more news than she could control and also watched her become understandably enraged with the unfolding events. Normally, this wouldn’t be the case, but due to circumstances emotions were hard to shield. Within days, she found her boys yelling and physically fighting over menial things. She couldn’t help but assume all of these events contributed to the negative attitudes and behaviors of her otherwise sweet, well-mannered boys.
Another area to look at: are we disciplining our kids to the point of fear as opposed to fearlessness? Unfortunately, I witnessed a mother discipline her son and daughter in a department store. The kids, a boy and girl maybe five or six years old, were just playing in their seats as they waited for their mom. Just as the kids’ play became a bit too noisy, the mother turned around, quickly grabbed the arm of the young boy and told him to stop it or she would slap him silly. Now, I know that’s not the first time I’ve heard that kind of frustration from mothers. But almost all the time, it’s been from Black mothers. Just to be clear, I don’t have children so this is not to pass judgement because I can only imagine the challenges parents face. But how many times are Black children stifled or have the fear put in them, to the point where they are so scared to move, much less explore, imagine, be spontaneous, or simply have laugh-out-loud fun in the moment? I digress.
Toxic stress has hit us all, regardless of age.
Toxic stress can be characterized as an intense, frequent, or prolonged adversity that puts tension on the body’s entire defense response system, including the brain. In children, it can be more harmful as it affects the way their brains and bodies develop, according to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.
Stress hinders a child’s curiosity, as well as their ability to focus, comprehend, and learn. It also inhibits their ability to evaluate and defuse complex problems and situations and their overall resiliency. Toxic stress can also impair their ability to create healthy relationships, be self-aware and self-reliant, or have a sense of direction. And again, most importantly it impacts their ability to attain academic achievement.
To destroy the freedom of a child to think, learn, dream, and achieve, is to destroy their potential and subsequently, that of their community. With toxic stress in the picture, a child’s sense of fantasy and imagination, which can lead to innovation and high achievement as adults, is quickly traded for basic skills of survival.
Now, I am no neuroscientist but I am a writer, producer and showrunner in the kids’ space having produced live-action ("The Wannabes"), and animated series ("The Proud Family," "Motown Magic," "Onyx Monster Mysteries," "Little Ellen"), a TV movie ("Jump In!") and a book (Love Double Dutch! on Penguin Random House). I’ve dedicated my life to entertaining children through media (and hopefully providing some reprieve to moms and dads). So the thing that can mitigate toxic stress in children (and adults) is ... JOY! The kind of joy that is free to laugh and to live unadulterated in the moment. Where limits and the burden of obstacles are removed, the imagination runs wild and the best emotions are marked in the brain as a happy, jubilant experience. That kind of joy.
One antidote? It can be as simple as watching TV. According to the Child Mind Institute, researchers say a healthy dose of watching television can do wonders for a child’s mood, and improve their mental well-being, which often leads to improved academic performance. And it’s even better when parents watch television with their children, as it gives families an extra opportunity to bond and kids an extra moment of feeling attended to.
Imagine that. Television can be good for kids.
Unfortunately, many of the studies I’ve researched did not specifically point out the effects on Black children.
And so I’m ringing the alarm.
Yes, a couple of hours of watching television can be helpful for children, but how many shows can be considered healthy for Black children if there's no representation in the role of main characters or heroes that appeal to Black children? Don’t get me wrong, many of the kid networks are finally being more deliberate in diversifying their casts in live-action and animation, which is an awesome thing to see. But where are the current shows that have Black leads? Maybe three, "Craig of the Creek" (Cartoon Network), "Young Dylan" (Nickelodeon), "Onyx Monster Mysteries" (Amazon), for both live-action and animation, out of maybe 40 current shows. And if there is a black lead, are these shows created by black writers, producers, or animators? One is by Tyler Perry ("Young Dylan") and none yet in the last few years are with a Black girl lead. Also, if there are any new shows based on books, are the authors Black? None yet that I’m aware of.
It’s astonishing how many times I’ve been approached to create a series based on a book or an idea for Black children that was conceptualized by someone other than a Black author or Black creator. Although I am flattered to get the calls, sometimes something about the ask or the content just hasn't felt right. In one example, I was pitched a show based on a book about a young black girl whose hair was so “unruly” that it has a mind of its own and THIS was based on a book WITH a curriculum in middle-grade schools. And the book that shall remain nameless is written by a male Caucasian. The content might have intended to be in a good place but the context felt wrong. I don’t understand how no one saw anything wrong with this.
On the upside, I’m grateful to have collaborated with some of the best networks and production houses in the business of kid joy, namely Disney, Netflix, and Amazon, whose intentions continue to move in the right direction. So, I know progress is being made, and I’m looking forward to the day when MORE content is purposely being created for Black children who are experiencing the most toxic stress. At least, as a creator, that is on my agenda.
Furthermore, it is my hope to see more Black creators, artists, and producers dive into children’s television and that more development executives open up to Black creators and authors to bring the children who might most benefit from a huge dose of authentic joy. After all, these Black creatives bring a narrative with a wealth of experience and pure emotion from having achieved their own dreams, possibly from the inspiration of a television show.