Where are Max & Ruby’s Parents? – Parental Influence: Who’s watching our cartoon kids?
Animation writing can be lonely but it is one of the few jobs where you can spend your days cavorting with imaginary, cartoon friends and still be considered relatively sane (The others are daycare supervisor, comic shop owner and President of the United States).
But sometimes when you step away from your keyboard you are rewarded with brief moments of being treated like a rock star. And believe it or not, the show that provides me with that rare and unique combination of thrilled recognition and amazement features a cute pair of fluffy bunny siblings.
Max and Ruby, based on Rosemary Well’s insanely popular licensing juggernaut, er… series of books, features a pragmatic and girly older sister bunny named Ruby and her energetic and mischievous younger bunny brother, Max. If I’m at a party with a parent and they discover I worked on the show, their faces light up.
“Oh we loooove Max and Ruby at our home. My kid(s) and I watch that all the time! Wow, I can’t wait to tell little Tessie and Adolph that I know someone who works with Max and Ruby!”
They inevitably follow up with the same question.
“Where are the parents?”
The wording never changes.
“Where are the parents? Our child is very concerned about that.”
Well no, actually, your child is not at all concerned where Max and Ruby’s parents are. You are, Mom and Dad.
Parents are always looking for where their role fits into their kids’ cartoons. And when they don’t see themselves reflected in a show they become troubled that the characters are somehow unsafe, navigating a dangerous cartoon world without proper supervision and guidance. They don’t want to imagine a child or a child character not having parents nearby to support them. What they don’t realize is that what they as parents need from cartoons and what their kids need from their cartoons are two very, very, and I’m so sure I’ll even add a third “very”, different.
It’s natural for parents to want cartoons to be entertaining while reinforcing their role as guardian protector and safe zone in their child’s minds. But kid viewers don’t need parental supervision from their television – they have it in their lives — they need the freedom to explore the show’s universe along with the character. Precisely the kind of freedom that most kids don’t get in their daily life.
It’s a crazy world and the old days of sending your kid out into the woods or traffic for the day until they return, all dirt-covered, feral and hungry for dinner, have been replaced by play dates and swim class and Mommy and Daddy driving, biking, walking or scootering their children to each and every kid appointment. Most six year olds won’t even be crossing the street without Mom or Dad yet and that’s how it should be. But they sure as heck can head on over to Grandma Bunny’s house across the park with Max and Ruby.
Cartoon children are not real. They are never truly in danger. And they do not need parental supervision. All they need is a PARENTAL INFLUENCE. In short, the world needs to be a safe environment and the FEELING of older, stable influences must permeate.
In Max and Ruby’s case, their world is implicitly a place where the children bunnies are watched over by every adult in town. The rabbit siblings are greeted kindly and supportively whether they go next door to the Huffingtons to see the baby, or whether they’re eyeing a tasty treat at the Piazza’s market. The entire world of Max and Ruby is designed as a safe zone. It needs to be in order to provide a very special experience within your child. And your child knows that as they watch.
Each Max and Ruby tale is a carefully constructed series of comic turns in which Ruby wants to accomplish something but Max’s stubborn desire to do his own thing continually gets in her way. By the end, the audience and Ruby discover the truth behind Max’s desire, which always seems to help Ruby achieve her goal in an unexpected way.
This classic vaudevillian shape is like Comedy 101 to kids. It’s totally golden. The characters have to work through misunderstanding via trial and error. If a parent character were around they’d step in and nip this stuff in the bud, thereby depriving the characters of the chance to learn how to problem solve and deal with each other (and depriving me of my chance to be an occasional rock star).
To show the flip side we have only to explore another Canadian licensing juggernaut for the pre-school set: that lovable, hairless toddler, Caillou (based on the books by and illustrator Hélène Desputeaux). Caillou is also beloved by parents and children but when he comes up in conversation, parents express great affection for the character and their child’s devotion to him but also bemusement at what an innocent Caillou is when dealing with his world. That is because the aims of Caillou are quite different from those of Max and Ruby.
The parents are presented as Caillou’s number one resource for understanding his world. They are always close by. And this is wholly appropriate. Caillou is designed with the developmental needs of younger viewers in mind. Caillou models each developmental stage as he slowly grows older, allowing kids to see their own challenges and difficulties mirrored back at them in simple terms they can easily take in.
The show and books are all about helping kids to understand situations, emotions and anxieties they are experiencing and helping them to find words to express those feelings and concerns. Max and Ruby is aimed at slightly older kids, encouraging them to problem solve together.
Two different aims requiring two different approaches to parental supervision.
The humour of Max and Ruby require the bunnies to have enough freedom to make mistakes whereas Caillou needs to understand he has a resource for understanding in his parents. Interestingly,Caillou has followed the character through several developmental stages, adding more freedom of choice and cognitive ability as he grows from season to season.
The most recent season 5 has aged Caillou up again and given him more freedom to explore on his own, thereby taking the character a step closer to the older Max and Ruby. This has not only added a sense of humour to the show and allowed Caillou to explore issues of interpersonal interaction at preschool, but also allowed the character to gain more insight into the concerns of others.
Parental Supervision is a carefully considered piece of any show. Even a comedy series like Fairly Oddparents or an action series like Ben 10. Comedy and adventure shows aimed at an older audience still require enough freedom for their protagonists to get into comical or scary situations. There is often a parental influence or older, wiser character around for the protagonist to consult but ultimately it is always about empowering the protagonist to overcome their own challenges.
“Where are the parents?”
Look in the mirror.
You are the parents that really matter to your child’s viewing experience.