Lost Fish: Films and Fear in pre-school age children

watching a film

Last week while going around LIDL, I spotted some toffee popcorn and had a bright idea. It was time for a film night. We hadn’t really watched a film with The Boy since the endless Muppet-marathon of September last year, and he was probably going to be that much more able to grasp a longer story line now, six months later. I put the popcorn in the trolley.

“When we get home, we’re going to watch a film!” I announced.

“A film!” the Boy cheered.

“Which one would you like to watch: Cinderella, Ratatouille, The Muppets or Lost Fish?”

“Lost Fish!”

Finding Nemo it was.

I should explain that this was a risky venture.

We have made several attempts to have “nice family film nights” (or afternoons) with the Boy, most of which ended in tears. It turns out that Disney is pretty darn scary when you’re only 3. I realised pretty quickly that Ratatouille wasn’t going to happen when in the first five minutes the loveable furry main character is chased into a river by a woman wielding a carving knife and then a shotgun, after which he loses his family, gets lost and ends up homeless and starving in a sewer.

Cinderella took me by surprise, but it turns out a jolly set piece of a cat – with a broad, toothy, menacing grin – chasing a mouse – with an adorable twitchy nose, wearing a jaunty hat – is actually very distressing to a small boy. So Cinderella had to be switched off as well.

I was a little worried about Finding Nemo, to be honest. It starts with a massive great big shark eating the main character’s wife and all but one of his children, after which it goes on a roller coaster ride of separation, misunderstandings and mortal peril until finally, in the very last five minutes, you get your sugar-coated Disney ending and everything is okay. Mostly, my son doesn’t last past those first few heart-stopping minutes.

But he had once seen all of Finding Nemo – admittedly he was ill and drugged up to his eyeballs at the time – and had apparently been left with quite a positive feeling about it. Possibly because he had got to the end and realised all turned out okay. Whatever the reason, he had remembered the film as “Lost Fish” and I thought we’d risk it and I would just make sure I was to hand to comfort him and put things in perspective where necessary.

And the Girl? Over Christmas, when the Boy had been backing away from the television, terrified yet unable to unglue his eyes from the screen while watching the Gruffalo, she was calmly sitting on the sofa watching the story unfold, munching on a bread stick.

“Ah, she’s fearless,” we said to each other, with not a little pride. And that was what we continued to think, watching her try to scale climbing frames and slides meant for much older children, hurling herself through life, running away from us on tiny shoes adorned with strawberries. The Girl is a ninja badass. I didn’t even consider her feelings in my impromptu film night idea.

Finding Nemo was going really well I thought, and I was even able to retreat quietly into the kitchen to cook dinner. Then I heard a familiar whimper of fear. We were now in the midnight zone and Dory and Marlin were being chased by the angler fish.

But it wasn’t the Boy who came running into the kitchen. It was the Girl, padding on her little feet, reaching for me in distress, expressing with her limited vocabulary what the matter was: “Fish!”

And I realised that maybe it wasn’t that she was fearless. Maybe around Christmas time she was still too young, to understand context, to pick up on the implications, the scary music, what those massive teeth might mean, that the little fish she liked were screaming because they were scared of being eaten. And now, three months and a vocabulary explosion later, she had discovered fear.

So I did what any self-respecting parent would do.

I gave her a cuddle, then put her back on the sofa and wrote a poem about it.


Enter the World

Your world was safe, cocooned, defined
It was out and underlined
My arms your home
My hair your own
Image sound the world awash with colours friendly noises hugs and hair

You stood up, stepped and turned away
Charged into a world of play
A joke, a game,
You learned your name
Detach break free you ran off tugging me along by painful strands of hair

But with the wonder also crept in fears
New awareness came with tears
New lines to cross
With joy comes loss
Vast scenes and spaces gripping terror of a world without the comfort of my hair

Still I am always there
When dangers send you crying
you come flying to me cooking up some dish
you wail of “sad” and mourn for “fish”
unnamed undefined yet fear of dying
brings you crying hand still reaching
screeching for the soothing comfort
of my hair.

(c) Judith Kingston, 2014


I read this poem at the Virtual Open Mic Night on 25 March 2014 – watch it here!


Prose for Thought

CBeebies – a guide for the uninitiated

The time has come to talk about CBeebies. We’ve been through a lot together, CBeebies and I. It has seen me through early starts, bedtime routines, sickness and a loft conversion, when for two long months there was only one inhabitable room in the house. Thankfully it was the one with the TV in it. CBeebies was there for me when I was pregnant and too tired to entertain my toddler; when I needed him to stay in one place for 15 minutes so I could settle the baby or have a quick shower; when he wouldn’t nap but needed some downtime; when needed some downtime – the list goes on.

I think I may have seen almost every show at least once. Most of them are great: they’re fun, educational and pleasantly short. My son learned to count with the Numtums, started recognising letters courtesy of the Alphablocks and learned to draw zig-zag lines from watching Get Squiggling.

If you are a fairly new parent and your child is still a bit too young for kids’ TV (seriously? Are they ever too young? Are they ever young enough for us to be watching the news or Buffy the Vampire Slayer while they’re in the room? That is perhaps a different discussion) then I present to you:

A comprehensive beginner’s guide to CBeebies

Good for transfixing tiny people

This says it all.

This says it all.

Baby Jake
You really need to be two years old or high to appreciate this trip fest. This slightly scary looking cut out animated baby goes on magical adventures (read: drug-induced flights of fancy) with various bizarre animal companions, the most disturbing being Nibbles the Rabbit, who claps his ears together and laughs like a cross between Goofy and a drag queen. However, my eleven month old daughter beams when it comes on and is frozen to the spot until it is over. Perhaps besides drugs, it was made with subliminal messages coded into single frames that are transmitting some kind of ninja killer robot skills to my daughter. We will find out exactly what as soon as I accidentally speak the trigger word, I’m sure.

Good for bedtime

In The Night Garden
This program is designed to appeal to babies and toddlers and, basically, send them to sleep. It does this by going on for half an hour (!) and nothing much happening in that time. The basic plot of each episode is: everyone says their names a lot. They run around the garden till bedtime. Derek Jacobi tells the whole story again, this time with illustrations. Igglepiggle is the last to go to bed.

Abney and Teal
The makers of In the Night Garden thought they’d have another pass at bedtime TV and make it shorter with more of a plot. Although still quite random, Abney and Teal appeals to me as it is a fantasy about who might live on a little island in a lake in a park. As a child I used to row to just such an island in the nearby canal and have picnics there. I wouldn’t have been surprised to meet turnip-shaped Neep (who does like to say his name a lot, In the NIght Garden-style) or bubble-blowing walrus Bop. But my favourite character has to be Toby Dog with his accordion, who has a special song for every occasion – except it is always exactly the same song.

Good for a laugh (for the adults)

Nuzzle and Scratch
I have been watching this one since the Boy was very small. I think he still doesn’t get it, but really I watch it for me. I think the show’s essential awesomeness is summed up by this line, which recurs in every episode, just with a different costume each time: “Ah well, two alpacas dressed as town criers, off to buy sponge fingers… What could possibly go wrong?”

Peppa Pig
Okay, you got me. I snuck Peppa in even though she is not on CBeebies (you can catch her on Channel 5’s Milkshake every morning several times), but she is just such good value I couldn’t leave her out. These five minute stories about bossy, hyper-confident Peppa are fun for kids, but there is so much to amuse adults as well. In one of my favourite episodes, Peppa and George cheer delightedly when they have to stop for roadworks once again on a car journey, as it means they can watch Mr Bull and his big machines at work. The voice over says: “Peppa and George love it when Mr Bull digs up the road.” The image zooms out to reveal a long line of cars, variously beeping their horns, waiting behind them in a massive tail back. Voice over continues: “Everyone loves it when Mr Bull digs up the road.”

Good for learning stuff


Numtum 1 is on the decks

I have said plenty about the Numberjacks on this blog, so I thought today I’d highlight its younger brother, the Numtums. This one is for beginners: the Numtums are cute little furry creatures with numbers on their tummies (aha!). Each five minute episode features one number and looks at it from various angles: how the number is written, various arrangements of that number of objects, how you count up to it and where it fits in to the number line. All this passes by purely visually without much comment. This program started my son’s number obsession and at 20 months he would want to watch it over and over, especially number EIIIIIIGHT!!!

Good for when they’re a bit older

Charlie and Lola
I love Charlie and Lola. My son has only just started to understand it, as it is very story driven, as well as being visually inventive and beautiful. Each episode begins with Charlie telling us: “I have this little sister Lola. She is small and very funny…” Lola goes on to demonstrate in each episode exactly how small and adorably funny she can be. She interprets the world in her own marvellous way, reinvents language and is generally delightfully imaginative. Charlie, meanwhile, seems to do most of the childcare. Just adding in “Mum says” to your parenting might fool social services, Charlie, but it doesn’t fool us. We know you two are alone in that house together. What happened, Charlie? Did your parents just leave one day and never come back? Anyway, when you feel able to talk about it drop us a line.

Good for winding you up and making you shout at the TV

Everything’s Rosie

Grrrrr. I’m getting annoyed already and I haven’t even started writing this bit yet. Everything’s Rosie used to be a staple of our CBeebies watching in the early morning. At first I quite enjoyed it. It was colourful and joyful, there were people but also talking animals and trees, it was fine, it was mellow. So Rosie had ribbons instead of hair – I could forgive that, maybe it wasn’t her choice. But slowly, it started to make me feel claustrophobic and even a bit sad. Then it made me angry. The characters live in a playground amid green rolling hills. They have picnics with smoothies and sandwiches and muffins. They invent a postal service and put on shows and play hospital. Slowly, the questions crowded in:

Where does the food come from? Is there a supermarket?
Why isn’t there already a postal service? Do they ever get mail?
The three children are very young – why are they not in school?

Then the questions got bigger:

Where are their parents? They live completely on their own.
Where is the wider world? There are no shops, hospitals, bus stops, libraries, schools.
Where are all the other people?? No one comes in or goes out of this playground.

My annoyance peaked when Holly (who can’t be older than about 6) is sitting crying in one episode, dressed in a nurse’s uniform. When Rosie asks what is wrong, she says: “I can never be a real nurse!”

“NO, you can’t!” I shouted at the TV, to my toddler’s great surprise, “Because there is NO SCHOOL and NO UNIVERSITY and there are NO OTHER PEOPLE IN THE WORLD TO NURSE!”

When I’d calmed down a bit I decided I couldn’t do it any longer. Everything’s Rosie was coming off the viewing schedule. We switched over to some pre-recorded Peppa Pig instead. Five minutes with Daddy Pig made me feel much better.

“Daddy, what do you do?”
“That’s a little hard to explain, Peppa. I take large numbers, transmute them, and calculate their load-bearing tangents.”


Things I have done to avoid watching the Numberjacks

The Toddler is obsessed with the Numberjacks. No longer do I get a “Hello Mummy! Nice-a see you!” in the morning. Now it’s “Ah, Mummy. Nummajacks onna way?” All day long he follows me around begging to see our recorded episodes again and again and again. There are only so many times that you can – or should – watch the same four episodes of anything. Sadly, he is in that phase of development where he truly believes that if you just keep asking the same question over and over again, eventually you will get the reply you were hoping for.

Not wanting to relinquish all parental control and have my Toddler sit in front of the TV learning about cylinders all the live long day, I have tried everything I could think of to prise him away. These are all the things I have done to avoid watching the Numberjacks:

1. Re-enact Numberjacks episodes.
This has been quite effective. We have made numbers out of playdough, and the Toddler has gleefully danced them all around the house, ‘looking-a seven, looking-a seven, found a seven!’ Sadly, he has played with them so much that the playdough is going dry and they are starting to crack and fall apart. Every few minutes now he returns to me with a squished handful of playdough: “Mummy, want a three. Make a three Mummy.” It is getting harder and harder to resurrect the numbers, they now crumble in my hand. The result is a very sad Toddler, shrieking “want a threeeeeeee!”

Number 6 supervises a craft activity

Number 6 supervises a craft activity

So I drew him all the Numberjacks on paper. Then we spent quite a bit of time making a house for the Numberjacks in an empty box: gluing on bits of wrapping paper, colouring the inside with felt tips, sticking on glittery number stickers, gluing a picture of a DFS sofa on the inside and then sticking numbers on the sofa. Then we stuck all the paper Numberjacks onto squares of cardboard for durability. This is now a favourite toy and can distract him from the TV for a good fifteen minutes at a time.

Some of his re-enactments are not so great, however, like when Spooky Spoon suddenly turns up in the middle of dinner and there is no longer any eating, just a flying spoon. Sigh.

2. Playing with magnetic numbers.
He hasn’t been in the mood for sticking them on the fridge, but he has spent a happy half hour resting the appropriate magnetic numbers on the cover of his big number book. We have also put them in toy cars and raced them around, and made a miniature ballpool for cuddly toys out of all the magnetic numbers together.

3. Playing Numberjack games on the CBeebies website
This is not my favourite distraction technique, as it means I can’t then use my laptop at all, as he will see it and want to play games instead. But he has in fact learned to use a mouse pad by playing Numberjack games in the space of about twenty minutes.

4. High energy games
While suggestions of nice quiet games are all rejected when he has Numberjacks on the brain – “No, not Duplo. Not Happyland. Not cars. Not drawing.” – running, chasing, racing, football in the garden and dancing are always popular. The trick is not to ask. Just start doing it and he will join in, laughing gleefully. It’s just very tiring for weary parents…

5. A taste of his own medicine
The only time I have managed to get him to actively agree to playing instead of watching the fateful show was when I got incredibly fed up and resorted to acting like, well, a toddler. I threw myself onto the sofa and whined: “I want to play! I want to play!” Requests for Numberjacks stopped instantly. The Toddler rested a very grown up hand on my back and said: “Oh, okay Mummy.”

I had finally spoken to him in a language he understood. Sadly, as this is exactly the kind of behaviour I am trying to discourage in him I won’t be able to use this technique regularly.