Who are these kids of the ’90s? How do they differ from children of other generations? ‘The Way Kids Are’ is a regular series of columns in which we invite readers to help us understand kids. Each column will begin by describing a recent experience with a child, followed by an analysis that will examine what this teaches us about children today. Submissions can be made by contacting editor Theresa Dillon by phone: 416-408-2300, fax: 416-408-0870 or e-mail: email@example.com.
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For two entertainingly exhausting days last month, I was given sole charge of my energetic eight-year-old nephew, Farlen. With my schedule filled with odd, indecipherable acronyms like MIP, MIPCOM and NATPE, I had been feeling negligent in my duties as an uncle and so had arranged this little visit. The plan was simple: for two days, I would teach him all the life lessons-and give him all the pizza and candy-that an uncle supposedly provides his nephews. Instead, he taught me all the life lessons and got me to eat all the pizza and candy.
Day One: It is my business to predict (or, more precisely, guess) what an eight-year-old boy or girl might want to watch for entertainment. In developing and evaluating children’s programming, I ask myself a basic question: What will kids want to watch over and over again? I decided to get my nephew into the process.
First, I showed him a sample reel of an animated show that creatively combined both 2-D and 3-D animation, sure that he would notice, as I did, how well done the character design and blending of styles were. Farlen watched carefully. The reel ended, and I asked, ‘What do you think?’ With none of the restraint that holds the tongues of us adults, he said, ‘Well, what happens to the guy flying the plane and the bird in the nest?’ When I asked him again about the look, he repeated the same questions about what story the show would tell. Would the plane keep flying off into the mountains to rescue the stranded animal? Would the plane have engine trouble and crash? Story, story and more story.
Here was Lesson No. 1: Sure, it’s great if it looks good, but you had better tell those kids a great story!
Day Two: We began the day with a trip to the local toy store. I was determined to give Farlen something I had always wanted on my birthday: permission to pick out anything in the store. One hour later, he held a large and complex construction truck and a small sponge-like football with a tail attached to its end. (In his journey around the toy store, he had whizzed past the video section like it didn’t even exist.)
Lesson No. 2: No matter how good the video, a kid will always prefer a toy to a movie.
Next came an afternoon matinee of the latest Disney live-action family release. As our lunch of French fries and burgers wore on, Farlen began to get itchy, concerned that if we attended this movie, he might not get a chance to go to the local pier, which just happens to have rides, carnival games and a huge video arcade. In my Solomonesque manner, I gave him the choice, assuming that no kid would miss a Disney movie and I would soon be happily resting my tired feet on a cinema chair. Moments later, we were headed for the pier.
Lesson No. 3: No movie or television show will ever replace the excitement of live thrills and chills.
At the pier, we learned that all the rides were closed for the fall, but the video arcade was loudly in operation. My nephew and I proceeded to play one air hockey, skee ball and virtual-reality game after another. What brought this eight-year-old the most glee, however, was a video game with a jet ski-like apparatus attached to the computer screen. Farlen climbed aboard and drove that thing through the simulated race like he owned the water. Watching, I recognized that my own motor skills had seriously declined since my eighth birthday.
Lesson No. 4: I was happy, he was happy, and neither one of us was in a movie theater or in front of a television.
When my nephew said goodbye, I knew I would miss his constant energy, curiosity, innocence and love of simple pleasures. As I threw that tiny sponge football to him for the 2,345th time, I realized that my job was harder than I thought. A child can be entertained by the simplest concept in the world. Finding, developing and broadcasting that concept, without robbing it of its simplicity, is our true challenge.
Rick Mischel, former head of acquisitions at LIVE Entertainment, is now president of The Mischel Company, a production/acquisitions/distribution company specializing in animation and feature film production, based in Los Angeles, California.