I took a trip to Delaware last week with my colleague Tone Thyne. We rode an Amtrak train to Wilmington and then got a taxi to the offices of KidsHealth, a new client of ours. They had invited us to come and meet with them on their own turf, inside the Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children. Our project with KidsHealth is to create a video that will be shown nationwide to preschoolers in the days after they learn that they have been diagnosed with cancer. To help us get a better understanding of this delicate topic, we were taken on a tour of their children’s cancer unit where we met with the doctors, nurses, and child life specialists who care for these amazing children, some of whom are just a few months old. I have been working in preschool TV for 25 years now, but I’ve never had an assignment as difficult as this one. Even working in Jerusalem on the Israeli-Palestinian version of Sesame Street was cake compared to making a video that will be seen by families during what is probably the worst week of their lives.
In preparation for writing the script, I’ve been reading up on the literature and watching the few videos that have already been produced on this heartbreaking subject. One of the really interesting things I’ve learned so far is that young children do not fear the same things that adults do when they learn they have cancer or any other serious illness. Unlike grown-ups, they are not afraid of getting sick or even of dying. These ideas are too abstract for most preschoolers. Rather, very young children fear that their illness will cause them to be separated from their parents and friends. They fear that they will be left alone. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, but it was for me, and I was once again reminded of how truly unique preschoolers are. Love is their top priority. Everything else, including life itself, must take a backseat. I have seen this before, but never so clearly or so powerfully.
It’s easy to forget that preschool shows play such an integral role in children’s lives. These days, a program is more likely to be made because it might sell a toy than because it might help a child. In many ways, our trip to Delaware was a much needed reminder for me that all children, the healthy ones and the sick ones, look to our shows for so much more than just entertainment. They use them to better understand their world. And this is an awesome responsibility for anyone who makes preschool TV.
This point was driven home for Tone and I at the hospital when we spoke with the mother of a little girl who had been successfully treated for brain cancer. She told us that her daughter hadn’t spoken for several weeks after her surgery (a temporary side-effect) but, when she did finally speak, the first thing that came out of her mouth was the Wonder Pets’ theme song. That’s why I make kids’ TV.