Race and Thomas the Tank Engine

Trains, trains and more trains. The Island of Sodor exploded on my counter

Like many little boys, Daniel loves Thomas and the 48 billion other trains, cranes and vehicles living on the Island of Sodor that I cannot identify because I lack a Y chromosome.  In our house, it’s all-Thomas, all the time with the preferred movies and TV shows being Thomas ones and the train table as well as the kitchen table, our pseudo train table, in heavy use.

I mostly think that Thomas and his cronies are decent role models for Daniel although I haven’t liked the influence of “bishing” and “bashing” on Daniel’s behavior, something I mused about in my review of NurtureShock.  I tell him he’s a little boy, and he insists he’s a train.  OK?

However, when you really pay attention to one of the Thomas movies or episodes, it’s clear there is some disturbing or at least questionable stuff going on in the Island of Sodor.  Others have written about various issues better than I can here, here and here.

I tend to err on the side of thinking a carrot is a carrot and rolling my eyes at over-analysis, but I didn’t expect to have to address racial issues with Daniel based on what he observed on the Island of Sodor. Really.

While Daniel loves Thomas, Percy, Gordon and the rest (as I type this, he has his stuffed Percy in a death grip in bed), he also loves Diesel.  Diesel is a diesel engine (duh) while Thomas and his pals are steam engines. Diesel is also kind of a jerk who is determined to get Thomas, the uber-useful engine, in trouble with Sir Topham Hatt. But Daniel LOVES Diesel. Loves him.  To the point that when he asks me to make up stories, he wants Diesel to be the main character.  He even wants to be called Diesel now (a few weeks ago, he wanted to be called “Hiro,” so I guess this is progress?).

So imagine my surprise when Daniel started saying things like, “Diesel engines are dirty” and “Steamies are better.”  WTF?  Seriously?  I’m going to have to address racism on the Island of Sodor?  I was appalled because while he adored Diesel, he said nasty things about the diesel engines as compared to the steam engines.   I replied quickly that Diesel is not dirty and that while he uses different fuel, he is just as useful as the steam engines. Different does not equal bad.

I couldn’t deny his interpretation, though.  A cursory watching of the movies and TV episodes makes it clear that there is, um, ethnic tension between the steam engines and diesel engines and that the steam engines, meant to be the good guys, are better than the stinky, oily, trouble-making diesel engines.

Daniel is THREE and he absorbed this message.  I know that an older, more sophisticated audience (OK, maybe the parents) could understand that the movies and shows are trying to set up conflict, but the lesson a 3-year-old absorbs is that diesel engines are not good.  They are bad. Wow.

I think this issue is on my mind because I read NurtureShock.  I mentioned in my review that I’ve seen Daniel imitate some aggressive behavior based on the movies, but now I’m thinking about the chapter on race and when is the best time to talk about it with your children.

Despite our instinct (perhaps preference) to talk about race with our children when they are old enough (in our opinion) to understand differences and discuss it with us – if we discuss it at all -it turns out that it is much better and effective to talk it about as early and as directly as possible because by the time we feel ready to address any racial issues with our children, it’s too late.  Their attitudes have been formed by their environment and the lack of open discussion around differences.  We like to think that putting children in a multi-cultural environment is enough, but it isn’t because 1) a lot of the times, the message we send that “we’re all OK” is too vague for children and 2) children will self-segregate.  The takeaway from NurtureShock is that we must talk about differences – racial, gender, sexual, etc. – early and explicitly if we expect to impact and influence our children.  Honestly? That kind of discussion is uncomfortable as hell when I contemplate it, which is also why so many parents shy away from it.

Yet I’ll be damned if Daniel’s attitudes about racial differences are formed at the age of 3 by watching a British series.  It’s also important to me that he understand and appreciate gender and sexual differences.  Clearly Jimmy and I are going to have to put on our big boy and girl pants and start having these conversations with him sooner rather than later.

I grew up in the South and while I’ll hotly defend it to outsiders and insist that overt racism is a lot less prevalent than in other areas of the country because of desegregation, I know racist attitudes still exist.  I’ve heard them in my own extended family.  I know that I myself have issues of my own. However, I vow for us to do things differently with our son.  I want to impart to him our values, values that include supporting equality for all despite gender, racial or sexual identity.

Guess we better plan to have those discussions soon.

Or maybe I’m over-thinking a cartoon?  What do you think?


  1. I don’t think you’re over thinking a cartoon. Kids have that absorbant mind and really take in everything. I never knew this about Thomas, though. Since my little one is only 4 mo at the moment we haven’t got to trains yet but I’m sure it’s on the horizon.

  2. If you’d just gone Brio instead of Thomas you wouldn’t be having this problem 🙂 Don’t know where you’re from in the South but I have one parent born and raised in Mississippi, one from Tennessee, and I was born in Tennessee and mostly raised in TX. My parents live in Mississippi, that bastion of racial enlightenment, ha, now. So I feel your pain and admire your ideals. I do think, even if my boys had absorbed the goofy Thomas message, that they would not translate that to how we treat other humans. A LOT of kid stories bring the black is bad, white is good message. The bad guy wears the black cowboy hat and the good guy swoops in with his white hat glowing. Black in literature represents the dark abyss and white represents purity, etc. Hard to get away from. But we have total control over how we treat others live and in person. Good post!

    1. I agree with Louise that the message from Thomas won’t translate to how we treat other people.
      But, more importantly, I think that kids DO absorb what they see US do. I feel confident on that front. But I do worry some about what he hears from other people. Not necessarily family members, but at school.

  3. If the cartoon presents an opportunity to talk about different not being bad than I say do it. Who cares if that was the intent of the show or not, obviously Daniel is getting a message from it and you can use that message as a teachable moment.

    Also, that must be $200 worth of Thomas trains on your table! I can’t believe how expensive those things are. Isa just started watching a DVD I got for her of Thomas and I thought it might be fun to get her a train toy but when I saw the price I couldn’t bring myself to buy it. The Thomas people must be rolling in it!

  4. I think you are over thinking it, however you can always use it to talk about things. I think it’s more important for us as parents to have a multicultural friends and encourage our kids to do the same. Just my two cents. 🙂

  5. A bit of a late reply but wanted to contribute.

    Our son loves the trains as well. I and my wife noticed the same thing you did… I dont think you’re overthinking it. The diesel vs steamy topic probably made to be some sort of social commentary that is not meant to teach anything. The diesels are newer and changes the status quo. They represent anything that is new that anyone in a comfortable situation might be disconcerted with.

    As per Diesel’s attitude towards the trains, who knows if that’s because the steamies were mean to them in the first place? Who started it? As an aside, Diesel is my wife’s favourite character, she thinks he is the most interesting. My son doesn’t like diesel, but he likes paxton because he thinks paxton is a “nice diesel”.

    My wife is an early childhood educator and she thinks that most of the Thomas characters (except some, like Stephen and Sir Topham Hatt) are very close to how children behaves and thinks, and represent children more than adults. This is why they are such showoffs to each other, are totally insecure, and makes lots of mistakes. It also means it is up to us parents to discuss the show with them and about what they can learn from the story. Have you watched “Day of the Diesels” by the way? Would like to know what you think about that one.

    I like to interpret it that way myself anyway. Works for me 😀

  6. Pretty late to this conversation, but I also see other aspects of more “progressive” ideology in Thomas. In the movie, “Day of the Diesel’s” one of the messages is that if there was equity between Diesels and Steamies from the dominant power structure (Sir Toppham Hat), then Diesel’s would not have to revolt to take over the Steam Works. Also, in several stories, the message is that Diesel’s and Steamies have to set aside their differences to make progress. Also, in “Calling All Engines”, I think it is made clear that Thomas is being a total a**hole to the Diesels first. I think like any other story in the world, you can’t just let your kids watch without talking about what is happening and what the symbolism and the themes are.

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