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?