“Just Do It”

The only reason I’m writing this post about this show is because it’s a show my child is obsessed with right now, so I’ve watched the episode 41,392 times. It’s not because I think the whole show is horrible or that this example is particularly egregious — just a single example I happened to see of the ways that children might be othered or excluded for their neurodivergence.

There’s a show called Superkitties that my child really likes right now. It’s a preschool-age show, where four cats team up to “fight bad guys” (who usually have a decent reason for doing whatever “bad” thing they’re doing) and solve minor, preschool/kindergarten age social problems like “somebody isn’t sharing” or “somebody is being inconsiderate of others”. One of the main cats usually have the same problem as the “bad guy” so they show it being solved in a positive way and the negative way that the “bad guy” is solving it.

One episode in particular always jumps out at me. The main cat strongly doesn’t like touching sticky things. Meanwhile, the bad guy (a rat) is turning everything in the town into cheese with some kind of science contraption. The main cat is trying to avoid touching the cheese, because it’s too sticky and makes her skin crawl. The rat is turning everything into cheese because the only thing they are able to eat is cheese.

At the end of the episode, the cat’s friends are all stuck in the cheese and she has to touch it, even though it’s sticky, to retrieve the contraption and undo all the damage. She just “chooses” to touch the sticky cheese and then realizes it’s actually fine and wasn’t that bad. The rat protests because they want to eat all the cheese, and the cats suggest the rat should just eat something else. The rat “chooses” to just eat something else and again, realizes it’s fine and no big deal.

Alright, again, I’m not saying this is the worst thing ever in the world or it’s ruining everybody or whatever. I *am* saying that I could see an easy argument for someone sitting around in a room and thinking “hey, what moral do kids need to learn? Oh, I know, ‘just try new stuff, it’s not that bad!’” And even though I can see where they’re coming from, I don’t know that it’s actually that helpful.

I’m pretty sure that kids generally have the idea that their adults would like them to do the stuff that the adults have made it clear they would like them to do. And I’m pretty sure that when they don’t do it, it’s because they have an inner reason for it. That reason might be something super simple and easy to clear up that goes away in a quick conversation with a parent. Or it might be deeper and more emotionally rooted than that. Either way, I’m not sure who it helps to perpetuate the messaging that it’s a simple “behavior” or a simple “choice” to “just do” things that are really hard for some reason (and in this episode both things shown were literally sensory processing difficulties!)

How would I do it differently? Well, an easy fix could be that one of the characters can “just choose” to do the thing, while the other one can’t — since we’re all different and some of us can overcome small struggles and others of us would have a harder time. Maybe the cat has to find a different solution, or has to deal with touching sticky material but needs to wash off immediately. Maybe the rat can’t “just eat” something else but instead of being allowed to turn the whole city into cheese they teach them how to get milk from a cow and make cheese. Or how to turn trash into cheese and then it’s a message about recycling. Maybe one or the other of them does “just try it” and finds that even with all the will in the world, it’s actually still too hard for them to do it and they need help—not just to rest on willpower alone.

Since we all need help, not just our willpower alone. Especially small people who are literally 3 or 4 or 5 years old and don’t need added shame on top of the fact that it’s difficult to do things when you’re a little human being who hasn’t been here for very long yet.

[Image description: A screenshot from the show Superkitties that shows a cartoon rat with goggles, a colander on their head, a lab coat, pink lab gloves, and an atom on their belt, as well as a purple and pink octopus wearing goggles and a lab coat. Both are smiling and running on a wheel of cheese. End description.]

(But real talk, Otto the tiny nonspeaking octopus who hangs out with Lab Rat is the best character in the show, hands down)