In Defense of Caillou (and All Whiny, Clingy Toddlers Everywhere)

“A whiny, entitled, clingy little person [who will] lay waste to your household,” according to one critic.

“He makes adult childbearing women become infertile. He is probably the reason why kittens die,” says another.

One parent calls him an “inexplicably bald child with the worst voice in the history of mankind” with “a plan to ruin America.”

One of my blogger friends, Kristi from Finding Ninee, even made up her own lyrics based on the show’s theme song entitled, “I’m Just a Kid Who Sucks” (and who apparently has no nipples).

Who is the source of all this rage, hate, and frustration? Is it a traitor to our nation’s deepest secrets? Is he a criminal mastermind trapped in a child’s body? Is he a terrorist, a fatal contagion, or a source for passing on destructive morals?


Well, depending on whom you ask, he may be all of these things, but he’s better known as Caillou, that “kid who’s four” who each day grows some more.

Caillou: A Defense?

You see, I started off like all of you, not impressed at all by the show, and didn’t understand why my two year old son was riveted the second that it came on the screen. Overnight my son became obsessed with Caillou, his cat Gilbert, and all of Caillou’s friends. (In fact, nearly every stuffed animal in our house is now named Gilbert.) I just didn’t get it. The show seemed boring at best and grating, to put it kindly.

But then I read a review copy of one of the best parenting books that I’ve ever read (which is being published tomorrow, Feb. 18): “How Toddlers Thrive: What Parents Can Do Today for Children Ages 2-5 to Plant the Seeds of Lifelong Success by Dr. Tovah Klein, the Director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development. (Am I a bad mom of a toddler if the thought of working with toddlers all day, every day, for years makes me break out in hives?)

Understanding Toddlers (and Caillou)

I had so many insights about my son while reading this book. Not just an understanding of why my son’s toddlerhood is a source of joy and wonder but why any given day can also contain many cries of frustration and exhaustion (for both of us). And maybe I’m also starting to understand Caillou and why my son likes watching him so much.

Here’s Dr. Klein’s description of a toddler:

“They seem carefree and secure one minute, playing with confidence, and afraid of their own shadows the next, fiercely clinging to our leg. They want to stay glued to our sides, seemingly helpless and completely dependent one day, and then push us away in fierce independence the next, yelling, ‘I can do it myself!’ They act like big kids one moment, feeding and dressing themselves, being polite — and then are helpless babies the next… They are laughing and full of joy one moment, and whining and in a full meltdown the next because of a simple ‘no’.”

Does this mystifyingly paradoxical behavior sound familiar? If you’re the parent of a toddler, it sure is. And, also, if you’ve happened to endure an episode of Caillou, alongside your enthralled child. (Many of us would consider Caillou more of a “preschooler” rather than a toddler. However, according to Klein, the developmental tasks and patterns of toddlerdom are similar from age two to five.)

Maybe your kid and mine like Caillou so much because they see themselves and their perspective on the world.

What I took away from the book is that there is a reason for toddlers’ (such as Caillou)  irrational, self-centered, and rude behavior: their brains’ hard wiring. Their thinking is very different than adults’. Fundamentally, they are not miniature adults who rationalize and conceptualize the world the same way that we do. Not only are they inherently ego-centric without the capacity for the  rational, empathetic decision-making of adults, they also live in a “timeless” world with no adult conception of the consequences of time. This is why threats (based on consequences about what will happen outside of the present) — “If you don’t clean up your room, we won’t go to the zoo tomorrow” — rarely work with toddlers.

Toddlers Are Not Trying To Drive You Insane

Toddlers are not purposively manipulative, despite how their whininess, clinginess, and tantrums are perceived by adults. They are often overwhelmed little creatures who crave predictability, routine, and love for them to safe and less anxious.

The book doesn’t have a lot of one-size-fits-all solutions. Instead, I was left with a deep, research-based reassurance that my child’s seemingly inexplicable behavior is normal and even a sign that he is happy and well-adjusted. It’s hard mental work being a toddler. Their brains are literally exploding with new insights, connections, and challenges.

Yes, my son often seems like a whiny brat. But then in a snap he just wants his mommy’s snuggles. Yes, even putting on my son’s coat in the morning can feel like an endless battle. But then a few minutes later he beams at me when he’s puts on his own boots and declares, “I do it myself!” According to Klein, all of this — the struggles, the need for affection and independence, the fears — are not only normal but expected.

A lot of the criticisms about Caillou’s parents and their parenting style relate to why they don’t “crack down” on Caillou’s maddening behavior. But maybe those two mild-mannered Canadians are actually doing something right. Caillou’s parents are loving, patient, and calm. (Certainly more so than I am… And, yes, I know the theories that his parents are actually heavily medicated or drugged.) They’re providing for their son just what Dr. Klein has found from her research to be the most important key to healthy development: a safe, loving, and secure home base from which to explore the world. Toddlers don’t need “discipline” or “manners” because their minds don’t work that way yet. They learn by how we talk to them and how we act around them.

Switch Your Mindset About Toddlers

Dr. Klein asks parents to switch their perspectives when caring for their toddlers. Instead of judging their behavior from an adult perspective, try to interpret their reactions and feelings from a toddler point of view. In my home, for instance, this book has made me completely rethink our morning routine. Until I tried Klein’s techniques and reimagined our morning routine from my son’s perspective, the period of time from when we woke him up in his crib until he arrived at preschool was a nightmare: tantrums, crying, clinginess, defiance. I understand now how difficult and scary transitions can be for toddlers, especially when they involve separation from their primary caregivers. We now give him a lot more time, a lot more patience, and far more cuddles instead of chiding him for his slowness and fears. And it really works.

So let’s check back with Caillou and his family in 10 years. I predict that he’ll be doing just fine.

Let’s just hope that he grows some hair.

And if you have a toddler in your life — or will in the future — I urge you to pick up a copy of How Toddlers Thrive. (For all of you Sex and the City fanatics, the book includes a foreword by Carrie herself, Sarah Jessica Parker, who is a huge fan of Dr. Klein’s toddler philosophy.)

Have I changed your mind a little bit about Caillou? What questions do you have about your toddler’s behavior?

Enhanced by Zemanta

27 thoughts on “In Defense of Caillou (and All Whiny, Clingy Toddlers Everywhere)”

  1. I’ve never understood why people hate Caillou so much. Sure, he’s a little annoying, but aren’t most kids that aren’t yours? And aren’t most cartoons? And, it’s a good reminder about toddlers too. I have a two year old that fits your description to a T. 🙂

  2. I’ll admit that I’m a hater, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t understand or agree with Dr. Klein’s ideas. I’ll even say that our (parents) need to not hear another whiny voice in the room and our frustration at Caillou’s perpetual toddler-dom is just another point is the case that we frequently want our children to grow up too fast and don’t allow them just to BE toddlers enough.
    That being said, it still doesn’t mean that I have to watch it. If it comes on, and my toddler is into it, it can stay on (although I may leave the room) but I won’t seek out the show on the cable guide. And JFTR, none of my kids ever watched Barney or the Teletubbies (and probably several others) for much the same reasons–I just could NOT listen to them–at least until they learned how to use the remote themselves!

    1. Honestly, I don’t like ANY children’s television much. My least favorite show is Thomas the Train. Yuck. I usually leave the room as well.

  3. This is an interesting perspective! I have a two year old and I usually let him be as he is, because I know he is so overwhelmed by everything and just figuring out the world. I just didn’t expect this phase to last that long! Must get my hands on this book.

  4. I confess, I am not a Caillou fan, because, yes, the whining, but I can get why kids like him. Kind of a strange twist – usually shows feature perfect kids and goofball parents… maybe we’re attracted to this crazy world where the kids are annoying and whiny and it’s the parents who get it right????

    1. Caillou definitely has a couple of calm and collected parents. They are maybe a little too perfect, but it’s nice that they’re shown as responsive and fun.

  5. I love that you have done a post-modern critique of Calliou. Seriously. I’m not being at all sarcastic! I’ve never seen Calliou (not yet, anyway), but I’ve been so curious about the show after Kristi’s amazing song. I, myself, am partial to Pocoyo, but only in Italian. How’s that for picky?

    I will have to check out the book, too! On the list.

  6. Well, um, I guess you know how I feel about Caillou (and hopefully he DOES grow some hair) but now I’m rethinking why, exactly, I can’t stand him. I think a lot of it is his voice, and his brattiness. But you’re right, when I think of my son, he can definitely be bratty and whiney as well (but you know, I love him, so it’s less annoying than baldie is). I actually really love the idea of looking at the world through our children’s eyes though. I try to do so but haven’t necessarily been conscious about it. It also makes me realize that looking at life through my son’s eyes is exactly what I’ve been trying to articulate to my husband.
    I’ve been “on him” recently because he’s always trying to rationalize with our son. I think the way you put this is exactly what I need to say to him, and I thank you for that. Also, I’m totally getting this book. It really seems fascinating.
    Still not a lover of Caillou though 😉

    1. Yes! That’s exactly it. Toddlers don’t use the same internal logic system that we do. My husband does that too and is much stricter than I am. Mostly, I think toddlers just need limits and empathy. And don’t we all? 🙂 I wouldn’t classify myself as a Caillou lover either. No way! But I can see why kids respond to him.

  7. It is so, so difficult to be patient with my toddler on even the best of days. And we have steered clear of introducing him to Calliou (or my first son, for that matter) simply because of all the complaints we hear about him. But this really puts things in to perspective – especially the reminder not to try to reason or rationalize with a 2 year old.
    Thank you for such a thoughtful piece!

    1. I was REALLY hesitant about introducing Caillou too because I had heard a few horror stories. But then one day it was on PBS, and it was snowing and I just kept it on. My son immediately loved it. Thanks, Allison!

    1. Nothing! If you can deal with the whiny voice — and often I can’t — then the themes and plots of the show are actually quite sweet.

  8. I actually think about Caillou regularly ,which is sad. I hate him less this time, but I’m also less distressed by toddlerhood with my second daughter. Yes, his voice and his sister’s voice and maybe all the character’s voices are grating. Yes, he’s whiney. But I think that toddlers really relate to him, and I think the fact that he is “like them” is what makes him so captivating. And at the end of the day, the program that holds my daughter’s attention and makes her excited is a winner for me! 🙂

  9. So interesting! I have a seven year old who will still sneak in an episode of Calliou if she thinks no one is watching. And I am fascinated with the ideas in the is book. I have a tween right now and the comparisons between the toddler and the tween are pretty startling. Such big transition times…

  10. You know Jessica, I would be interested if you stepped back for a second and thought about how much what Dr Klein says is so much like the discipline and growth aspect of Attachment Parenting. So much focus is spent on the co-sleeping and baby wearing, but as you read more – the growing Attachment parented child sounds a lot like this book.
    Also I feel blessed that my son never liked Caillou, that way I don’t even have to wonder what side of the debate I’d be on 😉

  11. It’s funny. I was just thinking of the opposite of this in regards kids television. I was getting bored of all of the lessons. I was wondering why kids have to constantly be learning something valuable about life, and why they couldn’t just be. We haven’t ever watched Callilou. Maybe, we should start. I think it’s good for kids to feel like their experiences are validated.

    1. Rachel, I agree with you, kids do not have to constantly be learning something. That is to say, the “work” of kids is “play time.” When they are playing –with toys or a big old box, whatever they are playing at, their little brain neurons are firing. Unstructured time is so important (for kids and for parents)

  12. I agree with Rachel, kids do not have to constantly be “learning.” Actually, “work” of being a child is playtime. Unstructured playtime is so important, their brain neurons are firing whether they are playing with toys or a big old box.

  13. I am a former writer and story editor on Caillou. At first, I wasn’t a fan of the show, or the character. He did seem whiny. But I came to realize that the show was being written to model a real kid, exactly as laid out in this article. And while a lot of people complain about it, by far, more parents love it. In the 25 years of writing in Children’s Television, Caillou by far, was the one show that people responded positively to when they found out I worked on it. By far.

  14. I can take the show in small doses. I found that when my son watches too much of it he emulates the attitude of Calliou and although I am glad he is using language the way he asks for things I have to correct.

    In comparison he doesn’t whine if he watches Mickey Mouse Clubhouse or Sophia the First. I don’t know if this is just coincidence or if there is some correlation between the show and how the kids react.

    Calliou has some nice points, but the parents are a little too perfect, and everything moves very smoothly like it’s a utopian Canadian town lol. I just can’t. ?

    Reality check, kids shows are good in some things but can’t replace just being there. Keep doing your best moms and dads we will all get through this together!!! If we are aware of issues that’s half the battle solved, you don’t need a book to know you’re a good parent. Books help with advice when our kids make us scratch our heads but it’s up to us to apply it.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top