The moment I first became a believer in the power of Daniel Tiger happened when my daughter was 3. She was on a playdate at the park when I announced it was time to get ready to go home. Instead of melting into my lap and whimpering as she’d done in the past (goodbyes are so sad!), she paused, took a deep breath and belted out one of Daniel’s catchy jingles: “It’s almost time to stop so choose one more thing to do!” She then went down the slide for the final time, calmly walked over to me and sang, “That was fun but now it’s done.”
I stood there, stunned.
For those who haven’t lived with a preschooler recently, Daniel Tiger is the red-sweater-wearing, life-lesson-learning young star of Daniel Tiger’s Neighbourhood, an animated series inspired by Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood. The show, which tackles topics from potty training to picky eating, was created by Angela Santomero, who is also the brains behind popular children’s programs such as Blues Clues, Wishenpoof, Creative Galaxy and Super Why. Her new book, Radical Kindness: The Life Changing Power of Giving and Receiving, explores how acts of kindness—toward ourselves and others—can help us achieve a more fulfilled, happy, healthy and successful life. It’s something she practices at home with her family in New York City. Here, Santomero talks about how she parents.
Name: Angela Santomero Location: New York City Job: Chief creative officer of 9 Story Media, creator of preschool TV shows Family: Husband Greg, and daughters Hope (18) and Ella (15)
Tell us about your career. Did it happened as planned or were there surprises?
Always surprises! Though I did always know I wanted to walk in the footsteps of Fred Rogers — if that dream was even possible.
How did he inspire you?
When I was four years old, I looked forward every day to [watching his show]. As soon as my mother turned on that television set, I couldn’t take my eyes off that friendly, loving face. Something about the way he talked — so slowly, clearly and patiently — made me feel like he had all the time in the world for me. I lived in a bit of a chaotic, Italian-American household where everyone was passionately loud and always seemed to be rushing from one thing to another. But as I watched Mister Rogers walk through his door, hang up his coat, put on his sweater, and change his shoes, all the noise of the outside world seemed to disappear.
I realised how impactful media is on young children. I wanted to follow in Fred’s footsteps so I got a masters’ degree in child development from Teachers’ College, Columbia University, and set out to create a show that would speak to kids respectfully, challenge them academically, and see them, the way Mister Rogers saw me.
Take us through your morning routine. What are your best tricks for getting out the door?
Mornings are hard as sometimes I stay up late writing. When the girls leave for school, Greg and I watch a little bit of CBS This Morning and have our protein shakes. Sometimes we Peloton, or meditate or do simple yoga, but then it’s shower, out the door and on the train to work.
What are the gadgets, apps, charts or tools you rely on?
My iPhone, Mac computer and iPad. I need my Final Draft to write, my news and Vanity Fair articles, and my podcasts to keep me informed.
How much outside help do you get as a parent? Who or what can’t you live without?
We have a housekeeper who takes care of the house, laundry and preps meals for us. When the girls were little, we had a babysitter. Greg works from home so he did all the heavy lifting with the babies. There is no such thing as doing it all.
Have your kids inspired ideas for Daniel Tiger?
My girls have inspired so many of my scripts. The episodes about Baby Margaret in Daniel Tiger were almost an exact script of having my second daughter!
Have you used Daniel Tiger strategies on your kids?
I’ve tried out each strategy in one way or another with the girls. Once, when Ella was about 12, she was really angry about something. I look at her and recited the “mad” strategy: “When you feel so mad you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four ...” Before I could get the whole strategy out, she said, “Don’t Daniel Tiger me, mum!”
When your kids were growing up, what were your screen time guidelines?
The girls had an hour a day—only on weekends—when they were little. I knew which shows they were watching and we’d talk about them. I also followed my “Healthy Green Media Smoothie” example that I wrote about in my book Preschool Clues: A show should be educational (the greens!), entertaining (the fruit!) and interactive (the protein!). When a show is interactive, it could either mean in the Blue’s Clues way or in an engaging, inspiring and thought-provoking way.
How do you involve your kids in your work now?
They give me ideas, read scripts, give me notes, and watch animated leicas. I value their perspective and have always wanted to reflect them in my work.
How do you divide household/childcare responsibilities with your partner?
We are both responsible, as are the kids, for our home. We have learned to prioritise our stress levels and ask for help in the house when we need it.
Has becoming a parent changed the way you work?
I work more efficiently. I realised how much play and silliness really helps inspire me.
How do you decompress?
I love watching Netflix in my bed. I’m currently watching all the seasons starting with season 1 of New Girl.
What’s been your proudest moment as a parent?
Watching them grow and have their own opinions about the world and how to help it be a better place. I’m also proud when I hear how much they want to accomplish and achieve.
What moment are you least proud of?
When I’m tired and lose my cool.
What do you want your kid to learn from your example?
Now that they are teens, I share a lot about my struggles as well as my accomplishments. I want them to learn from it all.
What are your favourite funny/weird/special family rituals?
We play poker and love board games, and we started sitting in the dining room on Sundays for an Italian dinner so it’s more “special.”
Has anyone ever given you a piece of parenting advice that has really stuck with you?
You are the best parent when you don’t care what other parents think of you.
In your new book Radical Kindness, you write about how treating ourselves and others with warmth, empathy and respect can change our lives. How can parents use radical kindness during, say, a child’s tantrum?
Radical kindness can give you relief. You look at your child with empathetic eyes, realising how hard it is to be little and not in control of almost anything. A tantrum is a way for them to stop time and say “I need you!” When we look at our kids with empathy, we can also find some humour in the situation—we realise we have all been there! Oh, and the tantrums don’t stop when children are past the preschool age! They just look a little different.
What’s the hardest part about being a parent?
Not enough time in the day.
The one thing I would tell other parents who are juggling a career:
When home, put the phone away (when you can) because there will always be work to do—but the kids won’t always be little and want to hang out with you.