Bob the Builder, Dora the Explorer, iCarly -- these are the characters our kids are growing up with, and the examples they set can make a big impression on kids' developing minds.
As parents, we want to steer our kids toward the best possible role models -- the folks who might not always be perfect but who are thoughtful, kind, and maybe even a little inspirational. And, usually, we want to guide kids away from the worst role models -- the ones who can be cruel, shallow, and rude.
Luckily, there's a lot of good stuff out there if you know what to look for. We've picked some of our favorites below. Complement these TV role models with real-life people who make a personal impact on your kids, and point out the qualities you want your children to emulate.
- Manny, Handy Manny (3+)
Why he's great: Manny is a model of generosity and community spirit. He's always willing to help out a friend or neighbor, and he helps negotiate conflicts between his talking tools. And though Manny is a family man, he teaches that families aren't always about blood relations but about those who care about you and encourage you to be your best.
What makes him extra-special: Not only does Manny model positive social behavior for impressionable preschoolers, but he gently sprinkles Spanish and cultural lessons into his daily life. Since preschoolers are sponges for language and just starting to learn about the world around them, this is a great, subtle introduction to diversity.
- Sid, Sid the Science Kid (3+)
Why he's great: Sid is such a curious little bundle of energy. And just like most preschoolers, he's got a serious case of the "whys." Why is the sky blue? Why do my feet grow? Why can't I eat cake for every meal? Not only does he figure out the answers to these questions, he engages his friends in his investigations.
What makes him extra-special: The age-appropriate science lessons embedded in Sid's discoveries support school readiness, which is great for the pre-K crowd. And Sid's curiosity is exactly the kind of enthusiasm about learning that we want to see in our kids.
Why they're great: Just like the original cast from the 1970s, the kids on The Electric Company are smart, enthusiastic, and hilarious. Kids range in ages, ethnic backgrounds, speaking styles, and interests, but they're all respectful and relatable, and they encourage kids to treat learning as tons of fun.
What makes them extra-special: The educational lessons the cast delivers are a great way to reach kids, and the cast members are all examples of kids who've worked hard to achieve their goals. And they look like they're having a great time doing something they love.
- Jane, Jane and the Dragon (6+)
Why she's great: Jane is smart, confident, and has big dreams. Growing up in medieval England as part of the royal court, she challenges the expectation that she'll be a lady in waiting and proves herself capable of becoming a knight. Her adventures are full of positive lessons about friendship, bravery, and patience.
What makes her extra-special: Giving kids examples of characters who defy stereotypes is a great way to keep their minds open and limit media influence on their budding worldview. Jane stands up for what she wants, even if it's not popular, and she proves that girls shouldn't be limited by expectation.
- Jessie, Jessie (7+)
Why she's great: As a nanny, Jessie always has the kids' best interests at heart. She's responsible and caring, and she even encourages the mom and dad on the show to be better parents. She's also not afraid to speak her mind when she disagrees with someone.
What makes her extra-special: Even though Jessie's life isn't the most realistic (this is a Disney comedy, after all), young kids won't mind a bit. Instead they'll see a thoroughly likeable character who stays optimistic as she navigates a new city and a new job, showing kids the value of maintaining a positive attitude in the face of a challenge.
Why he's great: Oliver has clear goals in both shows -- to get kids to eat healthier food and to break down stereotypes about American cuisine and culture. He doesn't shy away from the fight against the bureaucracy of the American school food system, which teaches kids to stand up for what they believe in, even if it's hard. And he moves outside his comfort zone with an open mind when traveling across the States. He's also funny, smart, energetic, and not afraid to show emotion.
What makes him extra-special: In the era of celebrity chefs, Oliver is a guy who's using his talents to make the world a better place. He's also a real person, with real talents, doing real work, which gives him an edge over fantasy characters.
- Zach Anner, Rollin' with Zach (10+)
Why he's great: Anner hosts a travel show in which he zips around the United States and tries out five different activities that each locale is famous for. The fact that he has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair doesn't usually slow him down -- and when it does, he shows how humor can help a person get through uncomfortable situations.
What makes him extra-special: There's very little representation of disabled folks on television, and Anner is a great example of someone who has a disability but isn't defined by it. It's not that his wheelchair doesn't get in the way of some of his activities, but those examples can open kids' mind to the challenges that disabled people face on a daily basis -- and help them build a little compassion, too.
Ellen DeGeneres, The Ellen DeGeneres Show (13+)
Why she's great: Ellen shows kids that being yourself is the most important thing. She's overcome discrimination and made it through some tough times to become one of the most popular, likeable, and funny talk show hosts on the air. And she takes on issues that are important to kids, like fighting bullies, all while making us laugh.
What makes her extra-special: When kids see Ellen, they see someone who's comfortable in her own skin. She might not fit into everyone's idea of the mainstream when it comes to her personal life or her clothing (you're not going to see her in high heels!), but she's a great example of someone who hasn't compromised herself to achieve success.
- Finn, Glee (13+)
Why he's great: So many of the characters on Glee have something to admire, but we like Finn because he's sporty guy who's not afraid to show his creative and emotional side. He's gone against popular opinion in order to pursue his creativity. And he's a respectful and caring boyfriend. He might not be the brightest kid in class, but his sincerity wins us over.
What makes him extra-special: Going against the grain is great messaging for teens who feel so much pressure to conform in their daily lives. Finn's a guy who can be physical and pal around with the guys but who's not afraid to express his feelings and step out of his comfort zone.
- Rory, Gilmore Girls (14+)
Why she's great: Rory is all grown up now, but viewers willing to peek back in time will find one of the most realistic, down-to-earth teen girls ever portrayed on television. She isn't perfect, but she has a good head and a good heart. Smart as can be, Rory reads for pleasure and excels in school. She looks and acts like a regular girl too -- not overly skinny or too made-up or hyper-dramatic. And she and her mom have a loving, respectful, and complex relationship -- which many teens can relate to.
What makes her extra-special: It's so hard for teen girls to find realistic role models on TV, and Rory is an excellent example of someone who seems like the perfect best friend -- someone you can talk to and trust, but also someone who's still figuring things out -- just like most teen girls.