Welcome to the Lucid Nightmare of Toddler YouTube

I’m a triangle, I’m a triangle, can you disembowel me please?

The other day, as I settled my two-year-old daughter into her seat on a cross-country Southwest flight, I caught an addendum to the crew’s usual seat-belt-on-and-don’t-congregate-by-the-shitter boilerplate. (Digression: I cannot believe we are still not allowed to wait on line for the john because of what some dipshit who doesn’t know how terrorism works wrote on WomensWallStreet.com in 2004.)

Anyway, the addendum was this: “All devices playing sound must be used with headphones, or have the volume turned off.” Yes, clearly. “…this includes children’s devices.” Uh-oh. Had they made that announcement specifically for my benefit — or, more accurately, for the benefit of my child, who gave herself the well-deserved nom de guerre Fluffy Trouble at fifteen months? For alas, Mademoiselle Trouble yanks those special (and expensive) kid-friendly ’phones off her melon immédiatement, and so on flights I relent and let her watch downloaded YouTube videos at a low volume that is drowned out by the jet noise. Because you know what definitely isn’t drowned out by the jet noise? The sound my kid makes when she gets irate in a small enclosed space full of impatient cramped fuckers.

You know what keeps her from getting irate? Her vids.

You may think that two-year-olds shouldn’t watch “vids.” You can kindly go fuck yourself. (Also, this smart medical doctor in the New York Times agrees with me!) Fact: Having a tiny, portable vid machine is the key to surviving long trips, and also: showers, teeth-brushing and uninterrupted toilet time; a long line anywhere; any restaurant where a two-year-old is welcome; the doctor’s waiting room, and, of course, anything involving the business end of a needle. Though of course you shouldn’t overdo it lest your progeny turn into a Gremlin, toddler videos are by and large a godsend.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the actual videos that toddlers see fit to watch — generally to the tune of three to four hundred times in a row—are the stuff of soul-rattling nightmares. Kids younger than three don’t have the stamina or cognitive readiness to sit through an entire showing of, say, Zootopia (I only know how that film ends because mine fell asleep). But you know what they do love? The thousands upon thousands of cheaply produced, badly-computer-animated, too-bright, song-based garbaggio clips that are free for the streaming, and which (despite being unable to drink a glass of milk without dumping it all over themselves, and then throwing a tantrum because their shorts got wet) they quickly learn how to identify and search for on YouTube themselves.

My daughter’s current list of faves is more terrifying than ever — and I have no idea how she found them.

“Wait,” you’re saying, “you mean like The Wiggles?” No, I do not mean like The Wiggles. The Wiggles are mostly live-action, for one, and they’re also a professionally-produced musical entertainment organization with two and a half decades of programming on an actual television who just happen to have a YouTube channel; their songs are well composed at worst and inspired at best, and if all a kid wants to do is watch “Toot Toot, Chugga Chugga, Big Red Car,” you need to count your ass lucky (or should I say Lachy) because that song rocks. You could do a lot worse than The Wiggles.

And this song, too, “The Wonder of Wiggle Town,” is fucking delightful. It’s got a goddamned wall of sound. I would love nothing more than for my own kid to want to watch this beguiling video on repeat. (Why yes, I do have a thing for Anthony the silver fox. Who doesn’t?) But no. My daughter tolerates The Wiggles if I place them in front of her face. But if she’s given the choice, she demands this:

She calls it Funny. “Wanna watch FUNNY?” No, little one, I do not, but I also need to eat something before I pass out, so here you go.

Now, on the bright side, this video teaches the words for father, mother, brother, sister and baby in Hindi, Mandarin and Arabic (clearly, dogs and monkeys speak in English). However, I also wonder what the lasting effect will be of a child staring into the dead eyes of these absently-swaying humanoids, puzzling as their mouths move in a generic EEE-O-EEE-O pattern that has no discernible bearing on the words being sung. And why do the dogs sing like they are holding my daughter for ransom? I don’t have any money, terrifying animated dogs.

You know what else toddlers love? Shapes. Now, it’s true that thanks to approximately ninety billion viewings of the above, my kid now knows what a nonagon is. But as if the Haunted Jazz Hands of the Drugged Shapes Chorus were not disquieting enough, this video is also the perfect showcase of the cheap kiddie vid conundrum. Cheap toddler video songs (and there is no question that they must have songs) either have to be public domain children’s standards (i.e. free to use), or they’re what you get here: originals that were clearly composed by an underfed bridge troll who got his hands on a piano.

I’m a triangle
I’m a triangle
I have three sides
like a corn chip
I’m a triangle
I’m a triangle
Can you find me

Just in my worst dreams. Also, thanks for reminding my kid what corn chips are because now that’s all she wants to eat. (Whole grain, right?)

Now, another good thing about screen time for babies is that the early language-acquisition years are a perfect time to encourage multilingualism, which helps their smartness smartify better or somesuch. I speak German fluently and my husband is a native Polish speaker, but neither of us has the intestinal fortitude to speak in our respective second languages for 16 hours a day whilst also “spotting” Evel Knievel Junior Junior’s latest couch-jumping antics and attempting to keep her from starving to death.

So that’s where the vids come in again. It turns out there are almost as many kiddie videos in German as there are in English—and, fortunately for my daughter’s aesthetic tastes, they’re just as insipid and cheaply made (guess that German quality doesn’t translate everywhere, burn). Fluffy Trouble’s fave is this compilation of Kinderlieder zum Mitsingen (KIN-dur-LEE-dur tsoom MITT-zing-un), which is German for “songs we don’t have to pay to use.”

And while I’ll be the first to admit that the rendition of “Backe, Backe Kuchen” at 4:53 is pretty rockin’, the out-of-sync mouth movements and mixing are even more jarring than in usual videos of this caliber. (I will do many things to keep my daughter placid, but those things do not include withstanding the pitch during “Guten Abend, Gute Nacht” at 38:23.)

And yet, as monstrous as all of these exemplars of two-year-old tastes may be, little compares to the Busy Beavers, whose mind-obliteratingly simplistic “songs, chants and lessons” about, say, colors, are to a developing toddler’s brain what 15 episodes of The L Word in a row are to mine. That is, I’d like to think my daughter knows that when she succumbs to the crude art, cutesy language and relentless interstitial advertising here, she is binging on a thing that is probably not good—and yet, she still cannot stop.

In the end, the net effect these vids have on my soul is a wash: What they take away in lucid-nightmarish production quality, they give back in fifteen-minute snippets of relative tranquility. And these minutes are particularly welcome on, say, airplanes, where, even though I have to commit the Teutonophile’s worst nightmare and break a rule, they save the sanity and eardrums of me, the flight crew, and (coincidentally) any fellow traveler, with kids or without, who dares have even a fleeting thought in my general direction about what I should or shouldn’t let my kid watch. And to these kind meddling souls, I dedicate the Brother Finger—whom I can now, thanks to my toddler’s precious vids, summon in four languages.