When I’m watching TV or reading a book with my kids, I’ll sometimes ask my kids to judge a character’s decisions on “The Velma Scale.”
The scale, named after the “Scooby-Doo” cartoon character, ranks if a person’s choices are good or bad. It’s the unscientific way I get my children to think about stories and the choices we make.
It’s named after Velma because somebody has to be on top, and it’s definitely not Fred.
Let me give you an example of how this works: Mystery Incorporated breaks down near a dilapidated amusement park. Old Man Watkins explains that a ghoul is scaring away all his customers.
Fred suggests the team split up to search the park. Daphne agrees, as long as she isn’t stuck on Shaggy’s team. Shaggy and Scooby want a sandwich and a nap. Meanwhile, Velma encourages Mr. Watkins to rebrand the amusement park as a haunted house.
Now we pause to ask my kids which character is making the best choices? Naturally, it’s Velma. Shaggy and Scooby are a close second. Fred is always the worst… unless Scrappy-Doo shows up.
These rankings are subjective, so there’s some mushiness on who lands where. But the bottom of the scale is littered with superheroes who solve their problems with punching and Disney princesses who marry the first guy they meet.
Seriously, Ariel gets “plastic surgery” to impress a guy she doesn’t know. This is a sub-Fred level of decision-making. Meanwhile, Princess Anna crawls to the middle of the pack by marrying the second guy she meets.
The bottom of the scale gets especially crowded when you include some of the videos for kids on YouTube. Don’t get me wrong. There’s some entertaining stuff on there. I, for one, think “Booba” is the best thing to come out of Russia since Tolstoy. But Booba’s good at slapstick — not considering consequences.
Conversely, the scale thins out on top, because it’s more difficult to think of characters who reliably make good choices. That’s because good choices rarely make for good entertainment. But some characters survive in this rarified air.
For example, Chihiro from “Spirited Away” hits the trifecta of:
• Not taking food that isn’t hers.
• Leading with kindness and courage when placed in new situations.
• Not abandoning her parents when they’re magically transmogrified into pigs. (Yeah, if you’ve never seen it, “Spirited Away” takes some unexpected turns.)
For a more modern example: The ponies from “My Little Pony” usually make good choices, too — at least by the third act of any given episode.
More often, placing a character on the scale is thorny. It isn’t a linear ranking from “bad” to “good.” It’s a three-dimensional spectrum with lumps and twists. For example, Batman tries to help his community (good) by going out at night and punching people (bad.) He teaches kids (good) by having them fight dangerous felons (bad.)
Sometimes, my family spends more time arguing about a character’s ranking than we do watching the story, which is the whole point. (Rapunzel from “Tangled” and Branch from “Trolls” have inspired some intense debate.)
You see, it’s not about just letting my kids watch “good” characters making “good” choices. That would be dull. Life needs more than tap water, y’know?
But the scale teaches my kids to consider consequences.
It also forces me to engage when my kids watch the glow-screen.
It’s easy — necessary even — to let the TV or tablet sub in as a babysitter sometimes when we’re busy. But we should give our kids a framework to think about what they’re watching because the stories we consume are important. They inform our thoughts and behavior. Not to get all Buddhist about it, but The Dhammapada says, “Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think.” And I believe that.
So if we’re going to watch superpowered people, princesses and ponies make bad choices (which can be very entertaining), we should urge our kids to consider those choices (which can be enlightening).
For this, my family uses The Velma Scale. I’d be interested to know what yours does.
Because Scooby-Doo’s a lot of fun — a classic. But we don’t want our kids to act like a bunch of Freds, right?