We felt all the feels watching David Attenborough’s latest episode in the BBC ‘Dynasties’ series, featuring groups of penguins mating, birthing and looking after their adorable newborns. And judging by Twitter, families sitting down to the 8pm show with their kids found the heartbreaking scenes – notably when one penguin chick got abandoned by its mother – quite hard to handle.
But for all the moments that made us sob, there were wonderful scenes of penguin symmetrical dancing and penguin chicks walking for the first time.
So, how do you navigate watching wildlife shows like these with your kids? It’s all about helping children understand what they are seeing on screen, says Leanne Manchester, who edits Wildlife Watch, Wildlife Trust’s national junior members magazine.
Parents will know their own children, Manchester says, so it’s worth taking the time to sit and talk with your kids before the programme starts, especially if they’re likely to find it difficult seeing scenes where animals are injured or die. “Explain that sometimes things are upsetting, but this is what happens in nature,” she adds.
After the show, parents can talk to their kids about what they liked and didn’t like in the programme. “Focus on the amazing things that they saw first,” says Manchester. “What made their jaws drop? What was the most fantastic new thing that they learned?”
Then, you can move on to the scenes children found hard to watch and allow them to express how they feel. In some scenarios – where a predator like a cheetah kills prey – explain this may be necessary for survival. The cheetah needs to eat and without successfully catching her prey, she (and possibly her cubs too) will not survive.
Sometimes the scenes may be difficult to watch because of human impact (for example, when plastics harm animals by strangling them or getting into their tummies). “This is a great opportunity to talk about how we can limit our impact on wildlife,” says Manchester. ”Maybe as a family you can pledge to reduce your plastic? Or only buy food with sustainable palm oil in?”
Sonul Badiani-Hamment of World Animal Protection says kids want to know how they can help – so let them know. “If it’s about climate change then you can talk to them about how eating less meat can help the environment,” she says.
“If it’s about waste in the oceans impacting wildlife then you can talk about cutting plastic out of your shopping. Get involved with an organisation taking a lead on these issues and get your kids involved too.”
Overall, Manchester believes it’s important to remember that children are often far more resilient than we give them credit for.
But, if they are finding a scene too upsetting, you might want to change the channel for a few minutes until that part of the programme is over. “If you do choose to do that it’s still worth taking the time to explain what’s happened to your child,” she says. “Learning about the natural world, with all its highs and its lows, is crucial for children to build their personal connection with wildlife.”