Watching Throwback TV Together Helps Me Connect With My Tween

From The Wonder Years to My So-Called Life, old school TV offers a way to start fun (and critical) conversations with my kid. Here are some shows your family watch together, too.

A few years ago, when my daughter Kavya was about 10, I tried to show her a little piece of my soul.

See, I'm what you call Generation Catalano—that small group of Xennials (if you TikTok, you know) who grew up slightly obsessed with the short-lived but stellar mid-90s ABC drama My So-Called Life. The teen drama is a perfectly crafted single-season slice of life that captured my youth.

Like Angela Chase, I once tried to dye my hair red. (But my hair is super-dark, and teen me apparently had no concept of bleach, so I essentially dyed it the same shade of black it already was.) I, too, had a crush on unattainable rocker boys and quit random clubs in a pique of apathy. (Sorry Ms. Hollander.) I, too, had a nerdy Krakow-type whose affections I was perfectly oblivious to. In fact, the show and other teen dramas like it—Felicity, Freaks and Geeks, and even Dawson's Creek—informed so much of my childhood that I became a YA author, publishing books like Symptoms of a Heartbreak (a YA Doogie Howser, M.D.) and Tiny Pretty Things, now a Netflix original series itself. (But not one I let my kid watch. Yet.)

All of which is way too much to explain to an unsuspecting tween, of course. Turns out that Kavya was not quite ready for My So-Called Life's straightforward approach to hook ups, school shootings, and homeless teens just yet. But it did get me thinking about what else I could share with her.

So as we settled into the thick of the pandemic, looking for new ways to while away the endless hours, my kid and I dove headfirst into old school, throwback TV. It started when she became fixated on Disney+'s Girl Meets World—a modern take on the classic Boy Meets World, which was a staple of my youth. The spin-off series centers on Cory and Topanga's daughter—and Ben Savage and Danielle Fishel play the parents. It was only fitting, then, that she be properly introduced to the original, right?

And if she was going to watch that, then she had to watch the original The Wonder Years, starring Ben's big brother Fred Savage. We quickly consumed all six seasons of the '60s-set dramedy, pausing along the way to chat about critical historical moments like Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, and how they related to today. Despite its historical PoV, the show traces one kid's journey through teendom in a way that still feels relevant, capturing the angst of puberty, love and loss, first jobs and first kisses. From there, we obviously test drove the Wonder Years reboot on ABC now, but we've also done deep dives on Living Single (her current fave, even though it's not quite age-appropriate and she misses half the hook up humor), The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Blossom, and our most recent must-watch, Ugly Betty, which leads to some fun chats about my journey as a woman of color navigating the publishing world.

While Kavya doesn't get the appeal of some of the shows, she loves a lot of them, and watching together gives us a chance to connect that doesn't feel fraught with the current COVID concerns, home schooling, or the fact that we as a nation are still ignoring the perils of climate change. I can offer the context of my own experiences when plotlines bring up things like puberty, politics, loss and grief. We talk about what's changed (so much!) and a lot of things that haven't, like the racism and sexism that still color our everyday life. She's so much wiser already than I was at her age, but there's still a thing or two that she can learn from Mama's many years on the planet.

We still haven't gotten back to My So-Called Life, though. At 12, Kavya is not quite ready yet. But recently, she got her first zit. So maybe, just maybe, it's time to add it back to our watch list again.

If you're looking for some old school shows you can share with your kids and teens, here's a Kavya-approved short list to get you started.

Punky Brewster, on Peacock

Punky Brewster on NBC
NBC/Peacock

A classic kids show about an orphan with big spirit making her way in the world, Punky Brewster is sure to capture any spunky kid's affections—and the reboot starring original Punky actress Soleil Moon Frye will round out family viewing with an updated take.

Full House, on HBO Max

Full House on ABC
ABC

It feels corny to me now, but the kid loves the family dynamics of this throwback comedy about found family, sibling rivalries and revelries, and finding your place in the world. Plus, kids can follow the old cast's new antics as adults in Fuller House, now on Netflix.

Family Matters, on HBO Max

Urkel from Family Matters
ABC

Family Matters left an indelible mark on '90s culture as one of the few shows centering a middle class Black American family. The question is: Does your kid know who Urkel is? Once they do, they won't forget.

Blossom, on Hulu

Blossom starring Mayim Bialik on NBC
NBC

In the very first episode of Blossom, Mayim Bialik's precocious title teen, the lone girl in a house full of boys, dreams the Claire Huxtable is the perfect mom who bakes a giant cake to explain what happens when you get your period. They just don't make TV like that anymore. The show follows Blossom's journey to finding herself as a smart kid who navigates first love, missing mom, and coping with her brother's addiction.

Sister, Sister, on Netflix

Sister Sister on The WB
Warner Bros.

In this family sis-com (sorry!), long lost twins Tia and Tamera Mowry discover each other after a mall run-in and move in together, connecting their single parents along the way to create a new version of family. Sister, Sister tackles topics like individuality, family expectations, and sibling dynamics with lots of laughs. If your tween falls for the Mowry sisters like mine did, check out their twin witches movies, Twitches and Twitches, Too.

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, on HBO Max

The Fresh Prince on NBC
NBC

Now, this is a story all about how…. Will Smith might be an Oscar-winner with credits like Ali and King Richard under his belt now, but millions will always remember him as the beloved Fresh Prince, a fish-out-of-water teen rapper from West Philly who lands in the wilds of Bel-Air, navigating class, race, and his posh cousins' antics with a wry stance. Sure to spawn a fun family activity: Learning the Carlton.

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