Cartoons Are For Kids (Even If Most Adults Like Them, Too)

How long has it been since you watched cartoons? Well, if you have children or grandchildren, it was probably this morning. Believe it or not, many adults like to watch cartoons, with or without kids. Some people say cartoons are for kids, but others do not.

Cartoons are for kids because of the vibrant colors, zany animation, and kid-friendly plots designed to grab and keep their attention. However, adults often find cartoons enjoyable too. Because of this, creators commonly insert hidden adult themes like politics, religion, and relationships.

As a mom, grandmother, and retired teacher, I’ve learned to appreciate the effect cartoons have on kids. And also learned that cartoons can be enjoyed by both kids and adults alike. However, cartoons are for kids and plot themes are better left kid-friendly, rather than hiding adult innuendo within double meaning dialogue and illustrations.


Why People Say Cartoons Are For Kids

The earliest cartoons depicted kid-friendly topics like dinosaurs and kid-directed messages like ‘eat your veggies’.

It’s no surprise to parents, grandparents, teachers, or anyone in charge of kids that cartoons are kids’ prime selection for something to watch. But why is it that some people say cartoons are for kids?

People say cartoons are for kids because cartoons are designed especially to grab and hold kids’ attention. Kids are naturally attracted to the animation and vibrant colors of cartoons. Then, the quick-pace, simple story arc, kid-friendly language, and fun/funny characters hold kids’ attention.

A 1995 report from Ed.Gov stated that not only are cartoons generally for kids but questioned why some adults watch them anyway.

In this same study, it analyzed random episodes of the cartoon, Animaniacs, and found that “certain recurring themes within the programs were identified” such as an emphasis on academics, studying, and learning as well as pointing out the problems with ego, selfishness, and bad manners toward others.

The author urged further scholarly study on cartoons and how they may actually be used by educators and parents to promote desired behavior in children.

Cartoons are a natural vehicle for teaching children. They make learning fun. As a teacher, I often included cartoon clips anytime I could. Whether it was a SpongeBob SquarePants segment with Mr. Krabs to teach math or a clip from Scooby Doo to introduce a reading unit on mysteries, I knew I could hook and engage students via cartoons.

One way to build humor with your kids is to use it strategically through routines or regular activities. For instance, our Fun Jokes For Kids Coloring Book is a great tool for embedding humor through kid-friendly activity.

Today’s cartoons also frequently contain plot themes that connect with kids such as making or losing friends, bullying, growing up, fear, embarrassing situations, and family issues. Surprisingly, creators regularly include positive messages too.

These plots and messages target children, not adults.

Why Adults Like Cartoons For Kids

Adults can enjoy cartoons designed for kids because of the simple humor, innocent gags, and nostalgia they bring.

Cartoons are a big business for movie companies, toy makers, the game industry, and more; and not just because they attract kids and families. Many adults like cartoons, too and this market addition has actually caused some animators to target adults directly as well. What makes adults like cartoons for kids?

Many adults like cartoons for kids. Though kids cartoons are simplistic, adults often enjoy the nostalgia of being a kid when watching them. But not just that; animators commonly embed adult humor in cartoons, even cartoons for kids.

One 2008 report studied the connection between kid-intended cartoons and multiplayer online video games. This surge into the digital video game realm certainly grabbed the attention of teens and adults who make up the largest demographic in that media outlet.

Eric Smoodin of American University in Washington, D.C. published Animating Culture: Hollywood Cartoons From the Sound Era (available on Amazon) in 1993. In it, Smoodin addresses how cartoons, though originally designed for children, eventually represented the many facets and dynamics of culture, from politics to religion and more, which attracted the focus of adults.

This Popeye the Sailor Man cartoon t-shirt from Amazon is meant for adult males, not children.

Many adults like cartoons they grew up with such as The Flintstones, Scooby-Doo, He-Man and She-Ra, and The Smurfs. As adults deal with job and relationship stresses, they’ve found comfort in cartoons that remind them of their easy-going childhood days.

The popularity of older cartoons has even led to some big screen success too, with their movie versions aiming to capture both children’s patronage, as well as their parents’.

Because teenagers and adults have become avid cartoon watchers, more cartoons have started to be made just for the older crowd as well. Some of these, like South Park and Futurama, make no disguise of it either, with their TV-14 and TV-MA (mature) ratings. However, this can be problematic.

Children are attracted to South Park, Futurama, and other adult-targeted cartoons because at first glance, you can’t distinguish them from kid cartoons. As well, many parents (or grandparents, etc.) think that if it’s animated, they can just assume that it’s kid-appropriate, but that’s not always the case.

It’s prudent to use Common Sense Media, IMDb, or some other vetting system to check on any animated films or shows (cartoons) to make sure it’s for children BEFORE showing to children.

In addition, an entire sub-genre of cartoons is targeted for teens and adults, called Anime.

This stands for ‘animation’ and has come to be known as Japanese cartoons. It has specific stylized characters with spikey hair, large eyes, and flashy, skimpy clothing, as well as quite mature plots, making it certainly not intended for kids, though many children are enthralled by the illustrations once seen.
Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba is a popular Japanese manga series converted to anime which has definite adult themes like death and demons.

For more about humor media and kids, try these articles:

Why Are They Called Cartoons?

Cartoons are well-known all over the world, with SpongeBob SquarePants usually rated tops globally. But what is actually meant by cartoon and why are they called that?

The word cartoon has changed a lot. First derived from the Italian word cartone, a cartoon originally meant the paper with a drawing on it; then it evolved to mean the drawing itself and later became known as a humorous drawing like a comic strip. Today a cartoon refers to an animated movie.

According to Oldest.Org, the cartoon most often credited as the first ‘true’ cartoon was created in 1914 by American artist, Winsor McCay and is called Gertie the Dinosaur. It’s 12 minutes long with a full story arc.

Gertie the Dinosaur from 1914 is not the first animation which was actually in 1908, but is credited with being the first full animated movie or cartoon due to having the most commonly recognized cartoon characteristics.

Gertie is recognized for having all the common components of animation or a ‘cartoon’ with “registration marks, keyframes, tracing paper, animation loops, and the Mutoscope action viewer.”

What Do Kids Like In Cartoons?

Movies like The Lion King and Frozen have made billions of dollars worldwide, so it really should be no surprise that movie makers want to know what it is about cartoons that kids like in order to replicate that profit. So what is it about cartoons that appeals so much to kids?

Kids commonly prefer cartoons over other movie genres. They like the fast-paced plot, simple story arc, fun characters, and vibrant color scheme characteristic of cartoons. Most cartoons also have catchy phrases or songs as well as patterns or repetition that make them enjoyable to most kids.

For example, I’ve already mentioned that SpongeBob SquarePants is most often recognized as the favorite cartoon around the world. SpongeBob SquarePants is so popular because it has all of these cartoon characteristics kids like, such as a catchy theme song, quick story plots, lots of color, and funny characters.

There’s also a repetition to the SpongeBob episodes too: SpongeBob professes his love of Krabby patty burgers; Gary, his pet snail, meows like a cat; his best friend, starfish Patrick messes something up; Mr. Krabs, his boss, talks about money; and neighbor and co-worker Squidward is annoyed by SpongeBob.

Kids also like that cartoons have a fast pace and seem to bounce around, creating a sense of constant movement. However, the rapidity of cartoons and the quick change of scenery has led to some accusations of problems with children’s executive functioning and attention-span.

“Executive function is a set of cognitive skills that are needed for self-control and managing behaviors…self-control, working memory, and mental flexibility.”


Teachers, especially, complained (complain) that cartoons have impaired children’s ability to follow directions, take turns, listen to others, play well, and/or sustain attention past five minutes. As a teacher for almost two decades, I’ve heard my fair share of teacher complaints regarding cartoons.

One study looked into this according to Pediatrics from 2011. It found plausible influence of media in having both a positive and negative impact on children and urged being more mindful use of media with kids, including quantity and quality of programming.

Were Cartoons Originally Made For Adults?

Even adult-targeted cartoons get ‘the joke’ as evident in this compilation when they made fun of each other.

From The Simpsons to King of the Hill, today there are many popular cartoons designed with just adults in mind. So were cartoons made for adults in the beginning?

Though it may be surprising, original animated movies or cartoons often depicted adult themes and humor, including sexualized characters like Betty Boop. However, cartoons changed to a more kid-centered focus after motion picture and film guidelines were put into place in the 1930s.

Once tv and film producers and writers shifted focus to kids almost entirely, cartoons left behind many adult scenarios and characters and shifted to kid interests like talking animals or kid-centric messages like eating your vegetables.

The simple animations, colors, and flash made it a no brainer with parents willing to shell out big bucks for their children even when they wouldn’t for themselves.

However, the change wasn’t instantaneous or all-inclusive. Just take Popeye the Sailor Man, for example.

Popeye is a tattooed sailor who smokes a pipe and gets into fights over his girlfriend, Olive Oil. Yet, the positive message of eating nutritiously was also included with Popeye growing stronger every time he ate spinach, which was directed at kids to eat more veggies.

Mickey Mouse was first introduced in 1928 and it was enjoyed by both adults and kids. Yet, it’s certainly arguable that Mickey was more adult-minded. Mickey was flirtatious and a bit of a rascal, getting into troubles typical of older teens or young adults.

Then, there are the cartoons of the 40s and 50s to consider.

Bugs Bunny and friends often drank alcohol to the point of drunkenness; got into several fights; used weapons on each other as well as themselves (e.g. shooting themselves in the head); included the afterlife of heaven and hell; and depicted modern pop culture references like the famous ‘Rat Pack’ and World War 2.

These are decidedly more adult than child focused.

So, does this mean cartoons are not for kids? That cartoons, if originally for adults, are only for adults?

No, not at all! As explained already, the characteristics of animated movies make them ideal for children, not adults, which is why they’ve genuinely evolved into child entertainment!

Phineas and Ferb make most every ‘top kids cartoons’ list.

Kids like cartoons, but are cartoons actually recommended for kids? To be specific, what particular cartoons are beneficial for kids to watch?

There are some cartoons more beneficial for kids to watch than others, making them suitable recommendations. From Phineas and Ferb to Peppa the Pig, certain cartoons can help kids improve their cognitive learning and language skills, as well as teach them empathy and other important social skills.

Though cartoons like the aforementioned and beloved SpongeBob SquarePants are fun for kids to watch, they aren’t tops on most lists of recommendations. For one, kids will naturally gravitate to silly, colorful, funny cartoons like SpongeBob, so there’s no need to recommend them.

Recommending SpongeBob is like recommending candy; kids are gonna find it without a tip!

However, top cartoon recommendations by child specialists are going to look for something a bit deeper and richer. Cartoons with substance so to speak (though, SpongeBob is debatably quite deep at times!)

Recommended cartoons for kids are visually and audibly-catching in order to grab kids’ attention; yet they’ll also have a positive message, varied and diverse language, complete story arcs, possible archetypes or references to relevant topics, and more.

As a teacher, I often looked for cartoons to use in class that connected to history, science, or math, etc. For instance, I looked for cartoons that incorporated idioms and other figurative language examples I could use during language arts or cartoons that had examples to show fractions or probability to connect with math units I was teaching.

Teachers, and other child specialists, also like to recommend slower paced cartoons to teach children how to wait for a story. We know as educators that providing ‘wait time’ is a way for students to ponder the plot and think more in order to anticipate the conclusion. This helps children work on problem solving in a low-stakes manner.

Some Under-rated Cartoons I Recommend From a Teacher-Perspective:

  • The Magic School Bus
  • Scooby-Doo
  • StoryBots
  • Tom and Jerry
  • DuckTales
  • Hey Arnold!
  • Dragon Tales
  • Martha Speaks
  • Sagwa, the Chinese Siamese Cat
  • Wishbone (although this stars a live dog, it’s still worthy to recommend!)

The titles recommended above, although somewhat still popular, are less apt to grab kids’ attention without some prominent display. In full disclosure, I based my selections upon their slower pace, educational content, and emphasis on building language, academics, and social skills, but also know that their appealing visuals and stories will appeal to most kids once introduced.

The Punchline for Cartoons Are For Kids

If you’re a child of the 70s and 80s like me, you’ll probably know the Trix cereal commercial about a rabbit who kept trying to steal the Trix cereal from kids. It always ended with the rabbits failure and the cartoon kid saying, “Silly, Rabbilt! Trix are for kids!”

Well, that’s what I say about cartoons. “Silly, adults! Cartoons are for kids!”

It’s true that adults can enjoy cartoons made for kids, but the focus should not change. Cartoons should be created with an intention for kids’ enjoyment.

Creating adult cartoons is tricky. Although not wrong in theory, adult cartoons have adult themes and messages and should not be accessible to children, even though it’s natural for children to be interested.

Parents (and any others in charge of children) need to be cautious when selecting cartoons for their children to ensure that the selections are child-centered and appropriate.

For further reading about humor media and kids, I recommend these articles:

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