"Do you want 'Velma Finds a Clue,' which is medium scary, or 'Shaggy and Scooby and the Creepy Footprints,' which is very, very scary?" asks my 4-1/2-year-old daughter, Ada.
Ada's been asking me this question, or one like it, six times a day for about two months now – just one sign of her current Scooby-Doo fixation.
She spends most of her waking hours telling, acting out, drawing, and thinking about stories that feature the show's char acters – Velma, Fred, Daphne, Shaggy, and of course, the dog, Scooby-Doo.
This is all a little embarrassing for a parent who's notorious in the neighborhood for his no-brands, no-TV policy.
"You don't have a TV in your house!" Four-year-old Ben from down the block was incredulous. His tone implied not just amazement ("How did you dupe your kids for so long?"), but also an accusation ("How could you deny them so much fun?").
It happened that my wife and I were thinking along the same lines. Our no-TV policy comes from not wanting our children exposed to advertising when young and because most children's programming strikes us as either inane or totally age-inappropriate. (My particular pet dislike is the fidgety Baby Einstein videos that never give you time to just look and wonder, but incessantly cut between images.)
Still, we don't want our kids to be completely out of the cultural loop. And besides, my wife and I both love movies and indulge in the occasional trashy TV show.
So when Ben invited Ada over to watch a Scooby-Doo video a couple of months ago, we accepted.
We watched two shows. Ada was hooked. Now our family is living with the consequences – and to my complete surprise, they are almost all entirely positive. Let's be clear, Scooby-Doo cartoons are not Shakespeare. Pretty much the same thing happens every show: An apparently scary phenomenon is found by clever kids and their dog to be the work of a local adult with a grudge. With slight twists, the plots tend to work around well-worn horror tropes – a wax museum, a vampire, an undersea monster, etc.
But from a 4-year-old's perspective, that's great. You know what's coming. Even better, you know that, although things may get scary, everything will be all right in the end.
Indeed, the gang's unremitting revelation of apparently paranormal phenomena as the work of a few flawed humans offers a wonderfully reassuring way for a young child to encounter, process, and then overcome her fears.
That Fred, Shaggy, Velma, and Daphne are young detectives and logically follow clues to solve a mystery is also a great demonstration of rationality in action. It's also a way to draw a young child into science.
We're already getting mileage from this by inviting Ada to suggest the causes of whatever mystery she comes across. Before, we might have simply told her why something was the case.
Then there's the social side of Scooby. For the past two months, our usually shy daughter has taken to asking everyone she meets to name his or her favorite Scooby character.
Nearly everyone has an answer (with Scooby himself being the overwhelming favorite), and now she has an instant way to connect with people.
Ada's favorite character is Velma, the smart one in glasses. This delights her nerdy parents, who willingly indulge her by joining her in Velma role-play. I usually get to be Shaggy, her mom is the glamorous Daphne, and little brother Michael gets to be Fred.
I don't think Ada's seen more than six episodes of Scooby Doo so far. A little goes a long way for a child new to TV.
But if one of our fears of TV was that it shuts down a child's imaginative life, the opposite has been the case so far. Along with the role-playing, Ada's been telling endless Scooby-Doo stories by herself, first with cut-out figures she made, and then with a set of plastic Scooby people we bought for her.
There's another vow broken – the one about shielding our kids from branded entertainment and its attendant spinoffs.
But Ada's Scooby friends (as we call them) have a life far beyond the story lines of the few shows she's seen. Their ages and relations constantly change. Fred is often a father figure, Shaggy a teen, and Velma a child (right now she's 3-1/2).
I like that the girls in Scooby-Doo are not patronized by the boys, and that they get to do everything the boys do (explore, scuba dive, think) – although I wish Fred would let the girls drive more.
I like that no one dies in Scooby-Doo. Although the stories are all about being scared, they are also remarkably nonviolent.
I have to say I'm a bit Scooby-Doo'd out by now. I wouldn't mind a change of imaginative scene, however creative Ada has been with it.
But I'll also miss Scooby and friends when they go.
We'll have one last hurrah at Halloween, where I've promised to be Shaggy and Ada was going to be Velma – until yesterday when she decided to be the glowing scuba monster from Episode 2.
I went to the local party store to check out decorations for the Scooby Halloween party we're planning. When I saw the array of weapons, blood-soaked skulls, instruments of torture, and other truly horrible things children are encouraged to let into their lives at this time of year, I thanked the Scooby friends once again.