📺 Top 5 Family TV Shows
Good characters, engaging themes, and entertaining plots for the entire family
“Will Zuko redeem himself?” “Will Elena learn to forgive Estaban? “Is Mama P really all bad?” “Should She-ra carry the burden herself or ask for help?”
These are some of our dinner table questions as we anticipate what’s next in our chosen family TV show. We always try to have one show we watch together as a family, often after dinner on weeknights. We look for shows with high entertainment value to both kids and adults. Ones with interesting character development, plot twists, and cliffhangers that keep all of us engaged. Sure, I suppose there might be more educational or sanitized content out there - but in our family, we love a good story. Kids soak up the energy of parents, so finding shows that parents enjoy is good for everyone. It’s a bridge to chapter book reading, enables us to have deeper conversations, and is a way to have shared fun together.
Here are our five favorite shows - perfect for families with girls aged 4-12 - and are all something the entire family will enjoy.
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🧁 Just Add Magic
This is the only live-action show on our list and the first live-action we watched as a family. It straddles the line between being simple enough for kids to understand what’s happening yet still having multi-episode story arcs and ongoing antagonists.
Premise: Three friends are chosen to be custodians of a magic cookbook that combines regular cooking with a few choice magic ingredients so that eating the creations gives special abilities. Every episode has a new recipe and examines the repercussions of cooking it.
Why we liked it as grown-ups: The world-building was actually rather interesting and it was fun to build up a library of magical ingredients to joke with the kids about.
Why our kids liked it: This was probably the first time our kids watched a show and actually understood a multi-episode plot. The action/drama/conflict are just perfect for younger kids (Age 5 and up?) to understand and get hooked on.
What kids will learn: It could certainly inspire a love of cooking, and the characters are often confronted with the unintended consequences of their actions. Themes of friendship and fairness between the three protagonists are front and center.
Our Favorite Character: Mama P. Not easy to create a villain that’s also a source of knowledge for the protagonists. Selfish yet somehow charming.
Where to find it: Prime Video
⚔️She-ra and the Princesses of Power
A reboot of the 1980’s classic, this is a coming-of-age story where a strong female character discovers her abilities and her purpose - figuring out who is friend or foe and the burdens she needs to carry herself along the way. It’s also a fantastic world-building saga and has a cascading cast of characters (princesses!) with special abilities.
Premise: A world is engulfed in two sides of a war. Adora, born into the evil side of the conflict, ends up befriending heroes from the good side and discovers her unique role in the saga. It’s a progressive discovery of magical abilities and the ever-expanding scale of the conflict.
Why we liked it as grown-ups: Themes of friendship, misunderstood technology, and strong world-building would rival any adult science fiction.
Why our kids liked it: It injects the right amount of humor into stressful situations, and the abilities of the characters are cool.
What kids will learn: Friendships, gender norms, and relationships are all fluid and the show constantly reforms social expectations. Strong female leadership themes.
Favorite character: Seahawk! OK, maybe not the most multi-faceted of characters, but “Adventure!” (his tagline) was a meme in our house for a while. Charmingly clueless.
Where to find it: Netflix
🍓Waffles and Mochi
Michele Obama’s homage to good food and healthy eating - this is a teach-first, story-second show. It’s a surprising choice on our list given we normally choose good stories, but it held the attention of our kids and we as adults got to see celebrity chefs. The show for instance asks the question of whether a tomato is a fruit or vegetable. The show’s answer is both - it’s technically a fruit but it’s used in salads so its social context is vegetable. It’s a gentle introduction to broader conversations about how norms aren’t fixed and labeling can be culturally informed.
Premise: Waffles is a frozen waffle and Mochi is a frozen ice cream treat. They leave the freezer to explore a world of fresh foods and meet famous chefs from around the world - always reporting back to Michele at the end of the episode on what they learned.
Why we liked it as grown-ups: The learnings on food were novel enough that we learned something ourselves.
Why our kids liked it: It spoke to kids in just the right tone - not talking down, but also not over their heads - and had the right amount of pacing and whimsy to keep our kids tuned in.
What kids will learn: All about food and what it takes to create a good meal!
Favorite character: Michele, of course. She comes off as an authentic role model who can understand kids.
Where to find it: Netflix
🏰 Elena of Avalor
Sophia the First was the most popular TV show for girls aged 4-12 in the 2010’s and Elena is a Latina-inspired princess in her own spinoff after Elena just so happens to have been trapped in Sophia’s amulet. Clearly, this is Disney’s attempt to “land and expand” a current success and leverage the fastest growing demographic in the U.S. Despite the transparent corporate economics at work, the show rises above the other Disney-princess TV shows out there. The Latin American inspired music, plots, and characters add good depth, the show straddles the line between simple for kids to understand yet still explores important themes, and there are enough plot twists and magical aspects of her world to keep everyone entertained.
Premise: We follow Elena from the moment she emerges from Sophia’s amulet to take back her kingdom until she is old enough to be crowned queen.
Why we liked it as grown-ups: Fun world-building, complex enough plots.
Why our kids liked it: Typical Disney magic of just enough tension to make the magical abilities of the characters cool.
What kids will learn: The show explores themes of family, friendship, forgiveness. But it’s mostly just a good story.
Favorite character: Mateo - the self-conscious grandson of the royal wizard. Elena helps him discover his strengths.
Where to find it: Disney+
🌪️Avatar: The Last Airbender
This show is the one on our list here that is closest to being targeted to adults and indeed some of the themes, plots, politics, and peril are above the heads of our kids. Yet this is still the one show where our oldest kid has a poster of the show’s characters hanging up in her room and she was most excited for the series finale compared to any other show.
Premise: The world is aligned along the four elemental magical powers - Earth, Wind, Air, and Water - with one person, the Avatar, who can master all the elements and bring the world into balance. The Fire Nation has ruled with an iron fist for many years, after the disappearance of the previous Avatar, but a young boy emerges who, if he can master all 4 elements, might be able to take his claim to Avatar status and bring back peace.
Why we liked it as grown-ups: The show’s themes and world-building are very tightly done - it has almost all “types” of standard characters and the hero’s journey is followed well.
Why our kids liked it: I think our kids could relate to the nascent stage of development of the main character, who had a lot to learn. The magical elements were cool.
What the kids will learn: Mostly it’s just a good story, but it is a good excuse to have a solid conversation on the archetypical characters and story arcs present in a lot of fiction - from the hero’s journey, the redeemed villain, the wise teacher, and the jokester who provides comic relief.
Favorite character: Iroh. The wise, patient teacher who is playing the long game. A great mix of comic relief + foreshadowing foil.
Where to find it: Currently on Netflix, although when we watched it we subscribed to Nickoleon Plus to get it.
🏆 Honorable Mentions
Here are some shows that didn’t make our Top 5, but are worth watching.
🐲 Dragon Prince: If you like Avatar, you’ll like Dragon Prince. Didn’t make our list because the show is not complete yet. (Netflix)
🌪Lost in Oz: Female protagonist, a descent of Dorthy, accidentally transports herself to Oz, which has been transformed into a cosmopolitan city. There she meets a rag-tag crew of characters and must unlock the mystery of what’s going on. Season 1 is a solid progress-discovery who-dun-it, while Season 2 is a bit more typical fight-the-villains drama.
🦄 My Little Pony: Well-loved by our kids, but not enough meat to the show for it to hold the parents’ attention. (Netlfix)
👑 Sophia the First: Good Disney-princess fun, but feels like a trial run for the more sophisticated Elena where they worked out the formula that works better. (Disney+)
🌋 Floor is Lava: Reality TV show where the participants must navigate a room partially filled with lava. They really don’t take themselves too seriously, which is refreshing. Obviously, the kids enjoy playing this game themselves. It’s a good show - can’t wait for Season 2 - but honestly of little redeeming quality and doesn’t inspire any dinner table conversation. (Netflix)
🎭 PJ Masks: Definitely for younger kids (max aged 6?) and in one sense it’s just sorta your typical mindless TV. It deserves mention however for being one of the few shows that span the gender divide - it’s the primary show voted to watch by both boys and girls in our experience. (Netflix)
At the end of the day, TV can get a bad wrap sometimes. Some families might avoid the formulaic nature of the medium and how it enables the brain to be turned off for mindless entertainment. And there is definitely kid’s TV that goes fully in that direction and some of the above picks get close to that line. But, like most things in parenting, a little bit of moderation helps. Having one show that we watch a couple times a week is the right balance for our family and unlocks the right conversations, the right exposure to media, and the shared love of storytelling. I also think our kids are learning to be more sophisticated consumers of stories and media by being able to recognize common themes and tricks that storytellers use. But more than anything, it’s permission to just have an enjoyable shared experience as a family. That’s OK too and hope these recs inspire some good watching! 👀