(This is part 4 of a mini-series/long essay I’m doing on Codename Kids Next Door. You can find the 3rd part here.)
In case you’re just tuning in, I’ve been writing about how a goofy cartoon show about kid spies has some pretty profound things to say about life, and this time I’ll be talking about how it, in its own unique way, reminds me of a lesson I so easily forget: the importance of keeping others in my life, as expressed by the two following virtues.
Selflessness might not be a virtue we instinctively associate with childhood, given many of our own bratty tendencies when we were kids, but believe me when I this is a value that the Kids Next Door’s existence hinges upon, every one of its members desiring to do good for the sake of other kids. Numbuh 1 and his friends think that being a kid is awesome, so awesome that they believe every kid deserves a chance to enjoy their childhood as much as they do. It’s like a delicious pizza that’s so good it needs to be shared, making it taste all the more delicious to those who do share it. That’s great, but the truly impressive part comes when they still choose to share the good even when times aren’t good to them.
In first season finale, Numbuh’s 1 through 5 face their first crushing defeat at the hands of their nemeses, the Delightful Children from Down the Lane, leaving their bodies battered and their treehouse destroyed. Worst of all, the DCFDTL’s age-altering device has turned Nigel (Numbuh 1) into a crotchety, middle-aged man. Grieved by the sudden loss of his childhood, Nigel leaves the KND and his team behind because, of course, it’s the Kids Next Door: no grown-ups allowed. Forced to get a job as an ice cream man that caters to adults only, he refuses to sell ice cream to even his friends when they come running, yelling at them as if they were playing on his lawn. He coldly says “when you’re an adult, you’ll learn that it’s every man for himself, and you’ll learn the hard way.” Despite Nigel’s appalling newfound selfishness, his team still loyally decides to storm the DCFDTL’s mansion to get the device to change him back. What’s more, Nigel eventually realizes the error of his ways and comes crashing to the rescue just when his team gets cornered, proving that he always puts his team first, even as a grumpy adult.
As the leader of the Kids Next Door’s Sector V, as well as the poster boy for all the KND stands for, Nigel has gained much experience in learning about and understanding selflessness, not only what it is but why it’s important. Sure, he’s selfless because he’s compassionate and it’s the right thing to do, but there’s still more to it.
It’s not just that Nigel wants to be selfless, but, as Operation Z.E.R.O shows, he needs to be selfless. At movie’s start, he’s his typical self: smooth, skilled, and alert. He’s like an adolescent James Bond, always ready to swoop in to save the day and look classy while doing so (and he prefers his chocolate milk shaken, not stirred). He believes his own hype too, judging by his bold declaration: “I am Kids Next Door.” As the movie goes on, Nigel eventually learns that no kid is an island. Not only do his brash, showboat-y actions revive the arch-supervillain Grandfather and release him on an unsuspecting world, but they nearly cost him his teammates when he needs them most.
While he does do a lot of good on his own, he can’t do it all alone. He needs others just as much as others need him, which is why he’s always supported by a team. By looking beyond himself, Nigel sees not just a team but an entire network of skilled, capable, and like-minded allies fighting the same fight alongside him, and he’s capable of doing so much more if he just allows himself to truly be a member of that network, if even just by accepting help more often.
Being selfless isn’t just about considering and helping others, it’s about actively recognizing and acknowledging the value in others and allowing that to shape your actions around them. Sure, selflessness may not come easily to children, or adults for that matter, but it’s always remarkably refreshing, as well as humbling, whenever you see a kid do something that truly considers others, like sitting next to a lonely classmate a lunch or making breakfast for a parent. Seeing a young, innocent child earnestly do something that essentially says “hey, I think you’re worthwhile, so I want to do this for you,” can instantly lift anyone’s spirits.
The thing about selflessness is that, when you make a habit out of considering others and their value, you’ll inevitably start to care about them, forming bonds that aren’t easily broken. This way of thinking doesn’t just help get kids to play along with each other on the playground. As KND proves, it allows them to truly connect with each other. Like I said, it wouldn’t exist if there weren’t any kids willing to look past themselves towards others. Not only are they kids who are willing to fight for each other, they’re willing to fight alongside one another. It’s an uplifting unity formed by the love that can only come from selflessness. In other words: friendship.
Childhood friendship is a beautiful thing, and it’s one of the most important things to have at such a foundational time of life. Not only is it one of the key reasons why childhood is so wonderful, it also sets the stage for just about every possible interaction we can have as human beings, teaching us early on how to share their world with other people.
True friendship only comes from selflessness and being dedicated to another’s well-being, and that’s why it’s so wonderful. Sure, plenty of people, kids included, become friends just by having fun together and leave it at that, because there’s always a place for simple friendships. But the most worthwhile friendships are those that go deeper, when people put themselves out there for each other more, express some vulnerability, and cherish their loved ones. KND has a strong sense of friendship. In fact, it’s probably the value most expressed on this show. There are dozens upon dozens of episodes that prove that the main characters are willing to do a lot to take care of each other.
“Operation: D.O.G.H.O.U.S.E.” is probably has the best and most heartwarming example I can think of. The episode revolves around Wally (Numbuh 4) and Abby (Numbuh 5), who couldn’t be more different. Throughout the series, Abby, the coolheaded and mature one, acts a bit like an older sister towards Wally, the passionate but dimwitted one. She’s usually the first to scold or tease him whenever he does something wrong, sometimes prompting him to learn the error of his ways but mostly just embarrassing him. Despite the fact that they butt heads, Wally looks up to Abby, and, in this episode, repeatedly goes to her for help with his homework, which leads to a couple of sweet but funny moments while she tutors him (“Who told you the Civil War was fought over bacon!?”).
Sadly, something bad happens to Abby, causing her to inadvertently become more vulnerable around Wally, which confuses him because that’s never happened before. In one instance, he finds her crying in her room by herself, and she lashes out at him when he tries find out what’s wrong, claiming that she’s fine. It turns out that Abby has been inflicted with a curse that, among other things, forces her to hurt her friends by stealing their homework, including Wally’s. Desperate to break the curse and make it up to her friends, she confronts the monsters that cursed her inside of their mansion, but they easily overwhelm her and taunt her as they throw her out, leaving her battered and beaten.
Wally, out in search of his homework, finds the frightening mansion and, too scared to enter, intends to turn back until he sees Abby, thrown out into the rain like yesterday’s garbage, land at his feet. Jittery and afraid, she tries to reassure him that everything’s fine, but, after seeing his beloved friend treated so horribly, Wally quickly gains the resolve to storm the mansion and make sure that the monster that did this to her won’t get away with it. When Wally insists, Abby begins to lash out again, firmly claiming that she can handle it herself. Wally respects that and replies “I know you can, but two of us can handle it better.” Frustrated, Abby pounds her fist on the ground, the music swelling as she yells “Numbuh 4!” She looks up at him, desperate tears in her eyes, and gives a weak “Help.” Wally smiles, happy to support a friend in need. “Let’s go,” he says before boldly storming the mansion. This moment still gives me goosebumps.
Friendship is in no short supply on KND, as it’s the show’s primary means of showing how its characters defend and embrace the lives of those around them, giving the impression that learning how to make friends is one of the zeniths of childhood. More specifically, childhood and the all the values I’ve said that can be drawn from it (Joy, Wonder, Freedom, Courage, Hope, Selflessness, Friendship) all revolve around teaching kids to look beyond themselves and focus on the value and beauty in others, allowing them to connect with one another to form lasting relationships. On Codename: Kids Next Door, this is what it means to be a child, so what does it mean to be a grown-up?
(In my next entry, I hope to talk about how Kids Next Door defines adulthood and growing up, as well as what it believes it takes to stay young at heart. Stay tuned.)