All the life lessons I learned from ‘Hey Arnold!’
I was a kid in the ’90s. In my case, this meant I had a crush on Donnie Wahlberg that ended around the time he cut off his rattail and my New Kids on the Block lunch box was stolen. It also meant I spent a lot of time watching Nicktoons. From Rugrats to Doug to Rocko’s Modern Life and even the under-appreciated Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, I loved them all.
But Hey Arnold! – which didn’t premiere until 1996 – was my favorite. I wasn’t sure why at the time. But as an adult, I can look back and see my reasoning pretty clearly. Hey Arnold! was REAL, and it didn’t treat its kid protagonists like…well…kids. These characters all had very concrete problems – some arguably beyond the realm of their maturity, which made me feel like my sometimes-similar problems were worth paying attention to and normal, even when I felt far from it. In a time of my life when everything seemed upside down and I was turning to movies and TV a lot to help me through, Arnold, Gerald, Helga, Phoebe, Grandpa, Pookie, and the rest of the gang bestowed some great lessons upon me that I still remember to this day.
Family is what you make it
The titular character in the show, Arnold, is an only child who hasn’t had his parents around his entire life. He lives in a boarding house run by his kooky-yet-well-meaning grandparents, and is raised by them as well as an assortment of characters who serve as the boarding house’s tenants. This could potentially drive any kid crazy, but Arnold is arguably the most polite, well-rounded, and reasonable character on the show, including pretty much all his adult housemates.
In a nutshell, family can be whatever you want it to be. While you can’t choose your bloodline, you can choose whom you surround yourself with (or, if you’re a kid, at least how much time you spend around certain people) and how much of an impact they will have on your life.
Love doesn’t have to make sense to work
Speaking of Arnold’s eccentric grandparents, Phil and Gertrude (aka Pookie), they work. And on a show with dysfunctional relationships left and right, it’s refreshing to see that two of the most unpredictable characters have the most solid romantic relationship. Phil and Pookie taught me that when your loved one is singing show tunes at the top of his or her lungs at two in the morning, recounting the same story for the millionth time, or even forgetting his or her own name and all you can do is stare at them adoringly, that’s when you’ve found the one.
You never know what someone else is going through
Two of the meanest characters on the show are Harold Berman and Rhonda Wellington Lloyd. Harold is a pretty run-of-the-mill bully who picks on kids smaller than him, but we learn slowly over the course of the series that he is a lot more sensitive than he lets on – meaning he tries to overcompensate by being bigger on the playground. Rhonda is quite snobby and shuns those she feels aren’t as good-looking or wealthy as she is, but when she gets glasses she gets a taste of what it’s like to be a “geek” – spotlighting her fear of not being admired 24/7.
Some people learn the golden rule the hard way, but there’s almost always something going on under the surface when they’re mean. Super happy people are rarely mean, because they have so little to project onto others. So channel your inner Arnold and be extra nice to them – maybe it will help them see the light.
Sometimes, it really is the thought that counts
In the very first episode of the series, Arnold takes his notoriously accident-prone classmate and friend Eugene Horowitz out for a day of fun activities to make up for accidentally ruining his bike. This, of course, leads to even more accidents for poor Eugene – he falls into a sewer, chokes on a hot dog, and gets stuck in a bus door. And those are only a handful of the incidents that occur.
But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Eugene is grateful for Arnold’s friendship and efforts and tells him so, reminding us all that sometimes a small act of kindness can make someone else’s entire day – especially if that someone else isn’t used to it.
Opposites not only attract, they can create great relationships
Gerald Johanssen is every kid’s idol, truly. Arnold’s best friend and the P.S. 118 fourth-grade class president, he is the coolest dude on the block with the best storytelling ability, greatest sense of adventure, and a little rebellious streak that’d make any nine-year-old girl swoon.
And swoon she does – “she” being Phoebe Heyerdahl, P.S. 118’s resident shy genius girl who also happens to be Helga’s BFF. Gerald and Phoebe keep their relationship on the DL, but it’s obvious how well they balance each other. Aside from Grandpa and Pookie, they’re probably the couple who’s most functional, even if they are only 9 years old. Gerald and Phoebe have a mutual respect for their differences and see them as an asset instead of a challenge, which all of us (myself included) could take some serious IRL adult cues from.
Winning isn’t everything
In the episode “Spelling Bee,” Helga Pataki puts her love of winning aside and loses the Bee on purpose, which makes Arnold the champion. Her action is the result of her secret love for Arnold paired with the fact that her father is always comparing her to her super-smart sister Olga, and she’s tired of it. Helga takes a stand for herself and comes out feeling like a million bucks, because even though she lost, she knows she did the right thing.
Plus, deep down, she knows “qualm” ends with an “M” and not an “X,” and that’s all the knowledge she needs.
It’s all about giving
Speaking of our admirable if slightly misguided heroine, Helga continues to be a boss in the episode “Arnold’s Christmas.” All she wants for Christmas is a pair of the hot new Nancy Spumoni snow boots, which she ends up getting much to her surprise, since they were sold out way in advance of Christmas.
Anyway, Helga stops mid-dance in her new snow boots, realizing she can give Arnold a great Christmas gift by selling the boots to a guy who can help Mr. Hyunh, one of Arnold’s grandparents’ tenants, find his long-lost daughter. Her plan works, and the rest of us cry for days while remembering what the holidays are truly about.
It is possible to be so into something that it becomes part of your name.
There’s a character named Chocolate Boy, whose birth name is never revealed because he is that into chocolate. Considering how into chocolate I am, I have to wonder what this kid did to really not have anyone around him be able to move past it. I’m going to call him Barry because I feel that bad for him. But yeah, adult lesson learned: moderation. I like my name too much to change it to Cupcake Girl (though that might be a cute superhero name).
Risks are worth taking – especially when they’re scary
One of the most well-known episodes of Hey Arnold! revolves around Stoop Kid, who is notoriously “afraid to leave his stoop.” He is in the Harold/Rhonda Camp of Projecting Insecurities, but when he faces his fears and leaves his stoop, he learns there is an entire world waiting for him to explore (even though he does prefer to be on his stoop).
And who could forget the kiss in Hey Arnold! The Movie? Helga takes a huge step by finally overcoming her fear of rejection and kissing Arnold, triggering the cheer heard ’round the world from ’90s girls everywhere. By the end they both agree the kiss was in the heat of the moment, but it wasn’t for naught (SPOILERS AHEAD!): According to series creator Craig Bartlett, Helga and Arnold do end up married –with kids!
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[Image via Nickelodeon]