Chocolate-Covered Broccoli and Children’s Play

This fall, American children are being treated to something never before seen: Saturday mornings without a single cartoon not bearing the e/i rating. In 1998, the FCC ruled that basic stations had to serve at least three hours of educational content a week, and so stations decided the easiest way to do that was to dedicate a programming block already targeting children to that cause. The e/i rating is given to children’s programming that meets certain criteria, both education and marketing related. (I used to have a really good resource on e/i, but the site appears to have been taken down. Sorry.) They’ve commonly been isolated to PBS, although other stations have woven them into their line-ups.

At first, this doesn’t seem like much of an issue. Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Disney all offer Saturday morning blocks. But while nearly every home in America has a television, just under half of those homes has some sort of cable service. That means kids in just over half of these homes don’t have access to cartoons that aren’t trying to shove some sort of learning down their throat. I know what  you’re thinking: Isn’t that a good thing? How can we make the cable companies come around and stop making our children stupid? And that’s not a healthy way to think.

We can’t process a lot of information coming at us constantly. This is part of the research-based thinking in how daily class schedules are designed in schools. The brain needs time to process what it’s just been exposed to. This is actually one of the keys to learning. If the brain doesn’t get that time, the material bounces off like a skipped stone on the water. This isn’t just true at school, but everywhere in life. We’re nearly always in situations that expose us to new information, to new skills. Without down time, our brains just can’t handle it and burn out. Kids are the same way; and for just over half the kids in this country, they’re now limited in how they can choose to spend that necessary down time. (I’ll just let you think on the ramifications of that.)

It’s almost like we’ve been led to believe that if we aren’t laying out very obvious teaching moments 24/7, kids can’t possibly learn. But just because a kid isn’t being told by a big fuzzy creature that two and two together equals four (as happened in Magi Nation, a cartoon from a few years ago aimed at tweens), it doesn’t mean the child isn’t gaining something useful from watching a cartoon that has no deliberately educational elements. Children’s play has long been inspired by the characters and worlds they meet through cartoons. They become inspired to draw, to write, to incorporate their favorite cartoons into their imaginative play. And sometimes, the skills inspired by watching cartoons as a child become a career path. That’s not insignificant.

This isn’t to say all cartoons bearing the e/i label are painful mini-lessons. A handful of cartoons, such as the much beloved PBS cartoon Arthur and the perpetually re-launched Winx Club (although it’s only the mid-2000’s series that achieved this distinction), focus more on character building skills that have formed the basis for so many social-emotional curricula…without taking the preschool show tack (where it is needed because this may be the first time those very young children actually hear any of this. Preschool shows really are their own class.) of being very literal about what is going on.

It took well over a decade from the initial ruling to reach this point, but I think we’re going to see a pushback. Whether it comes in the form of relaxing restrictions on what all children can be exposed to or higher quality educational cartoons remains to be seen. It should prove interesting, though.

The Resilient Child is Not the Enemy

An article posted at the beginning of the year revealed that children who rise above challenges in their youth become successful adults at the cost of their future health, and even went  so far as to suggest that maybe children shouldn’t be allowed to endure the stress of overcoming whatever obstacles they are presented with.

When I first read the article, I was livid. It sounded like the writers were encouraging adults to discourage children from daring to set and reach for goals. In fact, the exact note I left for myself in Instapaper was, Yes, let’s find a way to panic those breaking free into rejoining the drones. Because that was what I took away from that reading.

But re-reading the article after several months hasn’t improved my opinion of the writers’ position. Where does anyone get off saying that a child shouldn’t be encouraged to reach for their potential, to learn early how to set goals, hot to identify and handle setbacks? Because that’s really what this article is saying. That embuing children and their plastic, adaptable minds with skills that will enable them to become successful adults isn’t a good idea.

We’ve had this problem for a couple of generations now (my own included) where people seem to have developed what has often been called a sense of entitlement. They seem to not be able to cope with…anything, really. And part of that is because we weren’t really expected to handle things as kids. My generation saw both parents go to work, and as a result were a bit more indulgent with us to try to make up for not spending as much time with us. It was never our fault we did anything; we were just acting out because we missed our parents. Or because one of our parents was no longer living with us, because we were the first generation to have more kids living in broken homes than in nuclear family units. That coddling hasn’t done us any favors, especially those who have struggled to figure out how to function beyond it.

It’s time that we remember children are capable of taking on challenges, of setting their own challenges and successfully managing them, that being given opportunities to take chances and learn how to handle setbacks in a safe zone will take them farther than telling them why their failures are someone else’s fault. We don’t have to throw them to the wolves; we just have to enable them to be able to fail, learn from that failure, and pick themselves up and try again. That’s the key: We have to give them a safe space to fail while they’re learning that resilience. Learning they can fail will go a long way toward minimizing the stress addressed in that article.

Sorry for the soapbox. It probably won’t be the only rant this week.

Learning from Studying Tropes

If you’ve been writing for any period of time, you know that tropes are Bad. If you’re new to writing, you may have been told your work relies too much on tropes and you need to be more original. The problem with tropes is that they’re proven story mechanics, and as a result, they get used. A lot. Sometimes too much. As a result, writers are often encouraged to edit them completely out of a story. But occasionally, we’re encouraged to find a way to use them purposefully…and the purpose can’t be, “I couldn’t think of another way to do this.” Just so we’re all clear on that.

Finding a different way to use a trope is actually where I was headed last fall when I was working on my (still in progress) short story “Empowered”. I was, for the first time in my life, watching a lot of superhero movies in addition to my normal action movies, and I was trying to figure out why there are so few stories centered around girls (I know. I’m not the only one wondering this.) and why I’m so reluctant to watch those that do.

I thought about it, and I journaled about it, and what I finally realized was that what I most hated about these stories could be boiled down to a handful of questions. As I started to explore the questions and my feelings about them, I realized I was railing against the tropes so often utilized in these stories. Using my own questions and what I was learning about these tropes, I started shaping a story to both look at and challenge my own perception of those tropes. It’s such a deep experience that I’m still working on the story a year later, taking long breaks in between rounds to just process.

That’s the thing with tropes. They’re routine, expected. But they have the ability to get us thinking about what makes them so routine and expected, and in that find a way to make them into something interesting. We can use them to explore our own reactions to the trope, to explore how the trope came to be, maybe even to look at the historical contexts where the trope really seemed to gain ground (as many of these tropes date back to the days of oral tradition).

They also have the ability to help us get unstuck in our writing: Am I leaning on a trope? How am I using it? How could I change it or move away from it? Surfing TV Tropes (do not click unless you have the next few days free) is a great way to find a spark that you can then twist and weave into your story. (The real challenge is not twisting it into something else that already exists.) You can take two or more tropes and mash them together, looking for unusual ways to put them together. You can pick a trope (be sure to study it carefully) and write its opposite, or write in the space between the trope and its opposite trope. It doesn’t matter why you hit up tropes; they can be powerful prompts that gets you thinking.

If you’re between projects or just completely stuck and need to walk away, trope surfing can make for an excellent writing practice. Write the trope. Write a satire of the trope. Write an essay on how the trope appears through books, movies, and television shows you enjoy watching, on how other writers have utilized the trope. It’s a valuable learning experience.

Experience Leads to Understanding

I’ve lived in cities of just about every size, and it’s been an experience. The large city can’t see much past the edge of each neighborhood. The small town is convinced it’s the biggest deal around. Put someone who grew up in one setting into the other setting, and Hollywood tells us that’s a sitcom. The same is true between different cultures, regardless of the organizing nucleus of those cultures. Changing from what you know to what you don’t can be terrifying.

But the relocated person has an opportunity, if they’re smart enough to grab it. They have a chance to learn how the world looks from the other group’s point of view. In our microcosm-filled world, it’s hard to get that kind of opportunity, and it’s so necessary to understand other people better, to move between groups more smoothly, to communicate between groups with respect. At the same time, it’s important to learn how to get that perspective, because it’s easier to create experiences appropriate to diverse groups and to facilitate collaboration and an exchange of ideas between them.

We always hear about needing the ability to put yourself into someone else’s shoes to give yourself a different perspective on disagreements and problems, but without the practical experience of seeing those different perspectives firsthand for yourself, you really can’t demonstrate that understanding.