Thursday, February 28, 2013

Star Wars and Trying to Reclaim a Parenting Vision

A few months ago, I was tempted to write a post about how Kiddo is reveling in All Things Star Wars.  Last November, during a trip to Florida to see his Grandparents, he got to go to Legoland. I saw the pictures and it IS an exciting place. 

One of the pictures is a full-sized Darth Vader made out of Legos. I'm blaming all of this on him, okay? And George. George Lucas, that is.  Blaming A LOT on him.

My vision for Kiddo's childhood was that we would keep the branding and hyper-merchandised media at bay. And now, a few months into this Star Wars thing, I'm trying hard to think about the slippery slope we are going down, where weapons are bought at the store instead of being made, where his play good guy/bad guy scenes are now General Grievous vs Obi-Wan Kenobi instead of "the bad alien" vs the human boy. 

In short, where the heck are we going with this? Last December, somehow a switch got flipped and Joe jumped on the Star Wars bandwagon too. We'd had clear rules about not subsidizing weapon toys (if he wanted them, he had to save up all the money for them); suddenly I found myself standing at the store, a beaming Kiddo looking at me with a lightsaber in his hand. "Daddy said that I could use my five dollars for this and that he'd pay the other five dollars." Ummmm..... really? I'm fine with us paying 50/50 on something useful, like saving up for some constructivist toys or art supplies, but this was out of the realm of either category. Yet, instead of making a stink at the store and throwing Daddy under the bus, I conceded. 

And then, when he asked Santa Claus for a Stormtrooper mask, that didn't seem like such a huge deal either. $10 can make Santa Claus 'real' for another year, just put a Captain Rex mask near that stocking. Happy kid.

We'd always agreed that we wouldn't subsidize weapons, but then last weekend Joe picked up a 'space gun' keychain toy for Kiddo.  He said it was to buy him some time to do some work on the bathroom, which is being revamped and did indeed need work. I was out to lunch with a friend and so he felt justified in buying the little shooter.

But this party train has gotta stop. I am feeling a need to derail the whole Star Wars train, and I think I have some good reasons.

First, Kiddo's imagination is still lively and strong, but frankly, I don't want to play lightsaber battles. Truly. Not interested. It's just boring for me--I'd rather take a fencing class with Kiddo if we wanted to go that route. Joe almost bit it the other night, slipped on the hardwood floor and just caught himself. 

My bigger concern is the messages that the Star Wars stories put forth. They are really, really hard for kids to grasp.  Darth Vader is 'mostly robot' and therefore, considered very cool. Look at all the tee shirts, lunch boxes, there are even a couple of Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker sabers available.  Darth is by far the  most popular of the characters.  My problem with this?

Darth Vader is a murderous, child-killing asshole. In the original Star Wars, you see Darth destroy Princess Leia's home planet Alderaan in order to get information from her. She is tortured. As Anakin Skywalker, turning bad means destroying all the Jedi Youth, young children were killed by him.  He marries a woman and makes her keep their relationship a secret and behaves in such a way that his own children are separated and hidden from him, lest he destroy them too.

This is not the guy I want Kiddo to think is cool. He's beyond appalling, an intergalactic terrorist with zero conscience. Anakin, you were a horrible person. The fact that you saved Luke at the very end was the ONE nice thing, and the message that a life full of horrific acts is negated by one good thing and you get to go to Jedi Heaven (okay, become a Force Ghost, or what-ever --said with an eye roll--) makes me want to g-a-g gag. To be honest, if it had just been limited to the first original three movies, maybe I could muster up a little happy moment that someone bad had finally become good. But oh, no-- George Lucas had to take it up a gajillion notches by not only inferring that Vader was bad, but making us watch the atrocities he commits as he becomes a puppet of the Dark Side. 

These are not children's movies, folks.  This, in and of itself, is the big problem right there. They aren't movies for young children, yet they are relentlessly  marketed to youngsters. I've even seen baby tees with Darth Vader's likeness on them. 

Recently on Here and Now, Robin Young interviewed one of my heroes in the child development world, Nancy Carllson-Paige. (this link directs you to the short article and podcast. Worth your time.)  I'm hungry to read her new book Taking Back Childhood, because she is a savvy mom who knows about what's going on in the world of children. How they play, how they think. In her discussion with Robin Young, she mentions one of the huge differences between the US and other countries, which is regulation of the toys, media and video games which can be advertised to children, regardless of age-appropriateness. This is one reason I dig my heels in firmly; the FTC's regulations regarding what could be advertised to which target audience was gutted years ago and so as a parent, I am called to fight the good fight in keeping my son from being exposed to anything and everything.

One of those 'anything and everything's I am trying to protect him from is the Star Wars "Clone Wars" spin-off. It is insidious to my son's life-- hell, it's in his school library. I thought that by trying to understand the stories, instead of banning them outright, might be a way to go, so I let him check out one of the books. In it, there is a lot of violence, including kidnapping one character. The Jedi make a daring recovery of kidnapped character, however, the bad guy gets away and rides off, quite triumphantly, into the sunset. My son thinks that this bad guy, General Grievous,  is cool; this character uses a collection of lightsabers, war trophies of the Jedi he has killed. This creature is a grotesque robot (which houses an organic heart and brain...why heart, I can't even know why they bothered). We've told Kiddo that for now, no more Clone Wars, and I've shown him how to find non-CW Star Wars books at the library.

George Lucas has no problem marketing this stuff to little kids. I have no problem with saying "no" to George. You don't get to grow my little  guy up too much, too soon, so you get to make a few extra bucks. 

Or now, Disney will profit, as they are purchasing the franchise, so get ready for a whole new moneymaking extravaganza, folks! 

Seriously, with Disney in the driver's seat with Episode Seven, you can bet that there will be once again the cultural saturation of the newest Star Wars movie we experienced with the prequel movies. Frankly, I think the prequel movies sucked, so I'll say this: Disney, if you want to do it right, go for the tone of the original movies, which were less dark and more positive. The prequel movies were downright boring in many parts, dragging during the long conversations with the governmental storylines. Do it right. Keep to the action, the banter (the Leia and Han back and forths were great), the little revelations which kept us interested and engaged. Make the good guys obviously good. No brooding allowed. Hayden Christiansen brooded enough for a whole dozen star wars movies easily. When Luke looked sad, it wasn't so dark and gothy, okay? We need an upbeat wholesome young hero who isn't freaking plagued all the time with demons gripping him at every turn. We need a heroine who wouldn't be content to marry in secret, who wouldn't want to be with a duplicitous jerk. We want a happy animal character who doesn't insult our intelligence, not doofy-galloofy, so no Jar Jar shenanigans. The prequel movies served the same purpose some of the darker comic series do-- to show the underside of human nature. I get it. I also don't need a reminder of it while I'm being entertained. I don't think my kid needs to know that people can do such horrible things to each other, either. I think he can fit in-- and this is why I allowed Star Wars to begin with, so he had something cultural in common with other kids--without knowing all the darkness and lust and greed that the Clone Wars hold. 

In short, keep it fun, keep it exciting, keep it simple. Make the conflict between good and evil very obvious, not riddled with torment. If you are going to market it to kids, make a movie kids can understand.

As for us, Joe and I are going to start bringing back some of the fun things Kiddo put aside in favor of his Star Wars obsession. Fun stuff: building with blocks, playing games, making art, reading high-quality books... we have to model this for him to bring him back to the old normal, but I want us to be in control of the situation, not a toy company or a multi-billion dollar media conglomerate. We go forward in life together as a family, in hopefully  more healthy ways, and Yoda, Luke and the Rebel Alliance are welcome to come along for the ride, so long as they can sit quietly in the backseat. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Roxaboxen and All I See: A Tribute to the Child's Imagination

Those of you who know me know that I'm a little nutty-- or very particular, take your pick--about children's books. I've posted before on my criteria for selecting books, and now want to share a gem of a story I've found with you.

Roxaboxen, written by Alice  McLerran and beautifully illustrated by Barbara Cooney (Miss Rumphius, Island Boy),  caught my eye with it's lively cover illustration of children running together in a moment of play. This is not the kind of play our many of our children know at all; on a scrubby hill a boy holds a stick 'horse', in another hand is a thorny stalk--and he is chasing after a girl who is running with her stick horse over to a cluster of girls. A flag with the legend "Fort Irene" designates a clump of rocks as 'base' and cluster of girls, many with thorny stalks of their own, wait, relaxed, for their friend.

How can this not be interesting? Roxaboxen is a celebration of the imagination of children. From the first page of text--"Marian called it Roxaboxen. (She always knew the name of everything.)" --we discover that this empty lot, full of boxes and rocks, is truly the children's place to play, live, and exult in the wonders of childhood, self-government and autonomy. This is not the world of today, where pre-made play structures and fences keep children safe in every way possible. Instead, this story is a doorway to something far more special, something from another time which some parents (like me) hope our children might capture and explore on their own.

At Roxaboxen, the children begin to build their own little town. Streets are outlined with rocks, as are houses. Desert glass in amber, amethyst and sea green, makes up the house of Frances. Children open stores and sell what they might have to offer, including bread and two ice cream stands. (In Roxaboxen, you can eat all the ice cream you want. What could be better to a child?) Old car steering wheels are cars; if you are speeding, you must go to jail, which is a cluster of cactus out in that Arizona desert. 

This whole book follows suit, the children invent their own games, make forts, even a cemetery to mark the grave of a dead lizard which festooned with flowers when the cactus bloom. We leave this book wistful, knowing how the inhabitants of Roxaboxen, even as adults, still remember this magical place where their imagination was free to run. Where glass, thorny sticks, and time outdoors with friends and without adult intervention makes for a true childhood treasure. The text is simple, but heartfelt, and Barbara Cooney's illustrations capture the sense of freedom and play of the children; Roxaboxen is sparse but full of life.

Another wonderful picture book which truly celebrates the child is Cynthia Rylant's All I See, illustrated by Peter Catalanotto. Imagination is a strong theme in this story, as are art and the child's sense of safety and autonomy in his world. Gregory is an artist who paints every day at the lake, bringing along his cat, his affection for Beethoven's Fifth, his easel, canvas, paints and brushes. When Gregory needs a moment of rest, he and his cat lounge in a canoe on the lake.  But Gregory is not alone; a boy named Charlie also goes down to the lake and watches Gregory from a distance. Charlie is shy, but begins looking at Gregory's canvases while Gregory is in the canoe. When Charlie is one day confronted with a blank canvas, the shy boy takes a chance which begins a friendly mentoring relationship between he and Gregory. One aspect of this book I really appreciate is the idea of the 'friendly stranger', an idea many parents have moved away from in this world of non-stop Stranger Danger messages. Charlie's bravery and trust are rewarded with genuine friendship and an opportunity to be even more empowered in how he perceives his world. 

Both of these books offer my son experiences that our urban world cannot truly replicate. We come close: there is a fairy house he's built in the backyard, next to the sandbox; our little plum tree he climbs and the different forts he builds in the rhododendron and under the forsythia. We have adult friends who nurture him and invite him to participate in what they are doing, even it's cutting tile and sticking it onto the wall of our re-vamped shower or making cookies;  the friendly elderly gentleman around the corner who teases him in a loving way; or the parents of his friends. We are fortunate to have what we do, to live in a neighborhood which offers so many smiles. To have so many kind and caring adults in his life who enjoy some of the same things he does. One of my dearest wishes for Kiddo is that he would perceive the world as a good, safe place. I adore both of these books because this is the message that they bring to children: that they are strong, imaginative, independent little people. That Roxaboxen ( true story, by the way) takes their imagination so seriously is such an honor to those children of long ago, who did not have mothers hovering and telling them to put down their sticks.  That the imposition of the artists imagination upon reality is an invitation for children to challenge their own notion of 'what is there' and asks the question "what could be there?"-- this is such a validation of what children naturally do. Without our interference, they play and learn in ways that are not only valuable to them, but memorable as well. 

Long live the imagination of our growing children, even those most grown up of all! 

Some other writing about books:
Some thoughts about books and a short list of titles
A list of favorite things, with some neat titles we loved
More favorite things for kids, with more titles from when Kiddo was three

And some titles, with themes in parenthesis~
"Kids" by Catherine and Laurence Anholt (feelings)
"All the Colors We Are" by Katie Kissinger (race, ancestry)
"The Good Brown Earth" by Kathy Henderson (celebrates gardens and grandparents)
"Little Blue and Little Yellow" by Leo Lionni (color, friendships, family, community)
" Stone Soup" retold by John J Muth (community, genorosity)
" Jenny's Hat" by Ezra Jack Keats (disappointment, kindness)
"Frog and Toad are Friends" by Arnold Lobel (friendship, emotions, understanding others)
"Thy Friend, Obidiah" by Brinton Turkle