Thursday, August 1, 2013

Coming of Age

Several weeks ago, I had dinner with some friends, two of whom, who I’ll call John and Linda for the purposes of this essay, are a married couple. During the course of the evening’s conversation, we somehow wandered into an issue they were contending with regarding their son. The details aren’t important but essentially, he had experienced a bullying incident at school; not in the physical sense but in the frequently as brutal psychological sense. Though the school had made some effort to address the matter, it didn’t seem like it had been truly resolved. As we listened, John and Linda went back and forth about how to address it with their son and were getting fairly heated about it. They were both clearly very passionate about the matter

To digress for a moment, every once in while, I’ll catch an episode of the sitcom ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ on late night TV. Though the show is sometimes problematic for me because the character of Ray’s mother is often distractingly irritating, I love the show because when you look past the annoying mom and even past the inspired craziness of what’s happening in any given episode, you’ll see that there’s a lot of profound commentary and insight regarding relationships, about how men and women think and communicate in fundamentally different ways, how two people can have completely different perspectives on the same set of circumstances and both be right.

John’s message to his son was essentially this: “If anyone tries to push you around, if anyone says anything about you, your mom, or anyone else in our family, you need to make an example of them. You hit them and keep on hitting them until someone pulls you off.”

I realize that sounds pretty extreme but the concept has some merit and here’s why. There are people out there who don’t understand or respond to anything other than brute force. They cannot be reasoned with and are not subject to negotiation, be they terrorist extremists or schoolyard bullies. When you couple that with the fact that children can sometimes be absolutely merciless in the way they torment each other, I can totally understand where John is coming from.


Linda’s position was essentially this: “That’s what you would do, not what our son would do. That’s not the way he’s wired and it’s not the message we want to impart to him. We need to give him other, more appropriate tools to diffuse and contend with this kind of stuff.”

This immediately clicked on a memory for me with regard to my own kid. Last spring, my daughter Julianna had a brief encounter in school with a girl from our neighborhood who has bullied her in the past. She was about to head into the gym when this other girl ordered her, “Open that door and hold it. My hands are full.” Though Jules later told me the other girl wasn’t so burdened that she couldn’t have opened it herself, in that moment, she was kind of shocked and didn’t know what else to do, so she complied. This was an innocuous confrontation in and of itself; it did not merit a visit to the principal or anything like that. My daughter does not bear psychological scars from it and probably barely remembers it. What’s significant about the event is that it typifies the bully mentality: “I will do what I want and make you do what I want because I can.”

When Julianna told me about this, I carefully considered how to respond. In part because of the previous history between the two girls, I can’t deny I considered telling her, “The next time something like that happens, trip her as she walks past. She’ll think twice before she does it again.” And you know what? That solution probably would have done the job just fine. But I know my kid and I know she’d never do that; she has too gentle a nature. Further, although it feels good in the moment, it’s not the methodology I want to instill in her to resolve such conflicts.

So, I thought about what she might have in her personal toolbox to contend with such people in such situations. Finally, I said to her, “Julianna, you are a very kind and polite person and you speak beautifully, but it’s important to remember that sometimes, words can be your weapon even if you’re not using them to say mean things. What would have happened if you just looked at her and said, ‘What’s the magic word?’”

Julianna’s whole face lit up because she immediately understood that those four simple words would have put her in complete command of that situation. The other girl would have had to respond to Jules instead of the other way around, even if only by stomping past her and opening the door herself without answering the question.

It’s a solution similar in philosophy to Linda’s perspective on her son. It works for Jules. It fits her personality. She can apply the concept to other situations. It seems like a total win-win. And in most cases, it will be. But this does not preclude the probability that someday, Julianna is going to encounter someone who will not be deflected by such techniques. In response to her use of verbal wizardry, they will simply try another more aggressive means of controlling or manipulating her because they can. And on such rare occasions, I may well have to consider other, more assertive techniques to impart to my daughter; something more in line with the spirit of John’s take no prisoners perspective.

To be honest, I don’t know how John and Linda ended up resolving their conflict but it really doesn’t matter. Their struggle is the struggle of all parents trying to raise and protect their kids in the best way they know how. There is no manual to consult on how to do that. Often, there is no clear path to a solution to a given problem. Further, even when you think you have one, you have to carefully assess whether that solution is based on what you want to do or what’s actually best for the situation. Yet further, you have to resign yourself to the reality that sometimes, you’re going to blow it and your kid may well suffer for it. All you can do when that happens is help everyone back on their feet, dust yourselves off, move on, and hope you get it right the next time.

Kids are the not the only ones who undergo the process of coming of age. As parents, we’re doing the same thing every single day.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Movie Magic

I love kids’ movies! I really do. Maybe that tarnishes my artistic sophistication level (such as it is) and maybe even my intelligence (ditto) in the eyes of some, but I don’t care. Kids’ movies are special and important. By and large, they focus on the positive. They’re empowering. When they’re done right, you walk out of the theater or turn off the TV feeling good about your life and good about the world. They’re oases of hope in an increasingly cynical and grim-minded landscape.

As parents and as individuals, we have not only a responsibility, but a moral obligation to make the world a better place for our kids. More importantly, we need to teach them how to make it better themselves. That doesn’t mean hiding the bad stuff, it’s about teaching them to reconcile it and still live in a life-affirming manner.

We as a culture and society need to do a better job at letting kids be kids for as long as they can be. The pressure on children to grow up as quickly as possible and be good little consumers is damn near close to terrifying. Shockingly, children do not need Facebook accounts. They do not need to have their faces buried in a Ninendo DS or smart phone because they may have to sit at a table in a restaurant or on line at the bank for twenty minutes. They need to be given opportunities to think, reflect, and interact.

This is a topic for an entire post in and of itself, but I believe our communication technology is not, in fact, bringing us closer together as all the multi-billion dollar corporations who design it contend, but pushing us farther apart. Indeed, I believe there is an argument to be made that it is deteriorating the very fabric of our society, stunting our ability to genuinely communicate with each other both verbally and in written form. I can already see a deterioration in the interpersonal skills of kids today.

My wife told me she recently had a conversation with one of the librarians in the children’s section (how many of my daughter’s classmates spend time at their local library or even have a library card, I wonder?). They were talking about the fact that many of the kids that do come in have difficulty articulating questions in a sophisticated manner. The librarian specifically noted that my daughter is not like that. Though she is rather shy in certain respects, she speaks with poise and complexity. She does not have a Facebook account. Though she has a phone that texts, she uses it sparingly, conversing with a few select people. When she writes an email, she does so in full sentences and expresses sincere and complete thoughts and ideas. Our public library is one of her favorite places. She actively asks to go there so she can do her homework or just hang out. It is a grim and unsettling truth that my daughter is an outlier in an increasingly nonverbal and electronic world. Even talking on the phone is becoming a pastime for losers. Text me, baby. And don’t bother spelling out the word ‘you’; it takes too long.

We live in the Twitter Generation; everything in 140 characters or less, please. And make sure we’ve got plenty of pretty pictures to look at with those 140 characters or less, because really, nobody has the time or patience to read boring text all by itself. I heard a line from a sitcom recently: “Twitter is stupid and Instagram is Twitter for people who can’t read.” I think there’s a good degree of acidic truth in that statement (though I do want to mention that my intent in conveying it is not intended to specifically insult anyone who does use those services). My personal feeling is that Twitter devalues language and complex thought. I do not use it. I do not intend to ever use it. I would need extremely compelling evidence to convince me to do so. I do like using Facebook. It can be a fun tool for keeping in touch. But unless I’m having an depth-conversation with someone, I’ll spend an average of 15-30 minutes a day on it reading posts if not posting myself. I’m not in the cult. I feel no compulsion whatsoever to regularly report my activities, make multiple posts a day or even one a day. Sometimes (gasp!) a few days may pass without me checking it. Though I use it in a manner that serves my purposes, I find Facebook to a good degree to be insidious and believe that it represents a big part of some of the problems we have in the world today.

Anyway, to start bringing this back around toward where I began, for the record, if you don’t have kids, and even if you never intend to have any, you’re not absolved of responsibility in helping them be better people. I think people who don’t want kids tend to get a bad rap as being selfish and immature. Some of them are (so are plenty of parents), but if you look at it from another angle, they’ve done the world a favor by not reproducing and raising selfish, immature, maladjusted children. For those who have made a more conscious decision not to have kids because it’s not right for them (whatever the underlying reasons), I commend them for having the courage to not bow to societal pressure and do so because they think they’re supposed to or that there’s something wrong with them if they don’t. It’s a well-considered, mature decision. Furthermore, individuals or couples that don’t have children still have plenty to offer. Their perspectives, influence, and meaning can be of enormous value and significance to the children around them. The fact that they don’t have kids themselves does not preclude them from being role models of the highest order. I hate when parents express disdain for singles or couples without kids and how ‘simple’ their lives are. I think it’s rude, disrespectful, and demeaning.

But I digress. Back to the real world of movies. :-)

To some extent, kid’s movies help set the tone for how our children view the world and their own place in it. They can be a great complement to the lessons that we instill in them and an excellent conduit for meaningful discussion and teachable moments.

The impetus for this post, which I’m a little embarrassed to admit given my diatribe above began as a Facebook status update, is that I recently watched a dynamite movie with my family called 'Ramona & Beezus' (2010), based on the classic kids' books by Beverly Cleary. So many kids' movies today are effects-driven show pieces (actually, let’s be honest; upwards of 90% of them are). 'Ramona & Beezus' on the other hand, is a small, honest, loving, fun little movie about finding your groove in the world and embracing your individuality; no multimillion dollar budget and state of the art digital animation required.

It has a terrific cast led by Joey King, currently appearing as the China Girl in 'Oz, the Great & Powerful'. She's adorable; not sickly-sweet, sitcomesque, manufactured, precocious, cutesy adorable, but authentically sweet, charming, and sassy! She carries the movie with confidence and style.

The film also has a great supporting cast including the ever-reliable John Corbett, Bridget Moynahan, Selena Gomez (who is surprisingly good, though I don't know why her character's name is in the title other than to sell the fact that she's in the movie to the Disney Channel crowd), Josh Duhamel, and Ginnifer Goodwin (currently playing Snow White in the excellent TV show 'Once Upon a Time').

‘Ramona & Beezus’ does a great job of balancing the silly and the sublime. It maintains a lively pace and a sense of fun and possibility. It deals with real-world issues with sincerity but doesn’t get maudlin about it. The Quimby family contends with sometimes prickly relationships and situations but comes through them with spirit, love, and unity. This movie provides an inspiring example of what a family could and should be and for that lesson alone it’s a film worth watching.

Is it groundbreaking, award-winning, cutting-edge cinema? Nope. But this fact does not preclude it from being warm, funny, and endearing. ‘Ramona & Beezus’ is unpretentious and accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, which is something quite a lot of films never come close to achieving. 

Whether you have kids or not, do yourselves a favor and rent it or borrow it from the library. You'll be glad you did...
Thanks for reading.