Kid’s Stuff: Children’s Entertainment Doesn’t Have to be Bland

My son likes cartoons and books and movies. Who doesn’t?

Here’s the thing: I can often tell the quality of the product by how often my son talks about it when it’s over and how much he laughs.

I will use two cartoons to illustrate this point: Doc McStuffinsand Masha and the Bear.

Doc McStuffins is one of the most bland, anodyne, and actively beige cartoons I have ever seen. My son likes it because he’s interested in medical stuff, but there’s nothing there. The main character is perfect, the conflicts are utterly trivial, there are lessons shoehorned into every single aspect of an episode, and the humor is non-existent. I mean, the show is not funny at all, not even good for a chuckle. The mark of a funny children’s show isn’t how often an adult laughs at it, but you’d think a kid’s laughter would be a good indicator.

But nope. When he watches Doc McStuffins, he just blankly accepts what comes on, and then is on to the next one. He doesn’t talk about it after the fact. The show feels carefully crafted by a committee of bean-counters tick points off a checklist. It’s just another widget churned out by the institutionalized entertainment factory that is Disney. I should be careful criticizing them too heavily, though, since Disney will soon own every single piece of entertainment that you read, watch, listen to, or otherwise experience, including this blog. It’s a hungry mouse.

Contrasting Doc McStuffins with Masha and the Bear is pretty eye-opening. Masha and the Bear is a Russian-produced animated show loosely based on Russian folklore about a hyper-energetic, slightly destructive though ultimately well-meaning little girl named Masha and her adventures with, and slight terrorizing of, a big friendly brown bear. The bear doesn’t talk, communicating in gestures and grunts. In fact, none of the other animal characters talk, just Masha and occasionally her cousin Dasha.

Anyway, all Bear really enjoys doing is gardening, hanging out at his house playing chess or reading, and reminiscing about his glory days as a performer with a circus in Moscow. Masha, of course, has other crazy ideas, which always leads to some form of chaos that is ultimately resolved. In the process, Bear and all the other animals are exasperated to the near breaking point, but things work out in the end (hey, it is a kid’s show, isn’t it?).

Unlike Doc McStuffins, Masha and the Bear has actual conflicts: Bear’s battle against the black bear for the lady bear’s affections, Masha’s rivalry with Bear’s panda cousin from China, Masha finding a penguin egg and forcing Bear to take care of it, and so on. The episodes are short, snappy, chaotic in the old Warner Brothers tradition, and funny.

There are sight gags that have my son erupting in side-splitting laughter, and I’ll admit: My wife and I get a kick out of it too. It’s nothing intellectual or snarky or anything like that. It’s just dumb cartoonish slapstick akin to what you’d see Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck engaging in. There’s a reason why the classic Warner Brothers shorts are still held up as the benchmark for cartoons to be measured against.

There are lessons in Masha and the Bear, but here’s the distinction between them and other Disney-fied pablum: the lessons aren’t rammed down the kids’ throats. Instead, they are demonstrated through the characters’ actions. In other words, the show shows and doesn’t tell.This is storytelling 101, and kids absolutely pick up on that. Continue reading “Kid’s Stuff: Children’s Entertainment Doesn’t Have to be Bland”

Kids As Pawns

My family went up to Mount Vernon not too long ago. We enjoyed the first President’s estate, the excellent museum, and of course, based on our son’s enthusiasm, the gift shop.

One would normally expect a five-year-old to be into toys and other knickknacks, but not our son: Ever since his school started taking about the Founding Fathers and other presidents, he has been obsessed with them. And like me, George Washington is his favorite.

So when he asked us if we could get him a book about all of the Presidents of the United States, how could we turn him down?

This book has actually become his go-to nighttime reading lately. He loves memorizing facts about them, and has prompted me to memorize them all in order, which has proven to be a handy mental warmup in the morning. But I digress.

What struck me was the disparity in feeing over the earlier presidents to the modern ones. We take descriptions of past people’s lives as gospel, but a similarly neutral description of someone alive at the same time we were evokes a very different response.

“I was there! That’s not what happened!”

Yet, when reading the book with my son or talking about presidential history, I keep my personal opinions to myself.

Maybe this is the wrong tactic. Maybe I should indoctrinate my son before somebody else does. Everyone else’s parents seem to do so around here. But you know something? I find that kids who spout what their parents say without actually understanding it obnoxious, and I would like to keep my son as free from politics for as long as possible.

That’s right: no super-woke six-year-old at my house.

Continue reading “Kids As Pawns”

A Budding Gamer

Knowing my fondness for retro games, this past Christmas my sister and her husband–total gamers, the both of them–got me a Super Nintendo Classic Edition.

For those who aren’t aware, the Super Nintendo Classic Edition is a cool little device that Nintendo released in 2017 that’s similar to their NES Classic: it’s a hand-held version of their classic early 90s Super Nintendo console pre-loaded with 20 classic games, designed to work on modern TVs, and guaranteed to tickle your nostalgia gland and separate you from your hard-earned money!

So while we were visiting my parents over Christmas, I fired it up and gave a few old games a spin. And my pleasure centers were absolutely engaged. Super Mario WorldSuper MetroidF-ZeroDonkey Kong CountrySuper Castlevania . . . aw yeah, total classics. And of course, one of my all-time favorites that I haven’t played in easily twenty yearsMega Man X. I loved that game, and was immediately engaged.

And of course, so was my son.

I mean, Mega Man X, like every single game in the Mega Man franchise, has bright and colorful graphics, fantastic music, exciting gameplay, and robots that fight each other, steal each others weapons, and blow stuff up. In this edition, the main character, X, has to fight animal-based robot masters in order to beat their big boss Sigma. It is, in short, tailor-made for a five-year-old.

snes_mega_man_x_p_xky270

But the presents a bit of a parental conundrum for me. I grew up with Nintendo, getting a set for Christmas in 1987, when I was not much older than my son. I also played Atari with my maternal grandmother, who is always up on technology, and classic Sierra adventure games with my paternal grandfather on his then state-of-the-art Leading Edge computer (with two external disk drives!). So video games were always a thing with me.

I’ve written fondly about retro games before. The music in those old games was often fantastic and inspiring. And speaking of inspiring, the plots and mechanics of many old video games really stoked my imagination, and continue to be an unlikely source of inspiration. And I know for a fact that I am not alone in this.

But I also reflect on all the hours I spent playing video games as a kid, especially as the console generations marched on and got better and better and more realistic, and the games got longer. I always liked role-playing games, you know, those dorky games where you fight monsters and level up and so on. They always had really fun tactical combat, customization of characters, and a lot of options to just go and explore stuff.

They were fun. They were engrossing. And they often took sixty hours to finish.

And as the games got better and better, they got longer and longer.  Continue reading “A Budding Gamer”

Names and Legacies

Children's movies can sometimes present a purer message than fare aimed at adults, if you can call superhero movies, hyper-vulgar comedies, and blood-splattered action-fests "adult."

It strikes me that kids' movies, the good ones at least, have to make their message accessible and understandable while keeping the movie actually entertainingthat things like craftsmanship and universal themes and even good scriptwriting.

Shocking, outdated concepts, I know.

Anyway, I took my son to see Cars 3recently, and I was not expecting to see a treatise about aging and legacies from a movie about anthropomorphic vehicles, but I did. I know Pixar is known for high-quality children's entertainment, but still: what an interesting time to be alive.

But stories tell us things in a way that the mere recitation of facts can never hope to match, and the movie stuck with me.

So with legacies on the mind, I started to think about my own, and what I hope to leave behind for my son, any future children I hopefully have, and their children and grandchildren.

I started thinking about names and a question came to mind, or more appropriately, a theme:

Is it better to be unique–like everyone else claims to be? Or is it better to be meaningful? Continue reading “Names and Legacies”

Lowering the Bar: What Is a “Good Father” in Current Year?

It irks me when someone tells me “Oh, you’re such a good father!” when they see me out and about with my son. 

Do I have your attention? Good. 

I’m know I’m not the first to notice this. And I know I won’t be the last. 

Why does this bother me so?

Because all I do either in public or in private is the parent my son. 

That’s it. Really. 

  • I pay attention and interact with him, and not my phone. 
  • I try to bring him with me everywhere I can just so we can hang out and maybe learn something. 
  • I use situations as lessons when appropriate. 
  • I discipline him when necessary. 
  • I try not to leave it up to my wife to do everything. 

And most importantly:

  • I love the little bugger, and I love him fiercely. 

In 2017, apparently, a man being a parent is all it takes to be considered a good father. 

The bar had been set so low by forces outside of our control, everyone’s perception is completely screwed up.

I hung out at the pool with my son over the weekend, chilling with a guy who also lives in the building and his two kids that he obviously loves. 

Does spending time with our kids make us “good fathers,” or just fathers?  Continue reading “Lowering the Bar: What Is a “Good Father” in Current Year?”

What Should We Listen To “From the Mouths of Babes”?

Today is Palm Sunday, marking Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem at the beginning of Passover. It marks the beginning of Holy Week, Jesus’ final ministry, the Last Supper, His passion, crucifixion, and Resurrection. 

It also kicks off the season of “Muslims bombing churches in the Middle East,” but I digress. 

Maybe I should write about this instead of my intended topic–after all, we’re suddenly beating the war drums over Syria because the President was supposedly swayed by his daughter’s heartbreak over the latest gas attack. What about this? This, also, has been going on for years. Is it the type of weapon deployed that makes the difference here?

Yeah, I’m heated. 

But this does tie into what I wanted to write about in a way. 

According to Matthew, as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and the people spread palms and their garments on the ground as though he were their king, the children in the Temple cried out, “Hosanna to the son of David!”

Indignant, the chief priests and scribes asked Christ if He heard, and to which He responded,

“[H]ave you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, you have brought perfect praise’?”

This has entered the culture as the saying, “From the mouth of babes,” denoting that children have some kind of wisdom to offer. 

So what gives? What does this mean? When do we listen to children? Even adult ones? Continue reading “What Should We Listen To “From the Mouths of Babes”?”

Fatherly Rage

No child is bad from the beginning… they only imitate their atmosphere.

Prince

Nothing in life is easy. Nothing. Especially the things that are good. Even things that are supposed to be natural, like parenthood.

Life is stressful enough without adding kids into the mix, and patience is always in limited reserves. Like any scarce resource, patience must be judiciously managed so that one doesn’t spend the last few hours of the waking day a simmering cauldron of rage.

This affects parents, no doubt. But this is not necessarily what has been affecting me. I am generally even-keeled and tend not to let my emotions overtake me, whether I’m at work or involved in something personal. This isn’t my natural disposition, though, but one borne through almost two decades of managing a legendarily short fuse.

And yet, I find myself getting angry at my son a lot lately.

He is four-and-a-half, very funny, and very energetic. This energy has difficulty being dispersed by nature of our having moved recently to a much smaller place in the city. This will change soon, hopefully, but I’m not making any guesses as to when.

So in lieu of being able to play outside, he has to deal with “indoor” stuff, particularly at night, when there are no playgrounds or parks or backyards nearby. And the indoor stuff soon gets boring for a kid who loves nothing more than being out in the open air. 

You can see where this is going.  Continue reading “Fatherly Rage”