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”

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.

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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”

Working Stiff Blues

It began like any other work day. 

Dressed in my suit and tie, I grabbed my stuff and said goodbye to my family before I head out to greet the workday.

“Stay here daddy. I don’t want you to go to work. And I don’t want to go to school. Let’s play!”

“Believe me, kiddo, believe me: I don’t want to go to work either.”

The words pass almost unconsciously from my lips. After all, nobody wants to go to work. Work is bad, right?

Well, no. Work is necessary. Work equals survival. Without work, nothing ever would get done. We’d still all be hunter-gatherers and there would be no civilization to speak of, modern or otherwise.

Maybe one doesn’t like their job, maybe one doesn’t like being away from their family for so long, maybe one would rather be doing something else for work, but work itself is not the problem.

“All jobs suck.”

“That’s why they call it WORK.”

“No pain, no gain!”

These things are true. But is that what kids hear? Are they able to parse these truths from generic statements like “I don’t want to go to work”?

Kids are sponges. We all know that. It’s what made me stop saying this to my son. 

Maybe I’m paranoid, but I don’t want him to equate “work” in his little mind with “bad.” Because if I do, what’s going to happen whenever he has to work at something, especially something difficult? Continue reading “Working Stiff Blues”

The Tightrope: Finding the Balance Between Helicopter and Laissez-Faire

Invincible tightrope
I don’t know who drew this. I’d love to give credit, so if you did, please let me know!

Everyone has regrets, things about their lives we wish we could go back and do again. And then we have kids.

Kids are a wonderful opportunity to shape the future. After all, they’ll be running the world someday, so might as well make sure they turn out alright. Right?

But hold on: You also know that guy. That father who pushes his failures and insecurities onto his kids–usually his sons–and tries to vicariously atone for his past mistakes using his children.

My goal is to not be that guy.

Children are not an opportunity to correct the past. They are an opportunity to shape the future for the better.

I was lucky enough that my father did not do this. Sure, his parents were stricter to him than my parents were to me–for example, my dad was never allowed to play the guitar or drums or listen to rock music, so he let me and my siblings do all three–but my parents let us become our own people with our individual likes, dislikes, wants, fears, needs, and desires, and for that I thank them.

Yet there are certain things about my personality and certain life choices I have made that I definitely do not want my son to have or to make. I want him to do what will make him happy, but I really would prefer he doesn’t go to law school–not because I myself am not 100% “in love” with the profession (as though that’s a prerequisite to taking a job), but because, unless things change, I don’t see a career in the legal profession as having the most opportunity for growth and success.

And another thing is that I want him to be a risk-taker. I want to provide for him, but I don’t want him to live in a cage of safety. I want him to struggle and overcome and be a light unto the world.

It’s a balancing act, one that requires constant vigilance to maintain. It’s the tightrope between being a helicopter parent and a laissez-faire one.

I’m just a man, a regular guy trying to make his way in the world and do right by his children. But I also have a secret identity, one that exists only to my son.

A big part of making sure my son–and any other kids I hope to have–feels secure in taking risks and imposing his will on the world is that he sees me as Superman, capable of everything.

Parents, especially fathers, need to be seen as invincible to their kids.  Continue reading “The Tightrope: Finding the Balance Between Helicopter and Laissez-Faire”

Hardship and Inspiration

Is hardship necessary for you to be an inspiration to others? 

I had this thought listening to Sonnie Johnson‘s podcast. Sonnie, who is black, discusses politics but she also highlights ways that the black community can improve itself and features interesting guests. 

Most of them preach a message of self-responsibility and capitalism, and prove that in the US, anything is possible if you have the drive and the courage.

But another commonality is that most of her guests overcame difficult upbringings; in other words, the proverbial “life on the streets.”

Like it or not, blacks in America still have it a lot rougher than whites, and many need to work twice as hard to escape horrifically dangerous dead-end situations. 

These voices are inspirational, even to me, a white guy from rural New Hampshire who grew up quite comfortably in the cage of safety. If people with the circumstances stacked against them can make it and serve as an example to others, what’s my excuse? Continue reading “Hardship and Inspiration”