Tagged with " children"
May 19, 2015 - Ancient History, AV Club    1 Comment

Looking for a Moment of Zen

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Connor around the time we bought our first TiVo box.

We bought our first TiVo machine when Connor was about 7 months old. This turned out to be the single best purchase we made as new parents. It allowed us keep up with our favorite shows so we still felt connected to popular culture through the following months of sleep deprivation and unpredictable schedules.

We developed the habit of watching The Daily Show over Cam’s lunch hour, when he came home from his library job just five minutes up the road. Connor would sit in the cradle of Cam’s crossed legs and watch the show with us. Soon, Connor was laughing along with us, even though he didn’t understand the jokes—he caught on to the rhythm of the comedy, and the funny faces helped too. We didn’t know about his autism yet, but his ability to perceive patterns was already strong.

By the time he was two, Connor had started folding Jon Stewart into the epic adventures he played out with his action figures, as important to the story as his other superheroes. He would even hook a clip-on tie to the collar of his t-shirt, then stand tiptoe on the bathroom stool so he could see his reflection. He babbled in his “moon language,” but with a very peculiar rhythm that ended in maniacal laughter. When I asked him what he was doing in there, he replied with some exasperation, “I Jon Stewart!”

Only a week or two after his second birthday party, he announced very clearly, “For my next birthday, I want Jon Stewart party.” Cam and I found this hilarious, and we assured him that we would make it happen. For our amusement, we checked in with him every few months: “So, what kind of birthday party do you think you might want for your third birthday?” And he steadfastly replied, “I want Jon Stewart Party!”

At last, summer rolled around again, and we worked hard to make his wish a reality. With a birthday so close to July 4th, it was easy for us to get flag party supplies. We handed out invitations with a picture of Jon Stewart on them and the message “WE WANT YOU to celebrate Connor’s third birthday!” to the other kids at his preschool. (We got a few disapproving looks from other parents who thought we let Connor stay up ’til 11pm to watch the show as it aired; a quick explanation of the magic of TiVo resolved things.) The technology where you could get a photo scanned onto a cake’s frosting had just come to town; we got some strange looks at the bakery when we brought in a cast picture, I can tell you.

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The day was everything we could’ve hoped for. His preschool teacher made him a t-shirt with Jon Stewart’s face on it. We played episodes on TV while the other 2- and 3-year-olds ran around whacking each other with American flag thundersticks.2015_05_19_10_21_52

And when it was cake time, he announced with a certain cannibalistic glee , “I eat Jon Stewart face!”

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It’s hard to believe that that party was almost 10 years ago. Connor will turn 13 this summer, a milestone I sometimes wondered if we’d ever reach. His love of comedy is still integral to who he is, and his senses of the absurd and satire come as much from Jon Stewart as they do from us his parents. Whenever we wonder whether he can understand a concept with complicated emotional nuances that can be difficult for autistic kids, we know he’s gotten it when he makes up a joke about it.

To be fair, Connor (bottom left) comes by his weird sense of humor naturally.

To be fair, Connor (bottom left) comes by his weird sense of humor naturally.

It would close a 10-year circle beautifully if we could figure out how to get tickets to one of the remaining tapings of The Daily Show. We had heard that, through friends of friends, one of the birthday party invitations had made its way to Jon Stewart himself. I doubt he still has it, but maybe he remembers it. And if this story makes its way to him in a similar fashion, maybe he could see his way clear to make a kid’s lifelong dream come true.

Nov 25, 2014 - Domestic Engineering    1 Comment

Each mother’s sons and daughters

I talk, write, and think a lot about structural racism in America and the wider world. I know that I’m still just an apprentice in this work, and a privileged one at that. Take as many grains of salt with that as you feel appropriate.

But I am the mother of two sons. We’re white, so that’s an undeserved and unearned shield that lets me sleep more easily than the mothers of black and brown sons. But I want my kids to grow up awake and aware of racism in their world, in age-appropriate ways, the same as I want them to grow up knowing that LGBT people deserve love and respect.

Why expose them to the brutal, hurtful truth about race when they’re as young as eight years old? Because their first friends included black and brown children, and already there were systems labeling and tracking them toward vastly different outcomes. By middle school, my son’s friends are encountering suspicion, discrimination, and exclusion from opportunities. And by high school, they’re nine times more likely to be arrested on school grounds than my white sons.

So here’s how I’ve talked about race with my kids. I hope other white mothers can find helpful thoughts here, too.

  • I’ve taught my boys to vocally oppose bullying whenever they encounter it, because we believe that every person is worthy of respect and dignity.
  • We try to teach them that we don’t call people by adjectives. No one is stupid or bad, but we all do stupid and bad things sometimes.
  • If you have to refer to someone in a crowd, point them out with neutral identifiers, like height, clothing color or pattern, etc.
  • If I hear my kid using language that would be hurtful, I pull them aside immediately and ask where they learned that word/phrase. I explain why that might be hurtful to someone, and ask them not to use it anymore.
  • Sometimes, that leads to bigger discussions about why anyone would hate someone for the color of their skin, or who their parents are, or who they love. Be clear and honest. I’ve said it’s because some people think there’s only so much goodness in the world, and they’re afraid of losing their share to people who are different from them. I’ve said it’s because, while some of us find new and different things and people exciting and interesting, some people find them scary and hard to understand. But everyone can learn to be welcoming, because that’s how we all start as kids.
  • Be honest about white privilege, too, starting when they ask questions about racism (this may come during or after the general existential crisis many 2nd graders experience). I’ve used metaphors like running a hurdles race, except that on both sides of the white runners’ hurdles, there are old, wooden steps built long ago by people we don’t know. Would you use them if they were right there? Would you use them if you saw that your black and brown friends not only don’t have stairs, but might even have big holes dug on both sides of the hurdle instead? How would you help your friends: stop running, move the stairs away, invite them into your lane?
  • Let your kids see you doing things in your community with black and brown folks, especially against racist structures. This may mean going way outside your comfort zone, but it’s never not brought me richer, deeper ties to the place I live. Start by attending a rally or march; they ARE safe places for kids. Other invitations and opportunities will certainly follow.
  • Make this learning journey intersectional. Talk about freedom and privilege, and the ways those things have been denied to women, Native Americans, immigrants, disabled people, LGBT people, the poor, the homeless, people of other religious and political beliefs, and many other “Othered” groups. They’re not all the same struggle, but they have a lot of common lessons about humanity to teach us.
  • Encourage your children to read diverse books, play diverse games, watch diverse movies, and listen to diverse music (I know, I hate the way I’m using the word “diverse” here too, but it comes from the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks). Watch, play, read, and listen with them, always. Talk about how those things make you feel, and ask your kids how it makes them feel. Look for opportunities to encounter these things in person: in museums, art galleries, concerts, and libraries.

 

I hope someone finds something helpful here. I’m always on social media to talk, too. Don’t let the pain of these setbacks in our movement toward equity and justice keep you from engaging your children. Let it fuel you and yours to do better, now and in the future.

Update: The Saint Paul Federation of Teachers have posted a page with extensive links to materials for teachers on how to address Ferguson and racism in the classroom. Many of these resources are also filled with info that adults need to know, too. Read and learn together.

Meltdown in the frozen north

Our rental managers at Como Park Apartments stepped up to offer day-long activities for the apartment complex’s kids when school closed this week. This came as very welcome news, as our car remained resolutely opposed to starting in the sub-zero temperatures. Big-hearted community efforts like this keep us here when, to be honest, we could use a little more room—there just isn’t anywhere else with neighbors and management who give each other such close-knit support.

Monday was grand, and the DH and I got loads of work done while the boys played the day away at the party room. They came back with tales of new friends and pizza-sauce stains on their faces. Tuesday seemed to be headed the same way, but at 2, my cell phone rang. “I need you to come down,” our neighbor said. “Connor’s having a meltdown.”

When we got there, he was sitting in a corner with two of the staff who were talking calmly despite his sobbing. I helped him up and hugged him tight, despite his wet swim clothes, then convinced him to come sit with me so we could talk more easily. I held him until his breathing and tears slowed, then we started to dissect the series of events that left him so upset. A scare from some horseplay in the pool, combined with embarrassment over his friends seeing him cry, kicked it off. But it was the clever liar of depression that told him everyone hated him, that he was a waste of space, and he should just die.

While it was good that the DH and I were home so we could reach him quickly, the neighbors and staff had done everything exactly right. That’s far from guaranteed when it comes to folks who don’t deal with autistic or mentally ill kids every day, and I wanted to take a moment to write about what they did and how it might have made the difference between a bumpy patch and a potential disaster.

First, the adults recognized that he was starting to meltdown. In my experience, this looks different from a regular episode of angry or sad crying; instead of falling apart, getting limp, or long wailing, a kid in meltdown usually winds tighter, with shallower breathing and critical self-talk in an escalating pattern. They may lash out at people who try to get close, or even throw things, but they’re generally not interested in hurting anyone but themselves. The best case scenario is to derail the meltdown, and distraction is the best way to do it. Give the kid something to play with, like a fidget or craft—one friend kept knitting in her bag when she worked with a child who found the motion soothing. Strike up a conversation on a common interest, ask questions. If they’ll accept a hug or something heavy for some comforting pressure, that helps too, but it’s rarely the right move to force physical contact.

If you can’t de-escalate, safety is critical. Thoughts that hurt as much as the ones that bubble up in meltdown make a person want to flee, and they may bolt for the door, or try to hurt themselves, or both. Connor had been in the swimming pool, and tried to drown himself when his self-loathing got so heavy so fast. Once they had him out of the water, he wound his scarf around his neck; they got it away from him. He ran to the far end of the balcony, and they sat with him. Location, tools, and support—they had the bases covered.

Third, they stayed calm. Kids in meltdown are loud, and sometimes they’re saying things you don’t want to hear: dark things, angry things, scary things. The temptation to talk over them, to force reason atop their disorder until both of you are screaming, is powerful. But it doesn’t help. Even your silent presence, steady and resolute if non-communicative, is better than pushing them toward a brink they might not otherwise approach. Mostly, they just need to spill. Don’t silence, don’t argue—the storm will blow itself out if it’s not being fed.

We’re grateful for many things on the good days, but sometimes a bad day turns up a cause for thanks too. I can’t say enough good things about the compassion and quick-thinking our neighbors showed in a situation that’s hard to manage even with years of experience. The same factors, managed with indifference or inattention, could have yielded tragedy I can’t bear to think about. Every parent knows that sending a kid out into the world on their own is to live with your heart beating outside your own chest. Having the right understanding of a meltdown situation can equip you to handle other people’s hearts and children with care.

Dear Santa, You Suck

I was 5 when I figured out the Easter Bunny wasn’t real. It wasn’t that I failed the suspension of disbelief–it was that I noticed the Easter Bunny had the same handwriting as my aunt that year. In my usual, filterless way, I started to announce my observation, but my mom clapped a hand over my mouth and dragged me toward the bathroom like she was making off with the Lindbergh Baby.

To her everlasting credit, she didn’t lie to me. I asked if EB was real; she said no. I remember scrunching up my face, heaving a sigh, and saying, “Santa too?” She nodded silently, then issued the death threat to end all death threats if I wrecked the “magic” for my sibs and cousin. I got it, and we left the bathroom as co-conspirators. In the years that followed, ones of poverty and divorce, I knew that magic didn’t put presents under our tree. I knew that my brother’s Cabbage Patch Kid and my sister’s Barbie Dream House didn’t come from a workshop–they came from year-long savings and a tiring wait in line at the toy store. And I liked the thought of my mom sitting down to eat some milk and cookies after we’d all gone to bed on Christmas Eve. I knew she’d earned it.

When the Darling Husband and I set out to have children of our own, we thrashed out a lot of our game plan far in advance. One of those things was Santa, and the conclusion we reached was that we would never actively lie to our kids about the fat man’s existence. But we’ve done a whole lot of evasion and omission over the years. When they ask if Santa is real, we ask them, “What do you think?” When they ask how Santa knows where to find us when we travel, we ask them, “What tools would you use to find someone?”

This year, though, I’ve really had it. There are so many things about the Santa tradition that piss me off. Let’s leave alone for the purposes of this discussion the whole creepy, stalker, NSA-level spying, remorseless housebreaking aspect. “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” should be giving kids nightmares, and making parents peruse home alarm systems instead of Brookstone catalogs.

My first objection is that Santa compliance is mandatory for American kids. Nobody knows how to leverage peer pressure like grade-schoolers, and woe betide the kid who has to explain why Santa doesn’t visit their house. Maybe it’s because their family celebrates Hanukkah or Diwali instead. But maybe it’s because they don’t have money for presents. Kids are quick to point out that how much you get from Santa is an indication of your worth and goodness. No presents means you are lacking as a person, and kids internalize that message along with the holiday mythology.

My second problem with Santa comes from his whole Modus Operandi. To get presents from Santa, you fill a letter with all the things you’re wishing for, stick it in a mailbox, and wait for your wishes to arrive. We don’t write Santa letters in our house, but the grandparents are quite the sticklers about wish lists. This process always begins with the paralysis of choice: they’ve been told all year long not to ask for things we can’t buy, but now they’re supposed to summon up all the things they’ve wished for in the last 12 months? We’ve tried to mitigate some of the stress by constructing categories, explaining that they should have things that are cheap, medium-priced, and crazy-go-nuts over-the-top. I’ve wished for a Harley-Davidson motorcycle for the last 20 Christmases; my brother politely requests the Eiffel Tower every year. Recently, we’ve moved to a “Wear/Read/Play” model, which seems to function even better.

My third complaint is that Santa requires no gratitude. Since everything the man in the suit brings is magically constructed (apparently for free) in his workshop, and you get what you deserve, why be thankful? If Santa gets all the credit, kids don’t have any reason to think about what it costs for their loved ones to make those presents appear. Why is money so tight in November and January? Why does Mom look absolutely thrashed by December 26? As much as kids understand that a poor showing from Santa means that they’ve been bad, parents understand that if they don’t give enough presents, they’re failing a part of the parental contract laid out by society.

So that’s it, fat man–I’m cutting you off. This is the last year you get all the joy and none of the blame. I’m not falling for the line that taking away Santa will “deprive my children of a sense of wonder.” You know what they can feel wonder for? Real things, like nature, the cosmos, the infinitely woven tapestry of story and life that surrounds them. Instead of watching the NORAD website for Santa’s supposed location, we’ll bundle up and look at the cold, clear night sky.

When my kids get the things they want for Yule, they’ll know it’s because their parents worked hard, and that every gift cost real money that someone had to earn. They’ll learn the joy of giving by seeing and understanding why we’re happy that they’re happy with their gifts. The holiday magic will come from family stories and traditions, from the candles and songs on the darkest night of the year, and from the Time Lord with a Christmas special that we can feel good about our kids believing in.

Dec 3, 2013 - Literature    No Comments

Midwinter Tales, Part the First

Every holiday clustered around the winter solstice is about pushing back the dark with the promise of light. And the tool they all use is story, whether it’s the Maccabees or the Nativity or the Unconquered Sun. Story is what we turn to for warmth in the darkest depths of winter. It passes the long nights, and carries us out of the cold to anywhere our imaginations can take us.

In honor of the tradition of midwinter tales, I decided that every evening in December, I’ll post a video of myself reading a bedtime story. Some of them, I’ll do live as a Hangout On-Air at 6pm CDT. Others, I’ll tape in advance and post in the evening.

Some of the stories will be quiet and peaceful. Some will be funny and rambunctious. All of them will be favorites, read many times to me or my sons. I really can’t wait to share these stories with you all.

I’ll also be including links to Amazon for each book, through an Affiliate link that gives a portion of the book’s cost to the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, an organization that seeks to put autistics in the room with policy makers and media so our voices are heard on the issues that affect us directly. You’re also welcome to stick something in the Tuition Fund here on the blog if you want to support this project.

gargoylesThe first night, I read God Bless the Gargoyles by Dav Pilkey. You can watch it here: Midwinter Tales, 1 Dec 2013(You’ll want to move the video forward to 2:57 where the story starts. I accidentally went live before I finished dinking around with technical stuff.)

 

littleoneThe second night, I read I Love You, Little One by Nancy Tafuri. You can watch it here: Midwinter Tales, 2 Dec 2013

Spread the word, and let folks with kids know there are free bedtime stories online–maybe it’ll buy them a few minutes of peace during this busy season. I hope you enjoy watching them as much as I enjoy reading.

A World of Hate

I knew Griffin had a bad day by the way he walked in the door after school Monday. Slow shuffle, hangdog expression, sad sad puppy eyes. “Rough day?” I inquired gently. He nodded, took his folder out of his backpack, and handed it over without a world.

I wasn’t surprised by the discipline slip. But I was absolutely flattened by what it said: “Griffin called another student the ‘n-word.'” I felt a wave of horror and nausea that it’s difficult to describe, which can’t be anywhere close to  how it feels to be on the receiving end of that slur.
“Griffin,” I demanded, “what n-word did you call someone?”

Eyes filling, lower lip trembling, he sobbed out, “NOOB!” before dissolving into a mass of tears and remorse in my lap.

I had to restrain my reflexive laughter in that moment, but I held him away from me for a second. “You said noob?! That’s what this is about?” He nodded, and collapsed against me again. I stroked his hair, and told him we’d get this straightened out, that “noob” isn’t really a bad word, though calling anyone any name isn’t a nice or friendly thing to do.

I went on to question him from a half-dozen oblique angles over the next half-hour, trying to figure out if he even knew the actual n-word. The kid isn’t above trying to lie to save his skin, but he’s pretty terrible at it, and the look of blank incomprehension at my suggestions were more telling than anything he might’ve said.

Finally, I asked him quietly, after a long silence, “Griffin, have you ever heard the word ‘nigger’ before?” He frowned and shook his head. After a few quiet moments, he asked in a whisper, “Is that the bad n-word?” I nodded and said, “You cannot ever, ever say that. It’s the most hurtful word there is.”

I got in touch with the school, seeking resolution. The staff and teachers there are outstanding, and they know the DH and I as the first line of enforcement when there’s any kind of behavior issue. We’ve been unfailingly cooperative, and they’ve been unfailingly kind and loving toward our kids. When we went in to talk this over with the principal and the cultural specialist, I expected that they would’ve found what we did.

But they said they’d questioned the kids present at the incident, and several of them said that Griffin did, in fact, use the real n-word, including one of Griff’s buddies, an African-American kid who couldn’t even say the word aloud when asked.

There is nothing about this incident I don’t hate to the core of my being. I hate that I cannot reconcile what I saw in Griffin when I talked with him about the name-calling, and what the school’s investigation found. I hate having to mistrust his narrative. I hate that I don’t think this will be able to be one of those funny stories we laugh about in the decades to come.

I hate that I was forced to speak a word to my child that I would never, ever say for any reason. I hate that someone might have already introduced him to it–maybe through a YouTube video of game play, maybe on the schoolyard.

I hate that I have to talk to a seven-year-old boy about racism in specific terms. I hate that the fact that he has more friends of color than white friends apparently didn’t protect him from this kind of violence. I hate that he may have made one of those friends aware of his own race and the sickness of heart that comes with it.

I hate that my personal and our family’s real lived values about equality and kindness frankly don’t count for anything in this situation. I hate that this happened in the middle of the most intensive racial equity work I’ve ever engaged in, work that’s made me feel like a soft, naked thing in a world of hedgehogs with quills of bias and bigotry and privilege that constantly draw blood on my aware, exposed heart.

I hate that I don’t know how to be a good parent in this situation. I hate that apparently, I haven’t known how to be one for longer than I imagined.

Meet the Geeklings: Superheroes!

CivilWarBoysThe Pink & Ginger posts have been surprisingly popular, I thought I’d give something else a try. Everyone seems entertained by the quotes I share from Connor and Griffin, my 11- and 7-year-old sons. And it’s true: they’re hilarious and clever and insightful and weird.

So every once in a while, I’ll have a conversation with them on here. Today’s topic is near and dear to the Banks Family’s heart: Superheroes.

ProfBanks: So, who’s your favorite superhero, and why?

Griffin: Superman is bulletproof, and that’s awesome. Even if they shoot at his butt, it bounces off!

Connor: I’m sorta mixed between Deadpool and Green Lantern. Deadpool, because he’s so hilarious and unexpected, and he talks to us, like, “Hey readers!” And Green Lantern, because he can make anything that’s not yellow…

I can’t believe neither of them mentioned this flaw in GL’s powers.

G: He can’t make a rubber duckie!

C: And he’s a good person, and that gives him the privilege of being able to make anything so he can help. Why I said it’s a tie is that his weakness is yellow, so Rubber Duckie Guy could beat him, and that’s pretty weak. We could throw a pencil or a LEGO guy’s head, and he’d be all, “Oh no my only weakness!”

Darling Husband (interrupts): The Golden Age one’s weakness was wood.

C: That’s even weaker! A pencil would totally take him out!

G: He couldn’t ever go to school! But what do you like about those guys?

C: Because they’re kinda like me. Deadpool is funny and unpredictable, and Green Lantern is creative and open-minded.

PB: Awesome, Connor. Griff, I’m kinda surprised that you said Superman, because you’ve always been about the villains more than the heroes, and I thought that’s why you liked Batman best.

G: Well, Batman can beat Green Lantern with his belt!

C: Stop talking about how your heroes can beat my heroes!

PB: Stay on target, kids. Tell me more about Batman.

G: Awesome tools! Fighting crime! Sweet mask!

PB: You know, I can type whole sentences.

G: I feel bad for him, actually. I feel bad for his parents, and I hate the robber who killed them. Can I tell you how he killed them?

PB: Yeah.

G: He used a gun. He shot them in the head.

C: Did you know that Batman actually used to use a gun, back when he started?

G: Wow, Mom’s writing this all down! Yeah, it makes me really sad. Can you make a little 🙁 ?

PB: Sure.

G: I like how he found the Batcave, too. It’s awesome because there’s a gigantic penny! He could use it to buy something really expensive!

PB: That’s not how money works.

G: What if someone painted it as a dollar bill?

PB: …

C: I do want to say that Green Lantern’s movie sucks. I mean, it was kinda cool, but it also sucks at the same time. It didn’t feel right, like with the Christopher Nolan series or with Man of Steel. It was more lighthearted. I liked it anyway, but it’s too bad.

PB: So what kinds of stories do you like best when you read or watch about superheroes?

C: I like the ones where there’s an essential key that you can’t imagine. Like, Captain America versus Iron Man in Civil War, or Superman losing his powers. I like how the writers are so creative and descriptive of how those things would happen. You don’t imagine Spider-Man killing one of the Avengers, but they make you understand all the pressures on them and how it could happen. What about you, Griff? Do you like the ones where the bad guy wins?

G: I like Teen Titans, because Robin’s in it, and he’s one of my favorites. He’s my favorite sidekick.

PB: So, Griff, you like stories for the characters in them most of all.

G: Yeah. Robin’s pretty cool, but not cooler than Batman.

PB: Why’s that?

G: He’s awesome because he’s Batman’s sidekick, and he’s funny. I think he’s probably the same age as my brother.

C: Do you like that because he’s a good kid rolemodel? To grow up and be great and help people? Would you like to be Robin someday?

G: Mm-hm.

PB: You realize Robin’s family dies, right?

G: Yeah, I’m also sad for Robin too.

PB: What does feeling sad for a character do to make the story good or bad?

G: I don’t really like it when people die. It makes me feel really sad, because it’s like they’re my friend.

C: I think it helps the story, because it helps you understand what happens to them. Like with Jason Todd. When he died, you really wanted to keep reading so you’d know what happened to him. Lots of people come back to life in Batman, and you want to know how they do that.

G: I’m also sad because Robin dies. I mean, Damian Wayne.

PB: Is that your favorite Robin?

It’s true: he does have awesome hair. But those are escrima sticks, not nunchuks.

G: Yes, plus also Nightwing. He has nunchuks and cool-looking hair.

PB: What do superheroes teach you about how to act like a good person?

C: It’s hard to explain, but superheroes give me inspiration to do good things, because they show that if you do good things to other people, even if you’re not in the best situation yourself, good things will come back to you. Captain America and Spider-Man are good examples. Spider-Man has had many deaths of people he loves and are close to him, because of bad choices he made.

PB: Was it really Spider-Man’s choices that made those things happen?

C: One of them, Uncle Ben. He started out cocky. And Captain America has had more deaths, but less personal to him. But he still chooses to fight for freedom, instead of Spider-Man who is a vigilante.

PB: Why is Cap better than Spider-Man because of how he fights?

C: Spiderman fights for certain people in his life, but he puts all his care into them. Cap spreads out his care across the world. Except for Nazis. He doesn’t care about them.

PB: Griff, what about you? What things do you see superheroes do that teach you how to behave?

G: It’s a really hard one. I don’t get it, because all the time, they just fight. It’s confusing that they’re good and they fight, because we’re not supposed to fight people. It’d be better if at the beginning of each movie, they said, “Don’t do any of this at home. Or at school.”

C: Or anywhere! Except maybe a boxing match.

G: They also teach you not to rob banks and stuff.

C: It’s kind of weird that Spider-Man’s theme song makes it sound like he’s singing at villains. Also, another thing: Who lives in America since they were born and doesn’t know about superheroes?

PB: Good question. Why do you think America is so into superheroes, especially right now?

C: Because we need leaders or reasons why to keep going, because we’re in a tough situation with the government shutdown and Osama bin Laden. We’re still getting over 9/11! So we need to have someone to watch over us, to protect us.

G: Because they [Americans] might learn from them how to protect themselves and how to be good.

C: Mom, are Americans terrorists to Afghan people, since we attacked them?

PB: That’s a really complicated question, Connor. Some people in other parts of the world do feel like Americans are bullies because of how we use our power to affect their lives. That’s not just military power; it’s also economic and social.

C: That’s not good.

G: No, not good.

PB: How do you think that relates to superheroes and how they’re supposed to represent American values?

C: I think it represents them kinda badly. To us, Superman and Captain America are the good guys and they fight for America and they’re good guys because of that. Recently (but before the New 52) Superman became more international, and maybe it’s because America’s not always right.

PB: Do you think that everyone appreciates the same values and stories about superheroes? What ideals do you think would be different?

C: There’s an episode of Justice League where they put Green Lantern on trial for breaking interspace law. It turns out he’s being framed, but the trial reveals that we have all these loopholes. Our politics are really dumb here—not dumb, but bad and some people who work there are dumb and close-minded. We arrest people with no good evidence.

PB: Is that how you think Americans seem to the rest of the world sometimes?

C: Yeah.

PB: How do you think that current superhero media can address that impression?

Not like this, though. This is bad.

C: Superman’s not just an American icon now—he’s known internationally. He fights for good, and he won’t stand down to an injustice happening. He’s not lazy about not wanting to go to bad areas; he’ll go anywhere something bad is happening.

PB: What about how we show superheroes as more flawed individuals, like Iron Man, not just big archetypes?

C: Man of Steel is a good example of this. Superman’s his own person, with his own clues and mysteries to solve in the world. He has a choice to make. He’s not perfect all the time.

PB: I did not expect to go this deep. Thanks, guys. As always, you rock my world.

 

 

 

 

Sep 11, 2013 - AV Club    No Comments

DC Comics: Make It Right

Saturday night, I finally got to watch the movie 42. It’s about Jackie Robinson as he crossed the color lines of pro baseball right after World War II. I was ready to cry. I cry a lot at civil rights stories, for reasons I don’t completely understand, except that I can feel my heart tearing in two to see humans being treated as less-than.

What I wasn’t ready for was the way I burst out in tears during the trailer reel. It wasn’t even a really good movie preview that did it–it was a Public Service Announcement from Warner Brothers for a DC Comics child hunger initiative called “We Can Be Heroes.” It was everything I love and find moving in the iconography and symbolism of the Justice League and its members: protectors of humanity wherever they’re needed, asking for no thanks or compensation. Just doing good in the world. Take a second to watch; you’ll see what I mean.

But I was fresh from anger so blinding that I brought in the Darling Husband to help me write a blog post about it because I was worried I couldn’t write sensibly on the subject. So the tears that sprang to my eyes and clogged up my throat were tears of fury and frustration. Why couldn’t DC Comics be THIS instead of the ongoing train wreck I recounted last week?

I care about this because DC is family to me. I grew up in the glory days of Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman and Christopher Reeve’s Superman and the technicolor weirdness of Sunday-afternoon episodes of Batman. I had the Underoos to prove it. I waited in line to have my picture taken with a distinctly sausage-like Batman at the local Toys’R’Us, and I was thrilled about it.

Later, the Darling Husband romanced me from afar with DC comics, mostly Vertigo titles that filled a space in me I didn’t know was empty. And when our first son was born, DH flew him around the room ever-so-carefully when the theme song of the Justice League cartoon came on. After a while, Connor’s head would swivel between TV and Dad every time he heard it, drooling (literally) in anticipation of his thrilling flights. The boys were born just a little too early for the cool Fisher Price Little People versions of DC characters that are in stores now, but we bought all of the large, chunky ones designed for slightly older kids, and they’re been loved to pieces.

We’re in that gap now where there isn’t much for kids coming out of DC Comics. TV appears to be the only place they’re making kid-friendly content.The title Superman Family Adventures was nice, but it’s been cancelled. There’s no DC analog for video games like Marvel Ultimate Alliance or Marvel vs. Capcom, which are slightly more mature than the admittedly excellent LEGO Batman games, but still not too warped or bloody. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight movies and Man of Steel are un-fun and too mature for kids.

I’m not saying that there should be no material aimed at mature readers, not at all. I’m saying that DC has abandoned creative products for one end of the spectrum of readers and fans, while continuing to market their merchandise with the force of a firehose to those young children. And that doesn’t even address the way they’re driving their women readers away with a stick.

So here are five things I can think of that DC Comics could do right now to get on the right side of this problem and reclaim their historic place:

1) Let Batwoman marry her fiancee. Happy relationships make terrible drama, so I don’t expect it to be a Happily Ever After, but get with the times and let them have a wedding.

2) Green-light a Wonder Woman movie now. And don’t put it in the hands of some dude who’s made a bunch of superhero movies. Put it in the hands of a woman who’s made great films about heroes, like The Hurt Locker (and Oscar-winning) director Kathryn Bigelow. Let Jane Espenson and Mary Robinette Kowal collaborate on a script. And of course, get Kathleen Kennedy to produce. You can cram in as many SFX as you want, but the creative team needs a different grasp on the character and story than superhero movie directors usually have.

3) Stop putting sexualized violence in every video game scene involving a woman. Her name is Catwoman, not “Bitch.” No pulling women around by the hair. And if I can’t kick Batman in the bubble bag, you shouldn’t be able to kick a female character in the crotch.

4) Make more age-appropriate content. If you want kids to be into Batman enough to buy pajamas and plastic cups and Halloween costumes, tell them stories so they understand why Batman is cool. Don’t market Man of Steel merchandise to elementary-age kids who would be terrified by the dark, bitter Superman of the movie.

5) Don’t force your creative teams to fall on the sword for every PR disaster. Maybe some dumb ideas originate with a writer, artist, or editor, but they don’t make it to the public eye without a whole lot of executives signing off on them. Many execs were creatives once themselves, so they should know that if the corporation doesn’t give them enough support and latitude, artists can’t take the courageous leaps that make great, lasting art.

Fear of an Blank Parent

Because it is my highest aspiration to be a troublemaker, I’m setting out today to problematize something we all take for granted. I want to argue that the gendering of parenthood does very little good, and no small amount of harm.

This post springboards off posts by Amanda Valentine and me about the media portrayals of men and fathers as bumbling, hapless idiots who are as likely to diaper the Thanksgiving turkey and put the baby in the oven as watch the football game afterward. It also relates directly to the historic cases about same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court this week.

My point is very simple: there is very little difference between the duties my husband and I assume with regard to our children. And since the earliest days–specifically, since I stopped breastfeeding them–the differences in parenting caused by our genders have been vanishingly small.

As parents, we make sure they wash, dress, eat reasonably well (at least over the course of a week, if not each and every day). We send them to school, help with homework, take the inevitable phone calls that come from sending two active, intelligent boys to school every day. We monitor their media, we break up arguments, we cause arguments, and at the end of the day, we tuck them in at night with kisses and dire warnings against getting out of bed again for anything short of a fire.

Absolutely none of these things, or the billion other duties and blessings that comprise parenthood, depend on our biology.

The division of labor that takes place between modern co-parents comes from the frank assessment of one another’s particular strengths and struggles. I crack the whip over homework and science fair projects because I am an educator, not because I am a woman. My Darling Husband does more of the day-to-day housework because I am disabled, not because he is a man. Nor does this indicate I am a failure as a wife and mother, or that he is a weakened, hen-pecked husband and father. Someday, our boys will require The Talk (or to be more correct, The Talks); I honestly have no idea who’s going to give it. I hear the DH has a leg up on me in the visual aids department.

In one of the early hearings on the same-sex marriage bill currently under consideration here in Minnesota, the measure’s opponents brought out an 11-year-old girl to testify against the idea of marriage equality. (You may have also seen her on the steps of the Supreme Court this week; she’s one of their star witnesses right now.) She told the legislators that she loved her mommy and daddy, but that under this bill, some children wouldn’t have a mommy or a daddy, but two of one. “Which parent do I not need, my mom or my dad?” she asked the committee.

And I finally understood why fighting same-sex marriage matters so much to many of its fiercest opponents.

In their world, mothers and fathers do different things for the children. Fathers can’t do mothering, and mothers can’t do fathering. If a single mom or a pair of dads raises a child, there is work being left undone, and the child can’t help but suffer for it. How could anyone possibly be in favor of only half an upbringing?

The gendering of parenthood not only diminishes the power of what parents of both sexes do for their children everyday, but it also confuses the living heck out of some people. When you see signs decrying the erosion of “traditional marriage,” they’re not just talking about divorce and same-sex couples–they mean me and my oh-so-traditional marriage, too.

Even though I’m married to a spouse of the opposite gender, we’re destroying traditional marriage too, by sharing the work–the hardships, the effort, the joys, the rewards–of creating a new family. We’re also undermining the institution by teaching our children (made in the traditional “When a mommy and a daddy love each other very much…” biological way) that moms and dads cook dinner, attend school conferences, travel for work, and tell them to turn off the iPod at bedtime. For the most part, we’re interchangeable.

And our evil scheme is clearly working. They accept their friends with two moms, or one mom, or a dad and a grandma without so much as a bat of the eye. If I had a dime for every time they called the wrong one of us “Mom” or “Dad,” we could afford a bigger apartment. To them, “Mom” and “Dad” are just names to help differentiate between whose attention they’re demanding. It’d probably be easier on us all if there were a random name for “Whichever of you can help me first with what I want.”

My sons are growing up healthy and happy with two loving parents. They’d be no less loved if only one of us were around, or if we were both the same gender, or no gender at all. That’s not how love works–it’s not a zero-sum game.

And when you think of it like that, it’s pretty hard to see two loving, married parents eroding anything about our future.

Kids and Consent

A middle school near here had a lockdown today. Not a drill, an honest-to-goodness code red lockdown. I saw the news flash over Twitter that there were reports of shots fired. My heart stopped for about a half-hour. It’s not the school of anyone I know, but it’s close enough to my son’s age to fix in my mind’s eye until police reported the all-clear.

Turns out, it was a 12-year-old boy who called 911 with a locked cell phone (it would only dial an emergency number). It was a prank. A middle-school-aged boy thought it was funny to tell an operator that someone was firing a gun in a full school on a Wednesday morning, three months after the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Over 900 students, teachers, administrators, and staff were on lockdown for hours because nobody told a 12 year old never to ever call 911 as a joke, or if they did, he didn’t absorb the lesson.

And now he’s sitting in a jail.

Two other young men are sitting in a jail tonight, too, and will be for at least the next year of their lives, contemplating the horror they wrought on a 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio. They didn’t learn the meaning of the word “prank” either. They violated her body and her privacy because they thought it was funny.

How are we failing so completely to teach kids not to make decisions like this, or excuse them as humor?

I certainly don’t have all the answers; I probably don’t even have any good ones. But I want, for a moment, to explore the idea of consent as it relates to children. The current discussion around rape prevention in feminist circles focuses on the word “no” as insufficient, because the responsibility to say it still rests on the victim. If we teach kids that “‘no’ means ‘no,'” but if the victim is incapable of saying “no,” those kids with their miraculously literal (and literally miraculous) minds will understand that no one’s going to stop them.

And not too long from then, they’ll be adults who think no one’s going to stop them. This isn’t a slippery slope; it’s just time elapsing.

I’m the big disciplinarian in our house, and I draw a pretty strict line for my boys to toe. It’s not that the Darling Husband doesn’t have expectations as high as mine, but I think I’m more concerned about them following invisible social strictures, because I had to work so hard at their ages to just figure them out. Part of my mind still thinks I can save my kids the trouble I had by telling them how to maneuver, but I know that’s not the case.

More important to me, though, than whether they’re thoroughly civilized is whether or not they can make a good decision when left to their own devices. When I’m there, I can tell them the processes and rules. When I’m not, I need to know they’re capable of reaching the same conclusion. And just telling them over and over isn’t enough. The trick is, I have to let them do things and make mistakes to convey this lesson. And we parents aren’t very good at allowing a child to make decisions for themselves these days.

The whole endeavor of childhood is currently an exercise in coercion and control, rather than consent. It starts early: mothers who may not have much choice about whether or how to be pregnant or give birth seek to reclaim control by exercising their choice about issues like circumcision and vaccinations. We turn day care and school choice into a major undertaking that continues to be pushed back further and further into infancy–it seems inevitable that parents will consider which schools are accepting applications before attempting to conceive–rather than waiting to see which environment best suits the child’s personality. School attendance and activity is mandatory, with little or no flexibility for the majority of students. Parents who juggle complex schedules don’t consult children about when (or even whether, sometimes) to have lessons, homework, dinner, or bedtime, passing on the lack of control they may experience in their work and social environments.

Parents obviously want what’s best, but the simple fact is that almost no one bothers to obtain a child’s consent for anything. When they do, it often conforms to the illusion of choice, which is a helpful vehicle in speeding through more fundamental objections. Which jacket do you want to wear, red or blue? It’s shower time; here, choose your shower setting and temperature, the color of your towel. Would you prefer carrots or peas as your dinner vegetable? “No” only gets you a restatement of the choices or a deferment, rarely a conversation about why they’re objecting. That’s not surprising; “no” is a powerful word, as kids discover early on, and in a world where they’re so powerless, they often use it without checking to see if it’s really needed, just because it gets a reaction.

I’m not proposing that parents be completely permissive and let their kids boss them around, or be rude, or break all the rules. And I’m certainly not going to relinquish my control as a parent to make judgment calls that keep my kid healthy, safe, or in line with a program that benefits everyone in the family. Sometimes, you’ve just got to take one for the team, and I’d like to think I do a decent job explaining to my sons why that decision is necessary at that time, and when they might next make a decision for themselves.

But if taking a shower or eating vegetables or doing math homework is always a matter of when, not if, even when the child has legitimate objections, is it any wonder that our kids don’t know that they can say “no” to a child molester or abductor? What good has it done them before to say “no”? And why should they listen to someone else say “no” when it’s never worked for them when they didn’t want to do something. Silence isn’t the same as consent, but neither is age a replacement for asking.

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