Thursday, January 6, 2011

Little lessons

I’m pretty sure the cat is already out of the bag on this one, but let me cop to a slightly unexemplary parenting technique which my wife and I have adopted over the past few months. The little guy is really still technically too little to have the run of the house unsupervised, and although we’re getting more and more comfortable leaving him happily playing with his trains while we roam to other floors of our abode doing various chores, we always keep an ear out and are ready to spring in his direction at the first hint of danger or distress. What we’re not comfortable with (and I think rightly so) is letting him play on his own while we are still dozing in bed, not that we’ve discussed the fine distinctions at length but I presume it has something to do with any or all of the following: our bed is in one of the farthest corners of the house; when we do leave him unattended we check in on him frequently; the time-delay that would be associated with getting out from under the covers, up off the bed, and figuring out where exactly the little guy had gotten off to would be too great; and probably many more.

But when the little guy is awake and clamoring to be released from his crib (which, knock wood, he still can’t climb out of) and whichever parent is home with him doesn’t quite want to stop snoozing, then we often opt to bring the little guy into bed, and turn on the Disney Channel, and let him watch a cartoon or two while chilling within arm’s reach of a half-conscious mommy or daddy. It’s certainly not the most engaged parenting style I can imagine, but it keeps the child happy and the parents sane, and bottom line, it works for us.

One of the interesting side-effects of this is that, as a captive audience to the Playhouse Disney offerings in these early morning screenings, I have quickly become very familiar with various animated properties aimed more or less at my child’s demographic. I know that it’s a widely accepted piece of wisdom that parents should watch what their children are watching, at least to the point that they are not completely ignorant of what ideas/images/messages their children are consuming, but I often feel like that is vegetable-advice: something everyone knows they should be doing but no one does as much as they should. Yet through the default magic of laziness, and the fact that those early morning not-ready-to-get-up-yet hours are essentially the only time we let the little guy watch tv, I’m there for all of his video exposure so far, which has thus far been limited to Chuggington, Imagination Movers, Special Agent Oso, and Mickey’s Club House.

Representin' Sheetrock Hills, y'all
Oh and of course Handy Manny.

So the other day we watched the special New Years Eve episode of Handy Manny together (the little guy with rapt attention, me with my eyes half-closed) and it has been stuck in my craw ever since. Because I can’t quite figure out where the episode is supposed to be coming from philosophically. (Which of course presupposes that children’s cartoons have a philosophical point of view to begin with.)

Handy Manny has a few things to recommend it even to the parental viewer – the theme song by Los Lobos is catchy as hell, the sentient tools have a couple of amusing personality quirks amongst them (particularly Turner the Sardonic Screwdriver), the relationship between Manny and his friend Kelly is rife with unintentionally torrid sexual undertones – but by and large I find it to kind of be a mess. I sympathize with the producers of children’s entertainment who make a concerted effort to carve out some individualized ground for their show’s identity, but Handy Manny throws an awful lot into the pot. Sometimes it’s about living in a multi-lingual world, as Manny tends to say a lot of things in Spanish and then immediately translate himself into English. Sometimes it’s about teamwork and getting the job at hand done, whatever that may happen to be. Sometimes it educationally addresses various far-flung topics. Pretty often it’s all of those things at once, plus the usual kiddie-moral platitudes. That is a many-layered bean dip of not necessarily complimentary ideas!

Anyway, the New Years Eve episode starts with Manny making a custom, hand-painted ball ornament that will be dropped at midnight at the town celebration. Then it shifts into a story about how the local candy-store owner Mr. Lopart (he's the guy NOT wearing a cool trucker cap in the pic above) is going to be alone on New Years because his mother was on vacation and her flight home has been cancelled. So Mr. Lopart ends up tagging along with Manny and the tools as they help other people get ready for the celebration, and everywhere Mr. Lopart goes he manages to clumsily wreck something. All of which culminates at the end when Mr. Lopart takes it upon himself to hang Manny’s custom countdown-ball, a task which he of course screws the pooch on, resulting in a shattered ball. But Mr. Lopart replaces the ball with a star-shaped piñata he had bought for his mother, who ends up making it home by midnight for a thoroughly happy ending including a singing of a bilingual Auld Lang Syne. (Trilingual? Spanish, English and whatever weird druidic language the name of the song actually is?)

OK, so first off, Mr. Lopart is a seriously creepy character. I understand toddler-tainment needs its pitiable, accident-prone characters to give plots some semblance of conflict to resolve without resorting to the out-and-out protagonist/antagonist minefield of ideas, but the figure in question here seems a little off the deep end: a middle-aged bachelor with a bad combover and a pampered cat who is still attached at the apron strings to his mother (who is less attached herself, since she flies off for solo vacations to Mexico and all). To a certain extent my personal creep factor is beside the point, but just note again the fact that we are talking about a middle-aged man who owns his own business. He may be accident-prone, which in turn is exacerbated by his own hubris, but to a certain extent he should know better, right? When he attempts to hang up Manny’s countdown-ball, he willfully ignores the fact that he has been breaking stuff all day. And actually I can buy that, because he sees helping out with the ball as his big shot at redemption, his chance to show that he doesn’t screw up everything (which is delusional and ultimately wrong, but consistent, at least). But while he’s in the middle of his doomed attempt to help, Manny shows up AND ASKS HIM TO STOP SO THAT MANNY CAN HELP. Mr. Lopart hears this but blows it off anyway, and then the ball breaks, a situation which could have easily been avoided if he. Had. Just. LISTENED.

Holy crap, as a parent, a sequence like that is frigging infuriating. Or rather, what happens next is infuriating; to wit, nothing. People make mistakes, and mistakes are “teachable moments”, fine, but it is less than a second before Manny is saying “That’s OK, Mr. Lopart” and basically letting him off the hook with zero consequences. And I must call shenanigans on that! Because what it’s basically saying to the little kiddies is this: it’s all right to do whatever you want, even if it’s the same kind of thing that has caused trouble before, and even if someone is right in front of you telling to stop and wait and accept some help from someone who knows better than you, because no matter what the outcome of your actions everything will be just fine.

I always try to look at things from multiple perspectives, so I do see a certain amount of positive value in the premise here. It’s not the worst thing in the world to reassure pre-schoolers that the world is basically a kind and gentle place where they have the room and the safety to make all the mistakes that life-learning requires. I’d rather have a child who believes that, in the long run, everything is gonna be OK than one who freaks out whenever things get slightly bent because they believe bad will always lead to worse. But, better still, I’d like to have a child whose optimism is tempered by a sense or personal responsibility, who can heed fair warnings and defer to expertise when it’s in everyone’s best interest. I guess that has to wait until they’re older than two or three, though.

But as I said, I keep thinking about the stupid show and its problematic philosophy of “oh, it’s fine that you ignored me and as a result destroyed something I worked really hard on” and in the course of all that mental gnawing I started to develop an alternative theory. After all, Mr. Lopart is a fop and a buffoon, so maybe even the tiniest of minds wouldn’t necessarily look to him as a role model and the takeaway I’m seeing is neither intended nor received. Manny is the hero, I remind myself, and ergo the role model. So what lesson is Manny really teaching the kiddies?

Zen-like calm in the face of idiots.

I mean, the fact is, Manny did his best at every point from painting the ball to trying to save it from Mr. Lopart’s butterfingered clutches, but things went south anyway, and once that happened, you know, yelling at Mr. Lopart or punishing him in any way wouldn’t put the ball back together again. Manny is quick to forgive and move on and, I swear, I strive to be the same way myself, because just about every other approach just leads to more trouble than it’s worth. The fact is that the world is full of Mr. Loparts, numbskulls who should know better but don’t, who won’t take well-intentioned advice or accept genuinely useful help, and who muck things up for everyone else. Even with the heaviest enforcement of consequences, the world remains full of that particular breed of moron. And the best advice I can give for dealing with people like that is to accept that they will never, ever change, keep your own head on straight, and get over it. Which is exactly what Manny does.

You have no idea how much I totally want to believe that the life lesson of “do your best, and don’t let the feebs get you down no matter what” is what the Handy Manny writers were going for. Because that’s a philosophy I’m happy to have the tv impart on my little guy while I laze away beside him.

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