Let’s get this out of the way right now, in case you haven’t already figured it out: I’m a geek. So a year or so back when my 6 year-old Evangelia came home from school and solemnly told me that she heard from some older kids in the schoolyard that “something bad is going to happen to Anni,” I couldn’t help but smile. She was starting to put the pieces together and all roads lead to Episode III, and those final horrific moments when glowing lava turns Hayden Christensen into David Prowse. I told Evi that I would take her there, but this was going to be a dark ride. “I want to see!” she said.
So, let me modify my opening line: I’m an inner city geek. I spent my childhood on the Lower East Side of 1960s Manhattan. Life was tough. Early on, I came to understand the feeling of dread that came with taking the stairs when the elevator was out; the physical threat of bullies fueled by anger born of generations of poverty; the pressure to make decisions that I knew would pull me from the righteous path. To whom would I turn for advice? Support? Protection? I loved Mr. Rogers and fervently believed him when he told me I was “special,” but the dude was not gonna back me up when I had to cut down a dark alley.
Flash forward to the ought’s, and I’m scouring my TiVo for shows to which I can introduce my 3 year-old Evangelia. Oswald the Octopus, Peep and the Big Wide World, Blue’s Clues: sweet pastel bubbles of tranquility, and they were great. But at three I was already well on my Bruno Bettelheim http://tinyurl.com/yghrj6l journey, where Red’s grandma was fatally eaten by the wolf, Cinderella’s sister cut off a toe to get into that slipper, and baby Hercules strangled the snakes in his crib.
Though as young parents we’d love to think otherwise, the world outside our apartment doors does not exist in a peace bubble or ridicule-free zone. You may not live in a slum, but you can’t deny that kids strike one another, they lie, they intimidate, they emulate their parents and nobody’s perfect. As a Dad I felt compelled to use story, particularly the powerful medium of television, to prepare my little girl for all of this. Bring on the cool cartoons!
Oh, Nickelodeon, oh Disney Channel, why hast you forsaken me?
Benita Bizarre actually attempted to pluck the wings off of The Bugaloos, Witchiepoo of H.R. Pufnstuff and Hoodoo of Lidsville both blithely attempted to snuff their goody-two-shoe opponents. Kimba the White Lion regularly stood up to bullies (both two-legged and four), even as he attempted to convert a society of wild jungle animals to vegetarianism! Life and death competitions were the rule of thumb for Speed Racer. And I double dare Zack and Cody to make it through the haunted house traversed by Little Rascals Alfalfa, Buckwheat and Porky!
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not waxing nostalgic for a time of political incorrectness in children’s programming. All I’m asking is for us to consider adding just a touch of darkness into the tales we’re telling, even for little kids. They’re stronger than we imagine. They can take it. How about a bit of actual jeopardy, a touch of real fear? A bully who isn’t a caricature but really means business, a challenge that can’t be vanquished with a quip and the flick of a switch on a wristband. Dorothy wept with terror in the Wicked Witch’s tower, but in similar circumstances, Barbie pouts.
So, in Daddy mode, off I click to Amazon, the last standing castle for the zap-happy villains of Sid & Marty Krofft. Pee Wee’s Playhouse bombarded her with bizarre creatures and edgy cartoons. Beautiful, lyrical Totoro would give Evangelia a charming adventure, anchored by the sorrow and uncertainty of a Mommy who may be terminally ill. Miyazaki’s masterpiece Spirited Away gave her Chihiro, a little girl who must brave an odyssey fraught with dangerous ghosts and monsters in order to free her ensorcelled parents.
And yes, Evangelia and I finally did arrive on the planet Mustafar, where Anakin fell to Obi-Wan’s light saber and burned in the molten rock. It was harsh. I could see it in her eyes. When I asked her if she understood why this happened, she said, “He killed children. He isn’t a hero any more.” Neither was Padme, by the way, she said, “because she let herself die, even though there was nothing wrong with her, and she left her babies alone.”
By challenging our children on the field of imagination, fortifying them with story, we’re preparing them for the harsher realities of the world they’ll soon encounter.
There’s a reason why we always remember fairy tales…