Sunday, May 20, 2012

Tabula Rasa Filled

As a parent, you get to watch a lot of kid’s television.  Some of it is educational, some just mindless entertainment, some downright bizarre, some a combination of two or more of the above.  (For instance, in the downright bizarre but still educational department, it’s hard to beat Yo Gabba Gabba, at least for sheer bizarrerie.  Then again, my parents probably felt the same about H.R. Pufnstuf, and that seemed perfectly normal to me.)  You’re sort of forced to watch these things, whether you like it or not, and you eventually start critiquing them as if they were high art.  SpongeBob SquarePants is funny, but ultimately pablum; The Upside Down Show was a brilliant bit of engaging, educational fun that deserved more than its one measly season; The Wonder Pets may have a few funny moments every now and again, but that doesn’t stop you from wanting to drive hot pokers through your eardrums; The Wiggles need to be shot; Adventure Time takes a while to grow on you, but is really quite enjoyable; Steve from Blue’s Clues may have driven you crazy, but you didn’t know how good you had it until Joe came along, and the whole thing just jumped the shark when Blue started to talk.  And so on, and so forth, ad infinitum.  It mostly just all swirls together in a twisted melange of primary colors and giant numbers and casually tossed out Spanish phrases and animated animals, until you can’t keep them all straight in your head any more.  I’ve had 13 years of it now: trust me, I know what I’m talking about.

And then, every once in a while, you find a real gem.  Something that’s not only entertaining for your kids, but also for you.  You treasure those, because they’re so rare.  From my own childhood, The Muppet Show is the classic example.  I loved it, my parents loved it, and I loved it all over again when I got the DVDs from Netflix to introduce it to my own kids, who also loved it.

For my kids, at least for right now, it’s Phineas and Ferb.

It’s a bit hard to describe Phineas and Ferb if you never seen it.  You know how sometimes you watch something and you think it’s really dumb but then you watch it again, and again, and eventually you realize it’s brilliant?  (Think about the first time you saw Beavis and Butt-Head, or even Monty Python.)  Well, this is not like that.  This is more like when you watch something and you go, “well, that was sorta cute,” and then you watch it again and you go, “actually, that was pretty funny,” and then you watch it again, and you go “damn, this is really good!”  Part of that is the running gags, of which P&F have dozens, and part of it is that there’s so much going on that it takes you a few viewings just to get past the giddiness of it all.  In fact, Wikipedia tells us that the show’s creators (who had worked together previously on Rocko’s Modern Life) pitched the idea, off an on, for 16 years before they could get anyone to buy it, because it was “too complex.”

I told this to my eldest.  He drew his eyebrows together and frowned at me.  “I don’t get it,” he said.  He didn’t bother pointing at his 6-year-old brother, who obviously was having no problems following the episode we were watching at the time, but he might as well have.  The point was obvious: he couldn’t understand why people would think this show was complicated.

I tried to explain.  “Well, just imagine the pitch meetings,” I said.  “It would have to go something like this:”

Okay, so there’s these two kids, right?  They’re stepbrothers—one American, and one British—and they’re both really brilliant, and the British one hardly ever speaks, but then when he does say something, it’s really profound—he’s got a whole Silent Bob thing going on.  Okay, and they have this sister, and they ... wait, it’s summer, okay?  And, to keep from getting bored, they’re always building stuff.  But, they’re really brilliant, like I said, so they’re building stuff like time machines and warp drives and that sort of thing, and their sister is constantly trying to “bust” them: you know, get them in trouble with their mom (who is actually Ferb’s stepmother, but that doesn’t matter so much).  Okay, except Candace—that’s the sister’s name—can never actually bust them, because their inventions always disappear at the last minute.  Which mostly has to do with their pet platypus, who is really a secret agent ...

I mean, you can see how a children’s televison executive’s head would be spinning by this point, right?  And we didn’t even get to the boy that Candace is always trying to impress, or the mad scientist who is the nemesis of the secret agent platypus, or any of the various friends and neighbors who are always stopping over ...

My eldest still looked dubious though.  “I guess ...” he said, perhaps still not quite getting it.

Because, you see, here is the real point I wanted to make: kids are not stupid.

Now, I’ve written before that I believe that kids are people, and, really, this is just a specific example of that general principle.  Because, you know, some people are stupid, and some people are smart.  Kids are no different: some of them are stupid, and some of them are smart.  To go even further, most people are smart sometimes and stupid other times, and most kids are the same way.  Honestly, when it comes to some things (“getting” Phineas and Ferb, for example) I think you’ll find that most kids are going to be even smarter than us non-kids.

I’ll give you another example.  I’ve talked about one of my favorite hobbies: Heroscape.  And I’ve also talked about introducing my younger son to the game; remember, now, he was a month and a half shy of being 6 years old when I wrote that.  Finally, you may recall that I wrote a little bit about being a part of a community which creates “custom” units for Heroscape.  Now, officially, Heroscape is “for ages 8 and up,” and this is often tossed around when we design new custom units.  When coming up with a power for a new unit, people will often point out that it needs to be “simple enough for an 8 year old to understand.”  The problem, though, is that many people seem to have a very low opinion of the level of complexity that the average 8 year old can comprehend.  And meanwhile I’m sitting here thinking that I’ve now taught this game to several kids even younger than 8, using the “master” rules because the “basic” rules were too simple-stupid, and I know what the “average 8 year old” can understand.  And it’s a lot more than most people seem to give them credit for.

And, as long as I’m on a quoting-myself jag, I may as well throw one more out there: in my rant on ageism, I pointed out that the one thing that’s true of “adults” making decisions for “children” that isn’t true of (say) men making decisions for women* is that all such adults were once children.  Which makes this attitude even more baffling.  Do all these adults have such low self-esteem that they remember themselves as being stupid when younger?  Or do they imagine that they were brilliant children and it’s just everyone else who was a moron at that age?  What is it about getting older—and especially about having children of our own—that seems to tend to make us completely forget our childhood experiences?

In my “kids are people” post, I noted in passing that your kids come to you “knowing literally nothing.”  This is the tabula rasa concept that you’ve probably heard of before, and it’s really true.  I never imagined how true it was before my first kid was born.  Even as infants, they should know some things, right?  Nope: nothing.  As the ultimate expression of this, you have to teach them how to breastfeed.

Think about that.

Without this, they’re going to starve to death.  And you have to teach it to them.  Now, they do have some instincts, of course.  If anything hits the top of their palate, they’re immediately going to start sucking.  But this is no more actual “knowledge” than the fact that you will blink if someone snaps their fingers in front of your eyes: it’s just a primitive reaction to stimulus.  And, most importantly, it isn’t sufficient.  Necessary, but not sufficient.  If your kid wants to breastfeed, to actually receive sustenance from his or her mother, “knowing” to suck when something is stuck in his or her mouth is only the beginning.  The big thing is knowing how to “latch on,” which takes a while for both mother and child to get right.  They have to learn that, and you have to teach them.

So, yes, kids come to us as a blank slate, and we have to fill them up.  But that’s a far cry from them being stupid.  And by the time you’re 8 (or even 5), which is old enough to start playing Heroscape or start watching Phineas and Ferb, you have accumulated a staggering amount of knowledge, and (most likely) applied an amazing amount of intelligence to it.  We forget that, I think ... because things like walking and talking and using the toilet instead of our underwear are so utterly ingrained in our mental facilities, I think we forget what accomplishments learning those things were.  You had to be pretty bright to pick up all that stuff ... remember?  Bright enough to understand that Obsidian Guards standing in molten lava can hit enemies 3 spaces away, or that it’s funny that Ferb ends up helping Vanessa get the perfect ingredient for another of Doofenshmirtz’s evil machines, which will inevitably be used against his own pet platypus, even if the exact concept of irony is still a bit over your head.

But even if you don’t really remember how totally smart you were back then, you should still check out Phineas and Ferb.  Will you enjoy it, regardless of how old you are?  Yes.  Yes, you will.

* I can’t help but note what I wrote about men and women in this context: “When men make decisions about women (at least in modern times), they at least allow the women to say something about it (usually).”  In light of some recent events, it appears in retrospect that I was amusingly naive.

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