A little over a week ago we switched our children from an in-home daycare to a more structured preschool in our neighborhood. We knew they’d love it. When our kids started washing their hands by themselves on the second day, we patted ourselves on the back for our awesome decision. On the fourth day, when a teacher asked us for advice on how to get one of our kids to listen, we sobered slightly. Then, on the fifth day, when a different teacher informed us that our kid called her “stupid,” told her to “shut her mouth” and said he was “going to kick her,” we almost walked into oncoming traffic.
We don’t talk that way to our kids, nor do we allow them to talk that way to each other or anybody else. Yet somehow this language seeped into their frame of reference on our watch. After retracing our steps, we understood where the cracks and fissures in our parenting happened.
It’s all Zootopia’s fault.
OK, it’s not. But the word “stupid” and the phrase “shut your mouth” both appear in that movie, which we have let our children view approximately a kajillion times. Coincidence? I think not, stupid.
We should have turned off Zootopia in the beginning when characters were squirting fake blood and shouting, “Dead!” but we didn’t. Instead, we watched the movie all the way through—cringing at the bad words while our sons quietly absorbed their forbidden power and tucked them away for future use.
As much as I would like to blame a Disney movie for all my problems in life, I have to admit that I say bad words. All the time. And my kids, who have never heard a single command we’ve ever given them, are like bats when it comes to hearing me mutter something colorful under my breath two rooms over.
“Mommy, you said ‘dumb’!”
“No, I didn’t. I said ‘damn’.”
As far as the kicking is concerned, I largely blame superheroes, which really means I blame myself for indulging their love of superheroes, which really means I blame Matt for igniting their love of superheroes in the first place.
Our sons are too young to understand why it’s OK for Batman and Superman to punch and kick, but not OK for them. When we’re watching superhero cartoons where everyone is pounding on each other, I try to explain that, in theory, superheroes protect the world against villains who want to destroy it—
and, by the way, that none of this is real—
but, generally speaking, protecting people means you sometimes have to use force—
but that doesn’t mean you can kick your brother because he is just pretending to be a bad guy—
but, yeah, there really are bad people in the world—
and you don’t need to be afraid—
but you do need to be careful—
and that’s why you can’t run away from us in the store, because someone could take you—
and while we’re on the subject, let me just go ahead and show you some basic self-defense moves—
As I’m blathering on, sinking myself deeper and deeper into a truth quagmire, they interrupt with:
“Is Robin a good guy?”
Oh, thank God. An easy question. “Yes!” I exclaim. “Robin is a good guy!” And then, like clockwork, we watch as Robin gets hypnotized by the Joker and starts viciously beating Batman.
“WHAT DA HECK?” Jem bellows in disbelief, and before I can properly explain what brainwashing is and remind him that only mommies can say “heck,” the scene has changed and a whole new set of ethical quandaries has surfaced.
The parenting pace is breathless these days. Our kids are pulling in information from everywhere, while we chase behind them trying to explain the context. We fall short a lot, and in those spaces they turn to their teachers and threaten them with bodily harm.
But as they learn, we learn. We’ve had to have a lot of serious talks about using kind words and gentle hands. We’ve taken a break from superhero shows, which is a buzz kill for them and a buzz enhancer for me.
What we’ve realized is that our kids aren’t ready for the sophisticated questions that even the dumbest superhero cartoon raises. As exhilarating as it is for them to watch Superman soaring through space in his crimson cape, or Spider Man swinging between skyscrapers, they have a hard time making sense of the violence. As should we all.
The other night Finn woke up sobbing, both fists jammed against his eyes. He wouldn’t let me pull his hands away from his face and when I asked him what was wrong, he told me that daddy and mommy had tried to take his eyeballs. I explained that it was just a bad dream, and he eventually fell back to sleep with both hands still covering his eyes. The next day he didn’t want to go down for a nap because, as he put it, “there’s a dream in my bed.”
As the parent, I felt responsible for his confusion and fear. Had I exposed him to raw nightmare material by letting him watch a cartoon that was too adult, or by hanging skeletons around our house for Halloween, or—this is a long shot—by reading him books like “Tonight I Take Your Eyeballs”?
Clearly I’m not doing a perfect job. Even though they can argue with us like lawyers, our kids have soupy, 3-year old brains that are still developing. They can hear and repeat but not fully understand or process. When I fail to consider this—even for the duration of a 15-minute cartoon—it can cause them unnecessary anxiety or lead to totally crazy outbursts.
On a happier note, this week has been a lot better. The kids are adjusting to their school, and we found a new movie that they love that only has the word “stupid” in it once (seriously, animation studios, please stop). We haven’t watched any superhero shows, but they did dress up as Batman, Spider Man and Superman for Halloween and no one got hurt.
And then there’s this: One night recently Finn turned to Matt and said, “Um, excuse me—could I say a bad word please?” And before Matt could say no, he blurted out, “Umm … umm … shut your face!”
Asking permission before being a butthead? That, my friends, is called progress.