“Derek doesn’t have a penis. He has wind chimes.”

We’ve been watching The Good Place with our five-year-old.

Don’t make that face. I see it.

Dena and I are huge fans of The Good Place, just like we were fans of Parks & Recreation, but we were moved to start introducing it to our daughter as a way to prompt discussion with her about being kind, and what it means to think about doing kind things for other people and for herself.

Yes, the show has a lot of fart jokes, but it also has teachable moments about making good choices and being honest.

Some of the stuff flies right over her head, and we’re fine with that. Even when things like this happen:

(Sprout’s grandfather’s iPhone makes the Chimes alarm sound)

Dena: (under her breath, to me) Derek?

Sprout: (enthusiastic, to her grandma) There’s this show called The Good Place and there’s a character named Derek. Derek doesn’t have a penis. He has wind chimes!

Look… I regret nothing.

Yes, watching this show with her means that we have embarassing moments like that, and it also means we have to watch her imitate Bad Janet farts so, so many times.

But it means that we get to talk with her about big, important ideas about being a good person.

It means she gets to watch a show that had a strong commitment to purposefully diverse casting, showing her a more accurate depiction of the different people that make up our world and our communities.

And it will give us a chance to talk about doubt, and fear, and despair, and cruelty. Because there’s plenty of reason to discuss those things, and to start giving her the tools to call them out and rise above them.

We would never stick her in front of a TV and hit autoplay on this show. It’s a lot, even for grown-ups. If we watch an episode, we usually spend time afterward talking through what we saw.

But the act of watching with her is important. So she sees us actively engaging with the story and the ideas in the story. So she can ask us questions. And so she can get into the habit of treating the media she consumes more thoughtfully.

When I was a kid, I watched movies as a way to talk with my dad about atomic bombs and the Cold War. These were heavy topics, but the giant monsters and cheesy effects made it palatable.

But the message of the act of watching stuck with me: Never take a story for granted, and always ask why this story is being told.

That’s a question I want my kids to be confident in asking.

It’s not my favorite

My students ask for my opinion on things, especially when I’m covering film and television in class.

Sometimes it’s a litmus test to get to know me. Sometimes they want to hear if I’ve got an opinion so they feel free to share theirs. And sometimes it’s just pre-class chatting about whatever’s trending.

There was a time when I was in their shoes, where I would have lots of insufferably demanding opinions about the things I watched. Since then, I’ve become a little more generous.

Mostly because I just don’t feel like spending energy on being negative.

It’s easier to point to reasons why something works well than to explain exactly what’s wrong with it

You can feel fairly confident in pointing out something that’s working in a narrative and why it works. But if there’s something in a film or show that you bump on; that doesn’t work for you, it’s not always easy to tell what caused that disconnect.

For one thing, pointing out what doesn’t work involves making suggestions for what could have worked better. You can offer opinions, but that’s a conversation about some imagined version that isn’t constrained by whatever realities of production shaped the actual finished product.

Without being there in the midst of the process of making a thing, it’s easy to cast blame, but hard to be correct in your accusations.

It doesn’t do my students, or me, any favors to offer half-assed opinions on what went wrong with something.

One thing I’ve gotten more confident with as I’ve gotten older (and as I’ve gotten more experience with teaching) is not having an opinion on everything.

My daughter has the right idea

It was a vocal quirk that she developed early on, but she’s stuck with it as she’s gotten older. When Sprout didn’t like something, she was likely to say:

“It’s not my favorite.”

What better way to put it when something doesn’t bowl you over? When you can see the flaws, but don’t feel a need to engage in a lengthy post-mortem examination. You can just move on.

Because I’d rather talk about exciting things I think we should aspire to instead of wasting time in discussions that say more about the people in the conversation than the thing they’re supposedly talking about.

What good does it do for me to add my voice to a chorus excoriating something for failing to satisfy its audience?

If I’m going to ask students to write with respect and empathy, then I should extend that same kindness to people who made a good faith effort to make something.

There’s no required response to artistic entertainment.

I’m not required to like it. I can’t be forced to list my disagreements with it. And I shouldn’t point fingers without accurate knowledge of the inner workings of the project.

If given the choice between trying to feel smugly superior to others who have taken on a difficult task, or to admire the work of giants, I know where I stand. I’d rather live in the shadow of the greats, aspiring toward something higher, than spending my time pretending I can trample others under my own feet.

When the best words aren’t the right words

Dena and I have been having a lot of conversations with our daughter about Thankfulness because of the napkins on our kitchen table.

Every napkin has a discussion prompt for people at the table, and this one is Sprout’s favorite:

IMG_0268
It’s her favorite because of the cat, not because of the question.

The other night, we wanted to know what she would say, but she stonewalled us when asked to answer the question about what she was thankful for that day.

Part of it was just being an overtired kiddo having a late dinner. Part of it was probably the fact that she’s facing all the sea changes that come with a new baby brother, starting kindergarten, and missing her friends from day care. But there’s also the part of it where she just didn’t seem to understand the question.

So we worked to define thankfulness for her, and how it wasn’t just about saying thank you when somebody gives you something. You aren’t only thankful for presents, or for somebody bringing you the ranch dressing when you want some for your broccoli. It’s about appreciating what other people do for you that they choose to do for you. It’s about appreciating what makes you feel fortunate.

It wasn’t clicking. She got frustrated with us. We set the topic aside and gave her an opportunity to think about the question some more until dinner the next night.

And that night I asked something different: “What are your three big thank yous for today?”

I took a phrase she was already familiar with, I narrowed it down to a set number of things, and kept the question short without a lot of additional explanation to process.

It took her all of 30 seconds, and she felt good about her answers.

Yes, it’s more precise to ask her what she’s thankful for. But for our intended audience, there was this extra layer of unpacking the words themselves that kept her from joining the conversation.

When I was younger, I always associated having a larger vocabulary or being able to deploy more complicated words and ideas as a sign of intellect. I blame all the Frasier I watched.

It’s one thing to be precise, and always use exactly the word you want. It’s another thing entirely to be clear, and try to always use the words that will be understood.

Using words you think your audience will readily understand isn’t inherently condescending. It’s a way of talking to people that shows you’re listening to them.

You show that you pay attention, and your attention is a sign of respect.

It’s also about identifying what your purpose is. If we wanted this to be a lesson in the definition of thankfulness, we may or may not have succeeded. But our goal was to encourage our daughter to express gratitude. That purpose was more important than precision.


I do an exercise with students where we talk about the way Mister Rogers wrote his tv show. In an interview with two of the writers, they discuss a variation on the process that’s a joke that tells the truth:

Fred Rogers was always laser-focused on making sure each word was appropriate to his audience.

He spoke to children on their own terms because he knew that the audience was what mattered. He wasn’t concerned with only appearing kind on camera, or looking like he had all the answers, because he left ego out of the equation.

His focus on his audience, in listening to how they interpreted the world (and their concerns about it) was practicing kindness.

Because speaking to others or writing for others can, and should, involve thinking about how you can treat your audience with kindness.


When I was interviewing for my current teaching job, they asked me to give a sample lecture to a media criticism class on any topic I saw fit.

I went with applying the Buddhist concept of Right Speech to how we evaluate media.

To summarize the concepts, Right Speech is about making sure that our communication with other people is coherent, wholesome, wise, and skillful. There are four principles that help judge if speech clears this bar.

Do we avoid lies or deceptions?

Do we avoid divisive statements?

Do we avoid abusive statements?

Do we avoid idle chatter?

Avoiding lies and deceptions is not just about speaking the truth in any given moment, but reliably acting as a truthful voice.

Avoiding divisive statements is about abstaining from slander, and trying to use speech to bring people together instead of isolating them.

Avoiding abusive statements is about showing compassion and respect for the audience, and using language that they will appreciate and take to heart.

Avoiding idle chatter isn’t just about speaking with purpose, but framing your speech so that you address topics at the proper time with words intended to remain valuable beyond that moment.

As an individual, these goals can act as a good baseline for being seen as a respectful, and respectable, person.

When thinking as a writer or person who communicates through different media platforms, it can act as a good metric for if what you’re sharing with the world feels more like useful signal or distracting noise.

If you sit down to write for others, only focused on what they will think of you, you’ll never be happy with the result. If your only metrics for success are Likes, page views, or how much you got paid for your work, you’ll wind up in an endless loop where the next project will always have to seem bigger and better.

If you’re only writing with the hope that you’ll be recognized as a great writer, no praise will ever feel like enough.

There’s satisfaction to be found in the attempt to make today’s work an act of kindness. To make today’s words something that your audience will find useful whether they encounter it now or ten years from now.

There’s satisfaction to be found this way even if your audience is ten people instead of 10,000.

And there’s satisfaction to be found in seeing how much gratitude you can express for the opportunity to help others. To speak to them directly, honestly, and thoughtfully.