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Birthday party planning in the new now

The other morning Sprout was hovering by my elbow while I got Button out of his nighttime pajamas and into his daytime pajamas (because, after all, pandemic fashion is all about cozy comfort) and she started planning his birthday party at the end of summer.

“We can invite all of his friends to video face chat!”

I reminded her that he’s not even one year old, so most of his friends are family members, but she was breezed past that.

“We’re going to have to order his presents early so they can get here. Because we can’t go to the store.”

She made all these logistical pronouncements in a matter-of-fact way. She’s not sounding anxious or disappointed at the idea that maybe we wouldn’t be able to have family members over to our house, or get together with people in person for Button’s birthday.

She’s just internalizing and trying out a new sense of normal based on how things are going currently.

She’s had weeks of only seeing cousins, grandparents, her teachers, and some of her friends from school on the other side of a screen. She’s barged in on some of my online classes (as my unofficial TA) and told knock-knock jokes.

She misses people. She misses school. When the sadness comes, it hits in waves: peaking fast, then subsiding.

But there’s a streak of resiliency coming through as she adjusts to new routines.

Can’t have school recess with all her friends? Then every day there needs to be backyard recess with Dad. After dinner must be Family Time, lunch needs to fit a routine, and so on. She has blocks of time that make up the schedule of her day, and she even wants to stick to it on weekends.

Because right now for her, what even are weekends?

It’s not always easy, but I’m glad to see those moments where she’s rolling with the punches and finding her footing.

And I hope, as I have to adapt to the changes still to come, that I can greet the logistics of it with the same straightforward, beginner’s mind that she’s started to use.

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“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.

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Subtitles for Early Readers

We leave subtitles on the TV as a default in our home. It started as Dena’s personal preference, but became a necessity in order to keep the volume down due to apartment living and shared walls. Then we had a baby, and we didn’t want to disturb Sprout while she slept.

Keeping the subtitles on became habit, and a useful one. Little jokes didn’t fly by unnoticed. Shows and movies became more quotable.

And then Sprout started reading.

The moment this all came together was while watching the Sesame Street anniversary special. Dena and I watched as Sprout used the subtitles to sing along with a song she’d never heard before, and my heart became a puddle of feelings.

Then came the Sunday morning Sprout tromped downstairs to find me watching Solaris. She grabbed a blanket, snuggled up next to me, and started reading the screen.

“That’s not what they’re saying?”

“No. They’re speaking in Russian. Those words on the screen tell us what the words mean in English.”

“Oh.”

(five minutes pass)

“Can I watch PBS Kids?”

The next weekend, she comes down while I’m watching Floating Weeds. She grabbed a blanket, snuggled in, and this time started asking questions about the story.

We watched about a half hour before she got bored and wanted to see if there were new episodes of Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum. But for that half hour, we were sharing a lazy morning with an Ozu film.

I know it’s still a long time before she’ll be fully onboard and I’ll get to watch some of my favorite foreign films with her. I’m not expecting to have a five-year-old who wants to start her day watching Wong Kar-Wai or Ingmar Bergman films.

What I want is to plant the idea in her head that the subtitles are just there. They don’t make the movie something other or more difficult. If anything, I hope she’ll see the value they offer, giving her a gateway to stories from all around the world that she wouldn’t otherwise have access to.

We set expectations for kids with what we enjoy and share with them. My parents watched a lot of black and white movies, so I thought it was normal to watch older films. And that habit never really went away for me.

Or when we listen to music, and we pepper in some of our favorites, or some other genres, in with the kid music. It doesn’t always pay dividends, but when I start a jazz playlist during breakfast and Sprout puts down her spoon to snap along, well… It’s a good feeling.

But I need to remind myself with all of this that it’s not about making sure she likes the same things I like.

Whenever I’m sharing music, or movies, or food, it needs to be about the idea of making sure she gets to try new and different things. She’s very five, so she’s not shy about what she does and doesn’t like.

My hope is that she’ll get a strong sense of her personal taste. She’ll be able to explain and understand what she likes and doesn’t like. She’ll seek out and explore. She won’t passively shrug and accept whatever’s presented to her as vaguely okay, but instead, she’ll look for something to love.

Or, at the very least, that she won’t roll her eyes and think it’s weird when I suggest we watch a movie with subtitles.