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    PBS and the preschool body politic

    Today, while I stood in the kitchen making lunch with a baby at my feet rummaging through the drawer of breast pump parts and old sippy cups, George was -- I thought -- watching Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood. He came tearing in from the living room in a panic.

    "Mama! Mama! Fun is being eliminated on PBS!" he said, stricken. I'd seen the requests for sponsorship a million times, heard the warning that government funding may be eliminated, so the onus was on us, the public, to keep the P in PBS.

    "Not fun; fun-ding," I said. "That means the money that pays for the channel to run might go away."

    "They have an empty bank account?" He asked. Uh... No idea where he might've heard that before. Ahem.

    What began as a funny mishearing ended up as a civics lesson of sorts. Over lunch, we talked about the cost of doing business as a tv station, and the difference between the shows on PBS and other channels. I asked him if people should pitch in to keep PBS on the air, and he nodded his head enthusiastically. "Yes, because those shows teach me about going potty and they teach Zelda about colors!"

    "But what about the people who don't watch the shows? The people who already know colors and how to go potty?" I asked.

    "Well, they like Rick Steves!" he said. Unsure about how to delve into even generalities of socialism with a three year old, I assured him that not everyone likes Rick Steves (we had to agree to disagree on that one), just like not everyone plays with the matchbox cars at his school despite their availability to everyone. What he came up with didn't surprise me, exactly, because I believe that this is the simplest, fairest strategy for most everything: "But," George said, chewing his peanut butter and honey sandwich thoughtfully, "if I have a pee accident at Fred Meyer it gets the cart yucky (hypothetical, right, dude?). Zelda needs to know her colors so she can stop at the red light when she's a grown up kid. Daniel Tiger helps everyone even if you're doing something else at 11:00." Helping the least of us is not a concept foreign to kids. When do we stop helping our friends put on their boots so we can go outside together, and start telling them to hoist themselves up by those bootstraps and quit complaining that we've left them behind? Being helpful is most toddlers' fondest wish; socialism just follows.

    Back to George: Cupcake Wars? Mickey Mouse Clubhouse - two of his other favorites? I pointed out that they stop for commercials, something he dislikes for their rapid pace and often unnerving content (ask him sometime how he feels about Anne Burrell). It wasn't hard for him to grasp the difference between money-making breaks and those designed to pause and reaffirm what you just learned. We talked about getting money from individuals and families rather than big companies. We compared it to the bus and the library, two other things he loves that require both government funding and the buy in of people who use them.

    After lunch, he asked to look in his "bank account," a little red locking bank that opens only at five dollar increments. "How much do I have?" he asked. $6.05, I told him, pointing to each number. "You can open it when you get three more dollars and 95 cents."

    "Can I give it to Daniel Tiger?" He looked at me hopefully.

    "Of course! You can do whatever you want with your money."

    "...Can I have three dollars?" Of course, I told him yes. But I also told him we'd be writing a letter to our representatives about how much we value PBS. 


    on language

    On Language -- the title of both a Julie Ruin song and a Noam Chomsky book -- was my email address for many years, beginning in, like, 1997, when my family had AOL and I was a teenager trying to figure out the world through punkrock and discussions of semantics. Language and its use (not to mention misuse) fascinate me, so the way my kids communicate is both an endless source of interest and worry of mine. Watching vocabularies develop, seeing conjugation begin to make sense, helping with the sounding-out of words, and noticing colloquialisms creep in are some of my favorite things about parenthood. I've never been concerned that my children won't be able to express themselves, given that their mother is one of the most direct people I know, but this morning while getting ready for preschool, George said he was nervous.

    "What's making you nervous?" I asked.
    "The boys make me be a bad guy, and I'm not a bad guy; I'm just George."
    "Well, do you tell them you don't want to be the bad guy?" I asked.
    "I say honk, but they don't listen!"

    Now. George has a sort of punchline to everything, and it is the word 'honk.' It ends several songs in the way that a knee slap and jazz hands might, and it also serves to express confusion (...honk?), appreciation of something amusing (*satisfied smile* honk!), and punctuate human contact (*poke* HONK!). I'm not sure when or why it started, but it's at once a funny quirk, and not exactly my favorite thing he does.

    "You can't say 'honk' and expect people to understand that you mean, 'I don't want to play like that' or 'please use gentle hands,'" I told him.
    "But mama," he said, plaintively, "if I tell them 'gentle hands' they will feel bad, so I tell them 'honk' but I say it like this, with a sad face: 'ho-onk'."

    I'd just like for you to imagine the sad, sad face of a three year old disappointed in his playmates' misunderstanding of the blow-softening "honk" meant to deter them from pretend-demonizing him. It was so unbearably cute and funny and sad, and awesome to see his understanding of social conventions developing. I understood; we've been working on saying excuse me rather than get out of my way! And I don't care for that rather than this food is yuck. I was heartened that he cared so much for his friends' feelings that he didn't want to upset them even though he felt they were kind of terrorizing him, but passivity is not something I ever expected would come out of my household.

    I gave him some useful phrases like "I don't want to play like that" and "I don't like those touches; do you want a high five instead?" and "I'd rather play on the same team" but he was skeptical. Meanwhile, his sister threw across the room the shoes I'd picked out for her and staggered over to the shoe basket, retrieving her own choice. She thrust them at me, saying firmly, "SHEES." Shoes, these? Who knows, but it certainly wasn't unclear what she wanted.

    These little people are so different: from me, but not me, and that's something I relearn on the daily. I think about my struggle to understand language -- to harness its power -- at seventeen, when Noam Chomsky and Kathleen Hanna felt like they were speaking to my very soul, and I want to do that for my kids. But I know they'll find their own versions of those angry songs and dry, plain reading. Until then, I guess there'll be a lot of honking.


    how to talk so people will listen

    We love George's school. His main teacher is an unexpected gem whose willingness is boundless and who takes pride in her work. The director is a consummate professional which, in the field of early childhood education, encompasses more qualities than I could even begin to list but includes public singing, fundraising, the fielding of complaints both valid and not-so, maintaining accreditation as an honest-to-god school, and being universally beloved by all children ages 2 to 7. There's a giant dirt pit and a lizard and blocks, and George literally has a full-blown tantrum 90 percent of the time when I come to pick him up, he so deplores the idea of returning to his normal, boring, non-school life. 

    Everything is hunky dory, there, mostly, or as close to it as you can get when a dozen or so preschoolers are invloved, and I enjoy fulfilling my obligatory parent hours by helping out in the classroom. The other day, it turned out to be lucky that I'd planned to stay because Teacher 1 was dealing with a family emergency and Teacher 2 was spring breaking in Mexico, leaving Teacher 3 to muddle through with a substitute, the two of them short a set of grown-up eyes. Perfect! I thought. And, well, it was... kind of. 

    It's jarring when you hear adults speak to kids in ways you wouldn't. Ways you find upsetting, even though the adult is clearly loved by the child they're speaking to unkindly. In my time in the classroom that day, I heard Teacher 3 tell a child to "lose the attitude" - a phrase that, in addition to being wholly unhelpful in actually modifying behavior, is, I think, too colloquial for her to even understand. I watched Teacher 3 inattentively blow a kiss to a little boy who approached her with a finger stinging from a berry bush prick, then tell him he was fine despite the tears welling in his eyes. When I offered to take him to find a band-aid, my own hand still smarting from when I'd untangled another kid from the same overgrown bush, she guiltily helped him toward the nearest first aid kit without sympathy. A little girl pushed her way through the pre-recess line up and, after being pulled aside for a chat, was told as she frantically pulled her boots on and fretted that her friends would leave without her, "If you'd been nice, you'd be outside with everyone else right now." When a child's finger found its way under the rockers of the storytime chair, Teacher 3 flat out ignored his wails and tears, saying, without looking, "you're fine." 

    Thankfully, in that case, the substitute pulled him onto her lap, dried his tears and held him, affirming that it fucking hurts when someone rocks a chair onto your fingers. 

    What struck me as I thought about all of these interactions was not how abominable they were, but how normal they were, in truth. Teacher 3's reactions and communication style wouldn't draw much criticism from most people; she may even be applauded for her non-coddling approach which would surely encourage the kids to self soothe and shake off what were, in actuality, minor injuries. But I couldn't help but think about what kind of response I'd expect from a friend if I said, "I just got stuck by a thorn! My finger is killing me!" Or, even, the inexpressable-by-preschoolers but easy-to-spot, "I stubbed my toe! Man, this whole day has been fucking TERRIBLE." What kind of friend would tell me I was just fine, and to get back to work? What kind of friend would ignore me completely? So why do we do this to kids? 

    I've been trying to decide how to proceed. If I'd like to take it up with Teacher 3 -- a young, inexperienced but enthusiastic woman with undeniably good intentions whom I do not want to bias against my son -- or with her boss. Do I want to suggest some reading material, or offer some facts about development, or suggest that the director give her some leads? Do I assume my son's love for her, which he freely states, will see past what I think is a less than stellar communication style? Do I consider this the first in what will surely be a long line of people speaking to him in ways I wish they wouldn't? 

    And, of course, my delivery matters. Because if I offer my opinion unhelpfully, it could easily come across as "lose the attitude" does to a four year old. Confusing. A nebulous affront. I'll say it straight, too: I could never be a preschool teacher long-term. My patience runs thin with only two. 

    What would you do? What resources might be helpful in reevaluating this widespread dismissive way we talk to kids? Or would you let it go? 



    Today we are celebrating the sunshine, the birth of a good man and the appearance of two pearly whites that have been particularly painfully slow to erupt. Sort of like this hesitant spring we've been waiting on, plants started on the window sills reaching up, looking past the grey.

    Tonight we'll open the door for Elijah: one of my favorite traditions, for its underlying meaning. We turn our backs with optimism and let the needy, the good fortune, the curious neighborhood cats find us.

    Happy Pesach, friends. May the search for the afikomen keep your kids occupied until they crash.


    fine reads: one hundred is a family

    One Hundred Is A Family, by Pam Muñoz Ryan and illustrated by Benrei Huang is, on its face, a book about counting set to rhyme: both popular subjects with my three year old. Its underlying themes, however, are ones of diversity, community and stewardship of the earth; the families represented are multigenerational, chosen, single-parent, in some cases ambiguously gendered and -- most importantly -- all happy to be hanging out together. 

    Beginning with a single child ("one, finding a place to call home") and counting through ten, then by tens to one hundred, each number represents a different concept of family, from two women and a young girl stargazing to a farmful of workers bringing in the harvest. In the final pages, one hundred people tend the earth to make it better for the child pictured at the book's start. My preschooler quickly seized on this idea and turned back to the beginning to look at the kid, pointing out that all one hundred people were "his family, and the earth's family, too."

    Huang's cheerful watercolored characters aren't overly stylized or arty, and are shown planting a garden, eating around a big table, hiking, and (most exciting, for me) co-sleeping four to a bed (without mention of poverty or implied pity - imagine that!), among other fun, often festive activities. A Chinese New Year celebration illustrates number seven ("a family keeping traditions of the past") and this sparked a neat bedtime conversation about the lanterns and dragon, and the similarities to American New Year's celebrations. 

    As the numbers climb higher, the concept of family gets broader, including a school posing for a portrait and a neighborhood gathered for winter caroling. Muñoz Ryan's approach here is admirable. Where many children's books over-explain, One Hundred Is A Family assumes you can hang with the relative subtlety of families of origin shown next to communities, and see the importance of both. My three year old, who regularly calls his preschool classmates his brothers and sisters, was certainly able to buy in to the idea, and I'm sure others like him, with a large extended chosen family would be able to do the same.

    No time was given in this book to defining characters' gender, and while some of the people present more typically, with 1990s side ponytails or skirts, there are plenty of folks with no obvious gender, leaving the door to interpretation wide open. My son identified two families as having two mamas (one of which was the co-sleeping cuties at left), and a few of the baseball cap-clad kids as girls though they were indistinguishable to me from the ones he identified as boys.

    Several races and ethnicities make appearances, here, with no tokenism or heavy-handed approach to diversity. The feeling is truly one of inclusion, not for its own sake, but because it fits the story. 

    Overall, we found One Hundred Is A Family refreshing, fun and inspirational. With the tie-in to caring for the earth, it's a timely choice for our garden-loving crew as we prepare for spring, and a relatable read for my littles, with chosen families as cherished as the ones they were born into. 



    Five stars for some skirts, some headbands, but plenty (and I do mean plenty) of kids in neutral colors with no gender signifiers and nothing to tell you how anyone identifies. Nary a gendered pronoun in sight. 


    Five stars for happy families doing things like eating a meal around a big table and sleeping four to a bed. Lots of babies as active participants and older folks as relevant and fun. Characters' neutrality means pretty much any familial configuration can find representation.


    Five stars for people of different races and ethnicities depicted hanging out, doing stuff with their loved ones rather than exemplifying stereotypes. Traditions are respectfully hinted at, as in the picture of a Black family stitching together a quilt, but don't overpower the more powerful message of togetherness.  


    Four stars for co-sleeping and family members of all ages working together harmoniously. Big people looking lovingly at littles, and the implication of mutual respect. 


    Three stars for a somewhat dated illustration style I don't personally love, but my son found fun and accessible if not wow-inducing. A well worn rhyming scheme perfect for toddlers and preschoolers, with a beautiful overarching message and simple text appropriate for young listeners and readers. 


    Four stars. A sweet, uplifting and inclusive book I didn't mind re-reading when asked, which gave us the opportunity to talk about our different families and communities, and what other families look like. No problematic gender stereotypes, ageism or scary stuff to turn off my sensitive son. Cartoony but well-done illustrations that appeal to preschoolers. A fine read indeed! Check it out at your library or buy it at Powell's or Amazon.  

    As a closing note: So many people have offered their suggestions for Fine Reads, and each book mentioned is added to my reading list. Thank you, all, for the ideas about subject matter, authors and books you've loved sharing with your own kids, or remember enjoying as children yourselves. Most of what's recommended to me are books that deal directly with same sex parents, boys that wear dresses, and the like. While these are great, I wanted to clarify that they aren't my focus. I know that I could walk into a library and ask the librarian for a book about having two moms, for example, but a child with two moms doesn't need to learn about that phenomenon. Instead, I'm trying to find books that simply show diversity, different families, gender de-emphasis, and differing abilities as truths that fade into the background of an otherwise-angled story. I think this might make my small efforts a more universal resource, and I hope that the open-endedness of the books I choose leaves more room for self-directed thought and discussion by young readers and their big people. That said, keep those rec's coming!