May 12 2013

Don’t Knock ‘Em

The two of them sat the table trading knock-knock jokes while I chopped vegetables, listening to them laugh uproariously at their so-called punch lines. I’ve heard them telling each other these corny jokes for years. Or as the recipient of the dreaded “knock-knock” command, I have always replied, as a dutiful mom, with a cheerful and curious, “who’s there?”

What surprises me most: that so many of these terrible knock-knock jokes are the very same ones that I used to hear and repeat when I was exactly their age:
chaplin
Knock-knock.
Who’s there?
Boo.
Boo who?
Why are you crying?

(I’m not saying it’s a good joke. I’m just saying it’s stood the test of time.)

Short-pants and Buddy-roo ran through at least a dozen knock-knock jokes – their full repertoire – and then they started making up their own. Like this one:

“Knock-Knock?”
“Who’s there?”
“Hog.”
“Hog who?”
“Hogwarts. Get it?”

Both girls doubled over in laughter.

I try my best to be encouraging to my children, especially when it has to do with cultivating a sense of humor, a necessity for surviving to and through adulthood. But this one crossed the line. The joke was lame. Somebody needed to explain this to them.

“Guys,” I said, in that I’m-about-to-tell-you-something-you-need-to-know voice, “I’ve always chuckled at your knock-knock jokes, because it’s charming, the way you deliver them. But you’re approaching the age right when you might want to refine them just a bit, to make sure they’re funny.” I went on to describe the nature of humor, how it’s based on a play on words with a surprise element, or in the case of a knock-knock joke, a clever dual meaning of a word or phrase with an unexpected outcome.
shadow_girls
I looked up from my cutting board to see both of them staring at me. I could see that my suggestion that their humor wasn’t up to par was a serious blow. The corner of Buddy-roo’s mouth started to quiver, just moments ahead of a grand wail and the rush of tears. Short-pants regarded me with disbelief. Another #fail for mom, like the Santa spoiler, I’ve managed to make a mess of things when all I thought was doing was offering a sound piece of counsel.

It brings to mind a story De-facto tells about one of his college friends, a woman who tells it like it is and also happens to be athletically adept. Driving her sons and their friends home from what had been a particularly pathetic soccer game, she overheard them congratulating each other on the fine plays they’d made. She endured their reciprocal adulation until she could take it no longer, at which point she railed into them, with specificity, about all the shortcomings that had resulted in their loss, a rant that started out with, “You guys are not that good.” I could picture her looking in the rear-view mirror and seeing their stunned faces, called out by their mother for their exaggerated pride.

I’m all for encouraging my children and developing their self-esteem. I try to be deliberate with my praise, pointing out the specific things I like about the pictures they draw, and the parts of the stories they tell that tickle or touch me. I try to praise the effort more than the result. I use as much appreciative inquiry as I can, and I try to pose concerns to them in the form of a question that might inspire them to to correct and improve. (Okay, sometimes I just plain yell at them to pick up their dirty clothes or hang up their wet towels, because the third try at “how might you put your clothes away?” approach didn’t achieve the desired results.) All this to say I try to take a positive route with my children, especially about sensitive errors. Example: to Short-pants when she’s practicing her viola, “You got the rhythm perfect that time, great. This time, listen to be sure you’re playing in tune as well.” All delivered with you-can-do-it assurance.
laughing_cow
Sometimes, though, you have to just say it like it is. I think we do a disservice to our children if we don’t give them direct feedback, or if we sugar-coat it so much that they don’t learn how to receive criticism that isn’t softened at the edges. I’m not suggesting a humiliating attack – though that might feel satisfying to deliver – but a straightforward appraisal is good practice for the real world. Not everyone gets a medal, and if you don’t get one, you need to be able to hear – and learn from – the reason why.

Short-pants’ expression of shock and surprise morphed into one of feigned consternation, a look she gives me when we’re teasing each other or she’s pretending to be mad at me.

“How about this one?” she taunted, “Knock-knock.”
I felt compelled to oblige. “Who’s there?”
“Leaf.”
“Leaf who?”
“Leaf me alone if you don’t like my jokes, will ya?”


Oct 5 2010

Yeah, baby.

Buddy-roo pressed her pinky finger against her lip, “Preparation H!”

She and Short-pants doubled over laughing. They didn’t really understand the joke; you can’t find this product in France, neither of their tender bottoms have ever required treatment for hemorrhoids. But they giggled out loud because they know that it’s supposed to be funny; no doubt when they watched Goldmember with their father, this joke must have cracked him up.

What to do? Laugh at loud or react in a way that would hopefully discourage them from repeating this and any other lines they’ve learned from watching the film. I turned sharply toward De-facto and gave him the look. “What?” he said, “It’s a funny movie.” I guess there are worse films for them to see, but Goldmember is not first among the DVDs I would have selected for family viewing pleasure.

But what is a suitable video? A Disney film in which the mother deer (or bear) dies in the first scene? A film in which an elephant, who’s mother is also killed in the first scene, returns to the jungle to civilize the wild animals so that they live like humans? Barbie and her princesses, or Snow White, Sleeping Beauty or any of those films where the female character waits helplessly for a strong, handsome man to save her from peril and make things right? (Shrek attempts to dispel this stereotype, but it has to go up against an entire library of princesses waiting to be rescued.)

A greater concern – to me – is the violence that is has become an habitual part of Hollywood films. At least the relatively small amount of violence in the Austin Powers‘ films is so campy that it couldn’t possibly be a shock to a generation of movie-viewers accustomed to life-like murders, realistic Hollywood shoot-outs and car chases with miles of carnage left behind. Except that we don’t watch those gun-toting crash-bang films with our kids; Short-pants and Buddy-roo are plunked in front of the feminist-irritating Disney favorites, or more often, they watch the real classics. Last Saturday, De-facto and I got to sleep in while the girls watched Barbara Streisand and Walter Matthau in Hello Dolly. Or the favorite electronic babysitter option: The Electric Company.

As much as we try to protect our children from violence, our world is violent and they manage see its violent images. If we happen to watch the television news while they’re in the room, it’s in front of them. If they look through the news magazines that end up in the bathroom, there are photographs of war and brutality. We try to filter the media that they take in, but we can’t control it every inch of it.

Anyway, Austin Powers is a comedy.

Except there’s a lot of sexual innuendo. It’s all silly slapstick and sophomoric humor. Is it still too much mojo for them? If I have to choose between letting my girls watch a film that was violent or sexual, I’ll choose the latter. Sexual content I can explain. I can put it in context. I can address their questions. But violence? How do you ever make that acceptable?

Which begs the question how do I want my daughters to learn about sex? Do I want it to be a clinical discussion? Should there be dramatic overtones of true love and finding the one? Will it come from Lady Gaga? Is Austin Powers such a horrible introduction to the world of sex? Sure, the woman are objectified (especially the Japanese twins), but then, so are the men. Everyone is having a good laugh. There are no sexual victims. All the main characters in the film think that sex is good and pleasurable. If anything, it’s the Holy Grail.

For now, I think it’s it all going over their heads anyway. It appears that the 20 back-to-back euphemisms for male genitalia haven’t registered with them (yet).

Yesterday, Buddy-roo did not want to leave the park after school. Then she complained all the way home. Her life is too hard. She misses her old school. Why does she have so much homework? Why does she have to go to school at all? Why can’t she stay at home? Why don’t I home-school her? Unhappy with each of my responses, she stormed ahead of us; I found her pouting in front of the front door to our building. She cried all the way up the four flights of stairs. Once in the apartment, things did not improve. I could see the evening spiraling down, something much harder to manage when I’m flying solo, which is the case this week because De-facto is out of town on business. In fact, he’s in Holland, where they speak freaky deaky Dutch (not far from Belgium, the home of Goldmember himself).

“Any and all kids who eat their dinner and do their homework without complaining, whining or dilly-dallying get to watch a movie before bedtime,” I pronounced. And then, don’t ask me why, I added, “the movie of your choice.”

Goldmember?” both of them, in unison.

I backed myself into this one. There was nowhere to go. “No whining? No fussing? None of this, wait let me do something else first?”

Heads nodded solemnly. Then, in tandem, their elbows folded in order to place their pinkies on their bottom lips. How could I say no?

The mood changed instantly. Dinner was executed without a hitch. It took over an hour for Buddy-roo to do homework, but she stayed at the table and slogged through it. It wasn’t easy-peazy, lemon-squeazy, though she smugly used this phrase, borrowed from the film, after writing out a few of her lesser-challenging spelling words.

Homework completed. Jams on and teeth brushed. We three curled up on the couch with Austin and his cast of characters. I can’t say I wasn’t cringing, I kept the remote in hand to mute the sound and distract the girls with a question about the plot when I couldn’t stand the puns any longer. Then at nine o’clock, about halfway through the film, we pressed pause (as agreed) and they ran upstairs without prompting (as agreed) and slipped into bed without any fuss.

And all I can say is Yeah, baby.