Archive | Children RSS feed for this section

Hit the Road Shaun!

31 Jan


Halloween is a distant memory and the scary costumes are long gone , but most childhood fears are not so easily left behind. Our five-year-old grandson and his little sister spent the night with us last Saturday. That meant that we had to exile“Shaun the Sheep” to the trunk of our car. Shaun is a character from a stop-action BBC children’s series. The show was a spinoff from the popular Wallace and Gromit films. My wife Diane bought a “Shaun the Sheep” hot water bottle cover, while on a trip to England. To most people, Shaun is an adorable little stuffed lamb with big eyes. But that’s the problem. Shawn’s plastic eyes are rather large and protruding. For some reason, these “google eyes” really scare our grandson.

We promised to take Shaun out of the house before he came to stay. I suggested that we could put Shaun in a box and then put the box on a back shelf in the closet, but he said he was still afraid that Shaun would “pop out” of the box, so we put Shaun in the car trunk instead. At first I thought this innocent expression of childhood fear was rather endearing, but the more I thought about Shaun’s cold dead eyes, the more they bothered me. I started fantasizing about it and imagined that maybe late Saturday night I would heard a loud knocking sound. I’d look out the window and see that the car trunk was open and when I reached the door, all I would see was those big “google eyes” staring back at me through the window.

None of us ever fully recover from our childhoods. Our deepest pleasures and fears reside there. Film director Steven Spielberg managed to successfully tap into his childhood fears creating scenes like the threatening trees and the terrifying clown under the bed in the movie, Poltergeist. I also remember a childhood nightmare about being chased by a Tyrannosaurus, that could have been a scene right out of Jurassic Park. Especially in his book, “It”, Stephen King exploited many of our earliest fears with another horrifying clown and a monstrous spider-like creature.

Researchers at the University of Sheffield in England were seeking data in order to update the decor of a children’s hospital. They surveyed 250 young hospital patients and found that all the children even the older ones disliked clowns. The technical term for fear of clowns and mimes is “coulrophobia” and psychologists believe that the exaggerated expression seen in traditional clown make-up is the main reason that children fear them. Being able to recognize familiar faces and interpret emotional expressions is an important developmental task for children. The grimacing clown face presents an unexpected and unwelcome enigma for kids.

When they were little, our two youngest sons were given a pair of handcrafted large and small Raggedy Andy dolls for Christmas. Our youngest son never like them and over time he started to be afraid of them. He may be our most creative child and he developed an interesting coping mechanism. Every night before he would go to bed, he would thoroughly beat up each of the dolls and then he would make them face the wall, so they couldn’t stare at him while he was sleeping.

As for our granddaughters, they seem especially frighten of spiders and bugs and they have a thing about “beetles”. They are even afraid of killing them, because they might be “stinkbugs” and smell up the place. Even our three-year-old granddaughter picked up on her sisters’ hysteria and screamed when she saw a “spider” on the floor near her toys. I was impressed by her eyesight since this “spider” was the tiniest of specks and was barely visible. I squashed it for her and she seemed satisfied and momentarily grateful.

As a child our middle son, Andy also had a fear of insect. We lived in Florida, which is well known for its palmetto bugs. Dave Barry once said, “We call them palmetto bugs because if we called them ‘six-inch-long flying cockroaches’, we’d all have to move out of the state.” In elementary school Andy had a terrible conflict. He wanted to ride his bicycle to school more than anything, but it was outside in a shed, teeming with palmetto bugs. From inside the house we could hear him scream every time he saw a bug (about every 2 seconds). Despite all the screaming, he still managed to get out his bike and ride to school.

According to psychologist Jodi Mindell from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, childhood fears stem from two major sources: real life experiences and internal feelings. She believes that the childhood fear of monsters, for example, comes from personal experiences that show children that people behave destructively towards others. These experiences might include being actually injured, observing others being hurt, or being shown or told of scary possibilities.

Stories and movies are common sources of childhood fears since they often employee archetypical images and characters that have historically engendered feelings of terror. For example, as a child Diane was afraid of the witch and the flying monkeys in the classic movie, “ The Wizard of Oz”. Like many children, our oldest son was afraid of witches when he was little. Witches are archetypal and symbolize ambivalence towards the mothering figure, as well as, the fear of the dreaded “Bad Mother”. As for me I was thoroughly terrified by the old Universal Studios’ Frankenstein and Wolfman movies that my older brother insisted on watching every Friday night when my parents went out.

The second source of childhood fears is the child’s own unacceptable internal feelings. Such feelings, such as intense anger, can be extremely frightening and children often employ the defense mechanism of externalizing to help control them. Mindell says, ” Externalization refers the remarkable and normal capacity of children to create the illusion that their own unwanted feelings belong to something else rather than themselves.

Even schools can serve as an unintentional source of childhood fears. Once our middle son was frightened at school because they talked about devastating mudslides taking place “far away”. All he knew was that his grandma lived “far way” and therefore conceivably might be harmed.

When I was in elementary school our teacher taught a social studies lesson that told us the alarming story of Pedro. Pedro lived in some Central American country. One day he was out in a beanfield with his father, when all of a sudden, rocks started spontaneously floating in the field. Pedro had left his sombrero on the ground and one of the rocks even made it fly around scaring everyone. The villagers thought that the field must be haunted. It turns out that Pedro and his family didn’t realized that a full-fledged volcano was forming in the beanfield. Within a couple of weeks, a massive lava-spewing, smoke-belching volcano completely covered Pedro’s home and we never heard from poor Pedro again. Where was FEMA when you needed them?

I personally found this tale terrifying. I even had nightmares about volcanos starting up in my own backyard. The story strikes at the core of my greatest fear, namely how life is so unpredictable. A spontaneous disaster can strike at any moment. Just when you think that things are going fine, a Frankenstorm or Shaun the Sheep can pop up out of nowhere.

Origionally Published in the Souther Indiana News Journal


Toyland Tribulations

31 Oct






Like high fashion, the American toy industry is dominated by trends and exclusivity. There’s nothing more satisfying than getting your kid the hot new toy that your neighbor can’t seem to find.

In fact, there was even a rather mediocre Christmas movie — 1996’s “Jingle All the Way,” which implausibly pits Arnold Schwarzenegger against Sinbad in a rather violent pursuit for the year’s most popular action figure.

Over the past 30 years, I personally have traveled far and wide in hot pursuit of Strawberry Shortcake dolls, Gameboys, Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Millennium Falcons and Zhu Zhu Hamsters.

Years ago, I remember submitting an application to Toys R’ Us for the privilege of buying a Cabbage Patch Doll. Like kidnappers, they called me a couple of days later and told me to be at the store at 10 a.m. sharp if I wanted to buy the doll. When I got there, they took a small group of us chosen ones to a darkened back room, where they had a pallet full of new Cabbage Patch dolls completely covered by a black sheet of canvas. When it was my turn, I grabbed a doll and was escorted to a cashier. I didn’t even know how much it was going to cost, but things had progressed way too far to ask questions. I felt like I was buying a couple kilos of heroin.

Trends in toys constantly repeat themselves. With our three boys and now a grandson, it seems like we have gone through at least three generations of Star Wars, as well as several of Transformers, and now Teen Age Mutant Ninja Turtle toys. And just when it seems like it’s over, the Lego version appears and it starts all over again.

We made the mistake of giving away our daughter’s extensive collection of Strawberry Shortcake dolls and paraphernalia to a family that had three girls. How did we know our daughter would end up having three girls of her own and never forgive us? We still have a couple generations of Star War toys stashed in plastic bins in our basement. I’m too lazy to dig through them for the grandkids. Besides, they belong to our sons and are my backup plan in case the government ever privatizes Social Security.

The United States Toy Industry Association reports that Americans purchase more than 3 billion toys annually. With the average cost of about $7 per toy, that quickly adds up to more than $21.2 billion in direct toy sales.

According to CNBC’s Christina Berk, however, there is trouble brewing in Toyland this holiday season. Toy sales have been declining over the past decade and the trend is accelerating, according to a Goldman Sachs report Monday. As a result, Goldman downgraded the toy industry’s rating from “neutral” to “cautious.”

According to financial analyst Michael Kelter, the “amount spent on traditional toys in the U.S. per capita is down 30 percent from $85 per person to $60 per person since 1998.”

Part of the reason may be the tremendous growth in digital games played on tablets and smartphones, which are edging out traditional board games and puzzles. When videogame consoles are included, the market share of digital games has increased from 1 percent to 20 percent in the past decade.

Declines are also expected this year in the sales of Hasbro’s flagship boy toys — Transformers and Nerf weapons. Mattel, which relies heavily on perennial girls’ favorites, such as Barbie, also has been hurt by flat sales in recent years, as well as a huge decline in the preschool toy market.

Perhaps it’s the overall economy that’s to blame, or maybe it is kid’s attraction to online games and activities. Advances in electronics have certainly made toys awfully flashy and sophisticated. Some people may think that modern toys have become too complicated and explicit to encourage creative play and they lean toward classic toys that require more imagination.

As a child, I owned a red plastic console that was advertised to track missiles and satellites in space. It had a tiny opaque screen that only showed vague shadows of small plastic cutouts of spacecraft as you turned a crank. I must have spent hours staring at that opaque screen in anticipation of my current job, at which I still spend hours staring at a screen. I would have given anything if that screen would have shown a little detail, color or miracles of miracles, actually said something.

Perhaps modern toys are not imaginative enough to stimulate much creative play. In this regard, I always think of Patricia Lee Gauch’s classic children’s book, “Christina Katerina and the Box,” in which, to her mother’s horror, a young girl comes up with a number of imaginative uses for a large appliance box on their front lawn. I was thinking about this recently as I watched our grandchildren play with sticks in our backyard, which consists primarily of sticks and tics.

Watching them jogged my memory and I remembered one of my early favorite toys — the stake. Although I had a homemade swingset that my father had constructed from pipes, my favorite outdoor toy was a three-foot long, sharpened, solid-steel stake. I think it may have once been part of a of horseshoe game or perhaps belonged to a surveyor.

While a metal stake may seem like a dangerous and inappropriate plaything, the story gets worse. I remember two games we made up using the stake. The first was “Oilwell.” My friends and I hammered the stake into the ground and then attached a rope to it. We threw the rope over a tree branch and then pulled the stake out of the ground. Then we poured water into the hole left by the stake and lowered the stake again back into the hole drilling for oil until the oil (mud) finally came gushing out of the well. We added a bunch of toy trucks, cars and plastic soldiers to the scene to complete the tableau. So basically we played for hours in a large mud hole with a large sharp metal stake suspended over our heads.
Our second game wasn’t much better. Our house had once been a boarding house, so it was configured rather oddly. For example, we had two front doors. My bedroom had its own door to the outside and it lead to a porch with a railing. The steps had been removed so it was sort of like a little balcony.

I always imagined it was the deck of a ship and our backyard was the ocean. We used the porch as our pirate ship until one day Bobby suggested that we turn it into a whaler. Of course, to do this we needed a serviceable harpoon. We took the metal stake with a rope tied to it and fastened the other end of the rope to a column supporting the porch’s roof. We then took turns hurling the stake into the yard at old basketballs and pieces of newspaper (whales).

How we managed to avoid impaling some small child or skewering one of the neighborhood dogs or cats is still a mystery to me. We did managed to loosen the column supporting the porch roof and a few years later when it finally collapsed, my father removed the porch, filled in my door, and put in a window instead.

I will leave the precise interpretation of our “games” to the Freudians out there, but in retrospect perhaps children are better off with less “creative” toys after all. When I was 11, I misplaced the steel stake and started my career making toy soldiers out of molten lead, but that’s another story. And don’t get me started on my chemistry set, its alcohol lamp  and “The Great Bedroom Fire of 1961.”
Originally published in the Southern Indiana News-Tribune



The Great Generational Divide

24 Aug

Recently my wife Diane and I have been watching  television commercials for  the Toyota Venza, We’ve just noticed these  advertisements,  although they have been   around since last summer. They feature twenty-year olds  making contemptuous or  patronizing comments   about their   parents’ boring lives. While their children are talking, the parents are using their Venza SUV to connect with friends, attend concerts,  and go bike and horseback riding.

Created by the Saatchi & Saatchi   advertising firm, these “Baby Boomers Gone Wild” commercials show a lot of   hostility towards the supercilious younger generation.  In the best commercial a clueless and condescending Facebook user expresses concerns that her parents are becoming “antisocial”,  because they only have 19  Facebook friends and don’t have a “real life”. She bases this on” part of an article” that  she read online. The commercial ends with her looking at pictures of puppies online while her parents are living it up with their  real life friends.  At least one young blogger criticized the commercials as  illustrating how much  the “self-absorbed baby boomers”  misunderstand generation X   and millennials.

I suppose we  like these commercials because   some of  the condescension  rings true. Our oldest son, a computer engineer,  is only half joking when he says that  he thinks it’s his job to drag us into the 21st century by buying us electronic devices.  When he asked Diane for ideas for her birthday gift this year, he totally ignored her suggestions and immediately latched on to my comment  that a GPS for the car might  be useful.

In some ways  these commercials may be payback for the 1988  Cutlass Supreme commercial  in which advertising maven  Joel Machak  introduced the famous line, “It’s not your father’s Oldsmobile.”   These advertisements catered to generational conflicts,  proudly proclaiming the “The New Generation of Olds. Oldsmobile shut down  in 2004  and ironically many believe the brand was killed off  by the “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.”  advertising campaign,  which alienate the traditional   market, without winning new converts.

Besides auto commercials, intergenerational hostilities are seen in other areas. “Mom Jeans”, for example is a  pejorative term for a kind of high-waisted and big-legged women’s pants  that are considered unflattering and hopelessly out of style. They originated in a 2003 Saturday Night Live skit  featuring a fake brand of jeans by that name.

“Dad Jeans” soon   followed. The Urban Dictionary says  these are jeans  that are no longer fashionable with  tapered legs,  high waists, and brand names that were cool  10 years ago. They are worn by aging men,  in denial that they are no longer hip, who have children, and drive SUVs (Venzas perhaps?).

Not even the president is safe from such snarkiness. In 2009 President Obamawore a pair of faded, slouchy dad jeans to throw out the first pitch at the  All-Star Game  and   was later seen wearing Dad Jeans during a vacation at  Martha’s Vineyard.   Asked to defend his jeans,  the president  said, “I am a little frumpy,  those jeans are comfortable, and for those of you who want your president to look great in his tight jeans, I’m sorry — I’m not the guy. It just doesn’t fit me. I’m not 20.”

During his presidential campaign Rick Santorum was unmercifully teased for wearing an article of clothing that I personally favor—  the venerable, yet unappreciated, sweater vest. I think much of the critical reaction was rooted in intergenerational hostility. Generation X comedian Demetri Martin once said, “… vests are all about protection.   Like a life vest protects you from drowning,  and bulletproof vests protect you from getting shot,  and  sweater vests protect you from pretty girls.”

Although generational conflicts have been seen throughout history, we may be facing something entirely unprecedented.   Digital technology has fundamentally changed the way in which knowledge and information are shared in our society.

In the past if a young person wanted to know how to do something,  like making an  apple pie or fixing a leaky faucet, most often they would ask their parents.  Today, however, with the abundance of  digital information, only an internet connection away,   traditional  teachers and family elders are no longer the  most credible or available sources  of  information. I even  find myself looking at You Tube videos before   attempting  most home repairs these days.

It’s not only young adults that are relying on these impersonal sources of information.  On-line schooling has recently made the leap from technical training and  college level  education to  the elementary and secondary school populations. I suppose  people  in my generation occasionally  used television, radio, or other media,  instead of elders,  for  learning functional skills, as well as acculturation. These media, however,  lacked the speed,  immediacy, and  interactivity of current technology. The internet is a source of information that responds to  your  specific questions and is available 24-7.

The type, format, and  rate of presentation  of  on-line information is also totally under the control of the learner. Also the source is impersonal and thus the exchange has less threat than might stem from feeling like one  is   ignorant and dependent upon a superior .  The young person avoids having to acknowledge their lack of skill or information and perhaps what they see as  a  critical attitude on the part  of  elders.  Our daughter and her husband really  seem to prefer getting their information online  even in areas in which we have  a lifetime of  experience. During an argument they once   said to us, “Check your expertise by the door”.   (not that we hold a grudge.

Since young people use their  information-seeking skills to find  the information,  they can justify   anything they learn as being their own idea, without  acknowledging the fact that the content ultimately came from somebody else’s parents.

Besides interpersonal  and family relationships,  generational conflicts also effect  business and economic activities. For  many years researchers and consultants have been exploring ways for  organizations to reduced  such conflicts and their  negative  effects on productivity and efficiency.

Harvard Business Review blogger Tammy Erickson has described four major sources of such conflicts   in the work place 1. Baby Boomers tend to perceive work as a place, as opposed to something you do.  With the mobility of various electronic devices,  younger workers often don’t see  work   associated with a particular location. 2.   Baby Boomers may be more  comfortable in using face-to-face   communication, in contrast to the electronic modes favored by  many younger workers;  such as  e-mailing,  texting, instant messaging, twitter, etc   (3.) Older workers tend to be linear learners  who read  manuals, obtain information ahead of time, and engage in pre-activity training.  Younger workers often prefer “on-demand”  learning style  in which they only learn things  when they are practically  needed , not beforehand.   Finally Boomers  typically  prefer having  established  schedules and place value on planning. Younger workers may feel more comfortable with  impromptu  and  spontaneous meetings and  work activities. Erickson believes just understanding these differences can help reduce workplace conflict.

So if you see me in my  dad jeans and sweater vest, you can’t  be sure if  I’m getting ready to  go on a vigorous hike  or maybe  take a nap. It all depends on what Diane has planned.

Based on a column appearing in t he Southern Indiana News Tribune

Museum Madness

2 Aug



Last week we received a call from our daughter, who seemed to be getting cabin fever from being confined indoors with her four young children, due to the heat and air-quality alerts. Noticing the desperation she heard in her voice,  my wife Diane, who  is still recovering from surgery, agreed that we would  go with her and the children on a three-day visit  of Indianapolis area  museums.  Our daughter lives near Cincinnati and after seeing all their  local attractions, in a outburst  of Hoosier hubris, we had bragged about the wonderful  Indianapolis museums.  Little did we know it would come back to bite us.


Our first foray was to the Indiana State Museum on Friday morning. Before it heated up the children and their mother went on a paddle boat ride on  the White River Canal.  Diane and I opted out and found a shady bench overlooking the canal. Next to us was an older  Japanese  gentleman, playing some instrument that resembled a gourd.   This  impromptu  concert was entertaining for the first 40 minutes or so,  but after that it required a couple  of Tylenol.

Inside the museum proper,  the kids weren’t all that  interested in the  “Birth of the Earth” or the “The Ancient Seas” .   These exhibits consisted  mostly of   of rocks, and fossils that  looked like rocks.   It’s probably for the best that they didn’t pay much attention to the overhead  models of a gigantic  primitive squid, an enormous pincher-wielding trilobite,  and  a fearsome prehistoric shark. These things could be the stuff of nightmares. The kids did spent a lot of time looking at the exhibits in the Naturalist’s Lab, where they  imitated animal sounds, something at which they excelled.

On another floor we learned all about famous people from Indiana (they weren’t impressed)    and  how the television evolved  from primordial radio sets.  It was depressing to see many of the things from my childhood on display in the pop culture section. From the  kids’ perspective record players and Easy Bake Ovens were in the same class as  tyrannosaurus  bones and ancient Egyptian mummies.

For lunch we  ate  at one of Diane’s favorite restaurants, the  Ayres Tea Room, which has been re-created  on the third  floor of the museum.  This team room   operated in a large department store in downtown Indianapolis from 1905 to 1990 and was famous for its “hobo lunches” for kids, which were wrapped in bandannas. Our preteen  granddaughter insisted that she have a pot of tea. like the adults and then complained constantly  about how bad it tasted. Although none of them were on their best behavior,  the children all got  small wrapped prizes  from a large treasure chest by the entrance to the restaurant.

I was   hoping the top floor exhibit  would be impressive enough to pull our  fat out of the fire and  justify our bragging. The Abraham Lincoln exhibit, however,  was gone and had been replaced by “Amazing Maize”. It may have been   stereotypical for Indiana, but to paraphrase David Barry,  it was the best corn-related exhibit I’ve ever seen.  The kids barely glanced at the stuff, but they fought over who got to sit behind the wheel of the big tractor.


Undaunted we set out the next morning for the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, the world’s largest children’s museum.  Besides dinosaurs busting through the side of building, the first thing I noticed was the incredibly loud  noise level. I can believe that this is an international attraction, since I must have heard tantrums in at least six different languages

.  Our  five year-old grandson was duly  impressed by the gigantic Bumblebee Transformer  robot, displayed in the entrance hall,  as well as the Spiderman figure perched on the wall.  All them  enjoyed the Treasures of the Earth Exhibit,  where they got to  pretend to   scuba dive and search for pirate artifacts;  scan a mummy for clues to its identity, and help excavate ancient Chinese terra cotta warrior statues.  The Lego and Hot Wheels exhibits featured familiar toys, so they were especially popular, crowed, and noisy. My favorite activity was the “How I Became a Pirate” show, based on a children’s book.  It was a professionally produced musical in a nice comfortable,  cool, and snoozable theater.

The Power of Children Exhibit lent  an unexpected  serious note to the Children’s Museum. It featured the   stories of trio of heroic  children: Anne Frank,  Ruby Bridges, and  Ryan White. It was difficult to explain the Nazis, bigotry,  and discrimination to preschoolers, so we didn’t spend a lot of time  there. It reminded me of   the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. in terms of style and the  solemn tone.

Since it was 91o  and the humidity was approaching 100%,   we decided  to spend our last day in Indianapolis  outdoors at the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park. Due to the heat, the hot air balloon ride was  cancelled,  along with   the candle dipping (they kept  melting).

We first visited  a rather dusty Indian village, where the kids sat in a dugout canoe  and  crawled in and out of wigwams. The interpreter was a little concerned that kids were being too rough with the antique wood shaving tool, which Diane had told  them was a spanking machine.

The kids did a  basket weaving activity,  which turned out pretty well, but caused them to just  miss the guided tour of the Conner House.  Conner Prairie  is a stickler when it comes to punctuality.

We spent a lot of time in the 1836 Prairietown part of the park. This re-creation of a pioneer village had a lot of enactors, all of who stayed in character, whenever you spoke to them. I don’t how they tolerated the heavy clothing in the stifling heat. Children were given roles to act out. Many of them did chores of the era like sweeping floors and carrying around heavy buckets of water.

Our last stop was the 1863 Civil War village where we saw an army encampment and some of the damage done to the town of Dupont  by General Morgan’s Confederate raiders. A recruitment center for militia volunteers was  set up in one of the houses.    The children especially enjoyed   the River Crossing Play Area  that include civil war costumes, water play and a kid-sized model of the Alice Dean, the  Howard built steamship   Morgan used to cross the Ohio River and then burned.

Thankfully we rode a tram back to the  Visitors’ Center, with just enough time to  purchase some souvenirs. Our grandson had decided on a coonskin cap and canteen until he caught sight of  some older boys playing with a wooden rifle.   It seemed unwise to provide him with a club-like object he could use on his three sisters. Diane put her surgery at risk wrestling him down as we left the gift shop.

We were all exhausted and more than a little dehydrated when our daughter buckled the kids in her van. One child was saying she had to throw up and the boy was still crying,  as we left them. In the grand scheme of things; a pretty good trip.

Orginally appearing in the Southern Indiana News Journal.



The Hungary Lorax

11 Apr




                         Last weekend was the premiere of The Hunger Games,  the movie version  of  the best-selling young adult novel. My daughter and oldest granddaughter read this novel  at  a mother/daughter book club and when they   finished,  they  gave the book to my wife, Diane.   I haven’t exactly read it myself, although I’ve overheard a lot of conversations about it.  I gather it is a rather depressing and intense sci-fi story, a bit like Steven King’s Running Man, except instead of Schwarzenegger, it features a couple  dozen post-apocalyptic teenagers maiming and killing each other with sharp objects in some sort of competition.

            After reading the book all three of them wanted to see the movie, which left me and the younger three grandchildren,  ages 3, 5, and 8,  at loose ends, since The Hunger Games  was rated PG13.  It was thus decided that us, peanut gallery folk, should see the Dr. Seuss movie, The Lorax.

The Lorax is the movie   that Fox Business host Lou Dobbs claimed was an attempt to “indoctrinate our children.” He said it was “The President’s liberal friends in Hollywood   targeting a younger demographic, using animated movies to sell their agenda…”

Despite my vocal concerns, including the dangers of inciting class warfare,  I was assigned to take the three younger children to see that orange eco-socialistic Lorax.  As soon as we arrived at the theater the  Hunger Games contingent of our party, abandoned the rest of us to make sure they could find a seat.  

My strategy was that I would ply my charges with refreshments,  hoping to slow them down by inducing a stupor of sorts. I bought each of them a 16 oz. cherry ICEE  and  purchased two large popcorns. Our five-year-old grandson said that he couldn’t hold his drink  because it was too cold,  so I got a cardboard drink holders and tried to balance the  drinks and the popcorn. I didn’t make it out of the lobby. One of the cherry  ICEEs  immediately fell and  exploded as it hit the tile floor,   spraying a bit  of the frozen cherry concoction on  a couple of  teenage girls standing in line on the other side of the lobbby. Fortunately they were not armed with bows and arrows, so they had to settle for giving me a dirty look.

The grandchildren, for their part, were highly amused by this and   just couldn’t wait to tell mommy and grandma on me. I began to wonder if it was all these unpatriotic animated movies they had seen, that had made them so willing to thrown me under the bus. Later I told Diane that if we have lived in Nazi Germany, I was certain they would, have turned me over to the Gestapo without a second thought.

The stadium theater was completely empty when we arrived, so we scooted into the good seats where you can put your feet up on the metal railing.  To kill time we started in on the      refreshments. The theater slowly filled up, mostly with kids and grandparents.  The children all seemed to know the Lorax story by heart,  either from the book or from watching a video of  some earlier version. My eight-year-old granddaughter informed me that the Lorax “Speaks for  the trees. ” and her three-year-old sister chimed in repeating, “Yeah, he speaks for the trees.”   making sure I understood, dense as I am.

The movie was visually stunning,  but  kind of  preachy. One of the characters is a young man called the Once-ler who invents the Thneed—  a Slanket-like  pair  of long johns, that becomes so popular,  that everyone has to buy one.  To make the  Thneeds, all of the truffula trees are chopped down,  turning the world into a wasteland. 

Years later a boy name Ted  helps bring back the trees  by planting the last truffula seed,  that the Once-ler has been saving. It’s true that business people don’t come off too well in this movie. As the Once-ler destroys the environment, he says things like,  I’m  just trying to grow the economy.  

I suppose  Dr.  Seuss could have   explained the difference between   “good rich people” and “evil rich people”.  Although this fine of a distinction  would have probably been lost on my party,  preoccupied as they were with  ICEEs and popcorn. My three-year-old granddaughter spent most of her time battling the folding theater seat,  which kept threatening to swallow her. She also kept banging her shoes on the metal railing. I eventually got her to stop, only to notice that some other kid picked up where she had left off. 

Except for making a horrible mess of spilled popcorn and sticky ICEE residue, the children were pretty well behaved. They seemed a little upset during the climatic chase scene towards the end of the movie,  but they were more than satisfied with the ending. Personally I was disappointed in how powerless the Lorax appeared. Despite descending, from what evidently was heaven,  to speak for the trees, the Lorax’s only  power apparently was his moral authority. I suppose the point that Seuss was hamfistedly trying to make is that “The  kind of world we have  is really up to us”.     

Never-the-less,  we all left the theater in a  good mood with cherry colored lips and oily fingers. We still had 30 minutes to go before The Hunger Games was over, so after a much needed trip to the rest room, we retired to the lounge area.  The eight-year-old immediately discovered that slowly rubbing the vinyl covered couch  made a loud flatulent sound, which kept everyone happily occupied for the next 15 minutes. By this time the sugar from the drinks finally kicked in full throttle and the wild running and crawling on the floor commenced in earnest. I killed another ten minutes, and about ten bucks, by letting the children take a variety of  pictures in a photo booth creating a nice mugging and  grimacing memento  for their mother.     

Finally we were reunited with the family members who saw The Hunger Games. They said their theater was packed.  I read where the film set records, making more than  155 million dollars last  weekend. When I asked what she thought  about The Hunger Games movie, my oldest  granddaughter pronounced  it “Epic!”, which I think is just a cut above “awesome”.

Diane wasn’t impressed by some of the casting, costumes,  or goofy campiness, but she said it was still about 75% acceptable.  On Flixster’s Rotten Tomatoes Website, The Hunger  Games got a rating of 85% fresh, while The Lorax only got a 57% fresh rating on the tomatometer.

These two movies are now indelibly linked in my mind.  I suspect in the future,  if  I   think about the Lorax movie, I will remember it  the way I thought it should’ve been—  featuring  a bright orange creature with a  bushy moustache, happily  skewering  greedy  industrialists with  his  lethal bow and arrow.


Original published inthe Southern Indiana News Tribune

Guys and Dolls: Chicago Style

4 Dec

 Doing our duty as over-indulgent grandparents, my wife Diane and I   took our grandchildren to the American Girl Doll Place Cafe in downtown Chicago this summer.  This Mecca for girls  is more like a Vegas casino than a toy store.  The lights are bright and there are no windows or clocks on the walls. They want to encourage you to lose track of time. All that were missing were the free cocktails.

With three sisters, our  four year-old grandson, readily  accepts that nearly everything in his environment is pink.  However, we weren’t too sure how he would like spending so much time in a doll store. He’s a pretty tough little guy who spends much of his time playing aggressively with Spiderman and  Batman toys  or fist fighting with his older sister. To secure his interest before the trip, we offered to get him one of the boy American Girl dolls. This boy doll is part of a  set of  twins. He looked at one on-line and said he wanted it and that it looked just like him, which it sort of does. When the dolls arrived in the mail, he had no interest in the female  twin, which went to one of his sisters, but he readily claimed the boy doll,  naming  him Mack (a nice macho name that please his father).

 When we were seated at the American Girl Café there were fuchsia-colored  bows used as napkin rings. The girls wore them on their wrists or made ponytails, while Oliver ended up wearing his as a bowtie. I donated   mine to one of the girl’s dolls.   The waitress also seated the kid’s dolls alongside them in special little seats that attached to the table.    Then she  set a tiny red plate and white mug in front of each doll. The doll seats, plates, and mugs were all conveniently on sale as you departed the store. We had a consultation at the doll hospital on the way out, but avoided the expensive doll hair salon.

  Gender differences in toys have long been observed.  A study  by Purdue University  psychologists  Judith Blakemore  and Renee Centers  in 2005  had college students rate contemporary toys  as masculine or feminine. Wrestling figures , GI Joes,   and Spiderman action figures were all rated among the  strongly masculine toys;  while Barbie’s, Bratz, and American Girl dolls were categorized as  strongly feminine. As you might expect girl’s toys were associated with physical attractiveness, nurturance, and domestic skills, while  boy’s toys elicited  violence, competition, excitement, and danger. It seems like it is these associations that really  distinguish between a “doll” and an “action figure”.

Such gender differences are not limited to humans.  A 2010 study found that young chimpanzees in the wild play in gender-specific ways, much like  humans. Although both male and female chimps play with sticks, girl chimps carry sticks around   like dolls, imitating their mothers caring for infants, according to Richard Wrangham of Harvard University. Male chimps  do less stick carrying and are more likely to use their sticks as probes or weapons. 

            In 1967  Hasbro introduced the 21-inch  “That Kid!”  doll for boys, promoting it as  “your own kid brother”.   He was described as a  “freckle faced rascal!” . Complete with a sling shot, That Kid said smart-alecky  things when you moved him.  The “My Buddy” doll,  made by Hasbro in 1985   had the stated  intention of making a doll that could teach little boys about caring.   It’s not clear whether either of these dolls ever caught on, despite the heavy television advertising.  Ironically both of them are thought by some to be the  inspiration for  “Chucky”, the creepy evil doll from the movie  Child’s Play.    

               Our daughter and son-in-law  didn’t have a  problem  with us buying an American Girl boy  doll for  their son, but some parents and experts are  strongly  opposed to such things. Back in the 1980’s   Mattell  introduce, She-Ra: Princess of Power, as the long lost twin sister of  the popular  He-Man  character. Our kids had all of these action figures, but the story   circulated throughout the kindergarten  that one father took all of his son’s She-ra figures and destroyed them, because he was worried that they were too feminine.

               I don’t  remember ever having a doll when I was a child, but Diane said that her brother Gary had one–  a boy doll that he carried around and called little Gary.

            On his website advice section, television  psychologist  Dr. Phil McGraw  told a mother of a five-year-old boy that she should not let her son  play with “girls’ toys”. The mother had asked for advice about her son, who liked  Barbie dolls and dressing up in  girls’ clothes.  McGraw told her that it was not uncommon  for little boys to be interested in girls’ toys and clothes and  that such play  was “not a precursor”  to being gay.  But he did advise her to direct him in an unconfusing way. McGraw said  “Don’t buy him Barbie dolls or girls’ clothes. You don’t want to … support the confusion… Take the girl things away, and buy him boy toys.”

McGraw’s advice opened  up a can of worms. Some parents and experts weighed in  arguing that allowing cross gender play could only encourage gender confusion. The other side, however,   saw such play  as an opportunity to teach boys fathering  skills that’s perhaps becoming important, as more  men take an active role in caring for  children.

Of course, there’s also the question as whether to prohibit  girls from  playing  with  tools or cars, because it   might   confuse their budding gender identity.  Some experts suggest that  allowing freedom in play, allows children to learn  about  both male and females roles and that this can help  them  have insight in  relationships with the opposite sex.

Most authorities, however, do agree that play or specific  toys do  not determine future   sexual preference, which seems to be outside the realm of the parental influence in any case.

Purdue  psychologists Blakemore and Centers  conclude that strongly gender-typed toys were less supportive of optimal physical, social, and mental development than neutral or moderately gender-typed toys.

As for Mack, I think his days  are probably numbered. Our grandson doesn’t seem all that attached to him and is quite willing to sling him at any sister who crosses him.

Based on a column appearing in the Southern Indiana News Tribune

Evaluating Your Children’s Presents this Christmas

16 Dec

This article will tell you if you bought enough and the right kinds of presents this year to make this Christmas one of wonder and awe for your children. Christmas eve is almost here. You must soon decide if Santa’s presents are sufficient to surprise and delight your children. Consider using the following five tests.
Things Required:
• Spreadsheet of all presents bought broken down by child
• Lastest credit card statement
• Your last ounce of strength
Step 1
Are there enough presents to unwrap Christmas morning? Unfortunately a dozen presents is about the minimum for a successful Christmas today. Don’t wrap each crayon separately but save batteries for the stocking. One Christmas Eve we came up short, necessitating a crisis visit to Wal-Mart. With our last ten dollars I rescued a refugee from the clearance bin— Milky the cow. This oversized Holstein with latex udders could actually be milked. Although creepy, it did put us over the top. We also scored priceless photos of our bewildered daughter examining Milky’ s underside Christmas morning.
Step 2
Did you pay enough? If you have not reached your limit on at least one major credit card, then back to the mall. Snooty toy shops can quickly increase net expenditures with bizarre educational toys from unpronounceable countries. On-line purchases also provide a great opportunity since shipping always adds 15%.
Step 3
This is critical. How flashy are the presents? Will the kid next door eat his heart out? Cheap toys with lots of lights, smoke, and noise can shore up this department. Don’t worry if they break before New Year’s, the future is now.
Step 4
Do they take up enough space? If you don’t have a bike, you might be in trouble. One year we failed to have a huge present under the tree. Christmas morning the kids said those seven words guaranteed to break your heart, “It doesn’t look like Santa Claus came.” We learned our lesson and always bulked up the haul. Inflatable toys can accomplish this in a cost effective way. Life-sized crocodiles can help set that perfect holiday mood of avarice.
Step 5
If you have more than once kid, there must be perfect balance. We have often switched gift tags at the last minute or doubled down and assigned the new X-box to two kids. This not only achieves balance, but guarantees months of holiday squabbling.

Milky the Marvelous Milking Cow (1978)