Scary Stuff in Kids’ Movies: Why?

Watching the lovely and proper Miss Mary P.

So since Lula turned 3 we’ve been slowly introducing the concept of the feature-length film. It’s been great fun sitting with her through a couple of our own childhood favorites, as well as some newfangled fare. But it’s been troubling, too, since we’ve yet to find a single tot-aimed flick that doesn’t have at least one big scary part. Granted, Lula scares easily (the sound of the vacuum—as well as the blender—rank high on her list of frights), and 3 is, in general, an age when fears are typical. And so, that said… Why the obsession with scary elements? And these are not fairy tales I’m talking about, which have long been targeted for being too bone-chilling for their target audience (how did we ever survive them?).

For starters, there’s Curious George, the 2006, generally-benign version of the classic that Lula adored—except for the part when the Man With the Yellow Hat cruelly calls the pound and watches while George is caged and hauled off, then stuck in the creepy lower level of a ship heading back to Africa. Did it really have to be so harsh?

We didn’t even get halfway through The Jungle Book, when the fierce tiger, Shere Kahn, first slips into the frame; but even before that, she was spooked by the panther’s manner, and the creepy ways of various snakes, chimps and other creatures. Even good ol’ Mary Poppins (her current favorite) isn’t free of frights: The bank scene, when the scary old men steal Michael’s tuppence, is totally creepy, and what follows—Jane and Michael escaping the fracas by running into dark alleyways populated by a shady lady and fierce street dog—is even worse. “This is when they get lost,” Lula says right before the scene, clutching at our pants legs.

But the worst offender so far is actually Winnie the Pooh. I know, it seems crazy; what’s so scary about a silly old bear and his quirky coterie of pals? Plenty! In Winnie the Pooh (2011), the movie’s plot centers around the stuffed creatures getting worked up with fear over an imagined monster, while simultaneously trying to find Eeyore’s lost tail. And in Pooh’s Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin (1997), the animals spend their time cowering with fear as they journey through Hundred Acre Woods trying to rescue their human friend from yet another imaginary beast. Is Winnie the Pooh supposed to be for 6-year-olds? I mean, everything else about it is so basic, it really seems that 3-year-olds should be the ideal target. If not for the scary beasts, of course.

(For an amusing take on some other frightening kids’ films, by the way, check out this great Babble piece.)

So what’s it all about? I suspect it’s pretty simple: that marketers are afraid of gearing a kids’ film toward only one age group, for worries that it pulls in too limited an audience.  Or perhaps it’s been suggested that introducing frightful tales and imagery is actually good for little ones. My sister-in-law (mom to kids 3 and 5) had a healthy take on it, positing that it was useful for preschoolers to learn how to work through fears, and to understand that just because you are scared doesn’t mean everything won’t work out in the end. And that perspective helps. Still, does anyone out there know of just a single tot film that is completely free and clear of scary parts? Because these mamas want to know.



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Adults Only, Please!

Chilling with her best pal, Zoe, in Provincetown this fall.

Suddenly everyone’s talking about how great it will be to get 3-year-old Lula “socialized.” Besides the fact that the word itself sounds like a disease, the concept—Play dates! Birthday parties! Playground buddies!—is one that I am secretly, if only partially, dreading. Right now, with the exception of two actual children, a sweet brother-sister pair, whom she sees on occasion and adores, our daughter’s most inner circle consists entirely of people over 40: her awesome babysitter, a talented professional musician and her cool lawyer girlfriend, a Provincetown gallery owner/painter, our loving massage-therapist friend/neighbor, and her doting uncles George and Trevor. And I have to admit that we love it that way. Her preference of adults over kids is understandable—peers would certainly not let her be adored as the center of attention in the same way—and it allows us to carry on socializing with grownups, while including her, in a way that will most certainly come to an end very soon. So, while we’re definitely looking forward to her starting an alternative-preschool program next month (stay tuned) and getting her more turned on to folks in her age group, we’ll be relishing an adults-only January, too.

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Censorship: Alive and Well in Our Home

Reading to Raggedy this summer.

Our 3-year-old has a wide range of passions—from playing her instruments (especially the ukelele, maracas and harmonica) and painting with watercolors to playing dress-up (particularly with anything pink, purple or sparkly) and listening to her favorite musical artists: Zoe Lewis and, more recently, Lady Gaga (more on that another time). But there’s probably nothing she loves doing more than selecting a stack of books, cuddling up with one of us and being read to. Books, more than anything, are her window to the world. And that’s why we are prone to rejiggering/editing/censoring—call it what you will—the words from time to time.

Generally, concepts we censor include: God and overt religion (like praying), eating meat, ridiculous gender statements (typically things like the “Ew, boys are yukky!” stuff in the annoying Fancy Nancy and the Sensational Babysitter, a gift from a sitter) and, occasionally, fathers.

Sure, go ahead and roll your eyes. But before you decide that these two mommies are control freaks who have lost their grip on reality, here are some basic thoughts on our logic (most likely completely over-thought, like much of our parenting; sorry, we’re process-y lesbians. So sue us!):

1. God gets slashed because it’s just too complicated a subject to introduce at this point, especially when I’m still not sure of what I believe and when Lula’s other mother is a self-defined spiritual atheist (“If there is such a thing,” she adds). And because she’ll spend the rest of her life thinking about these huge concepts, and it’s just not necessary yet. This one comes up a bit regularly in our library, as we got a monthly Jewish-book subscription from a dear friend, with stories usually conveniently about whatever holiday is about to occur. They’re most often just about the family or ritual aspects—you sit and eat at a seder for Passover, you light candles and spin a dreidel for Hanukkah—but every once in a while God sneaks in (I guess you could call it a Reform-Jew book subscription). Here’s our most recent edit, in the adorable Sadie’s Sukkah Breakfast:

"They thanked God for their beautiful sukkah, their delicious food, and their wonderful friends" becomes "They were thankful for their beautiful sukkah…"

No biggie, right? Right.

2. Meat gets the boot because, simply, we’re a vegetarian family and we want to make sure she’s sufficiently brainwashed before allowing carnivorous behavior to become a normal part of life. Seriously. We spend a lot of time talking about how we love animals, and therefore don’t eat them. Being veg is just normal to her at this point—and sometimes the way meat eating is presented in books is less than sensitive. Recently, we were pedaling the bike trails in Provincetown when we came upon some beautiful wild turkeys waddling through the dunes. I reminded her of them right before Thanksgiving, explaining that some people actually eat turkeys for the holiday, but that we don’t, because they are beautiful creatures that we love. She totally got it. But sometimes it’s a point not worth getting into. Like in this awesome book she got as a gift recently: My Foodie ABC, which has items like alfajores (yum), jicama (awesome) and quinoa (yes!)—and, wouldn’t you know it, Kobe beef. This was an edit that proved tricky. We couldn’t just change K to kale, because there’s a picture of fat cows grazing. So instead we left it all, including the last line: “These animals are fed a very special diet, massaged daily, and brushed regularly,” and just cut out the end of that sentence, “…to keep their meat tender.” Too gruesome, even if it would probably be over her head. So now it’s just a random, cute, apparently irrelevant cow.

3. Not all fathers get the boot—the vast majority, in fact, get to stay, especially when they are central to the storyline, such as in the Knuffle Bunny series. But, while we certainly don’t want to pretend that the world is made up of two-mommy families, we also want to at least get our 10% due appearance. And since there are not a ton of books out there to help us out (big shout out to Lesléa Newman!), we sometimes have to take matters into our hands. Luckily, there are enough times when the dads happen to look a lot like Lula’s other mom—like in the awesome Soup Day, below—and so then, presto chango, they go from being “daddy” to “mamo” [má-mo], our own special made-up word for my partner, kind of like the masculine form of “mama” (which we happen to think is genius).

"And then mamo's home! Now it's time to eat our soup!"

Anyway, I almost didn’t write this post, because I couldn’t figure out if I was proud or embarrassed, but here’s the thing: It’s only a matter of time before she starts preschool, has friends from all walks of life (hopefully), and becomes addicted to her iPhone like the rest of the world. Until then, why not filter information in a way that fits perfectly into our value system? It’s our only chance to make such a pure impression, while she still listens intently to what we say, and wants to please us, and is not yet screaming “I hate you!” while doing things like admiring Republicans and pining for an SUV just to spite us. She’s like a gorgeous, precious sponge right now, and we want her soaking up all that is good and fair and beautiful and logical (in our humble opinions). We won’t be able to control the floodgates for much longer. But for now, well, long live censorship.
Anyone else out there edit/rejigger/censor? Please, do tell by posting a comment!


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The Christmas Conundrum

Admiring the hardware store's Christmas window.

So we’re here in Provincetown for our annual post-Thanksgiving visit, and the holiday lights are out in full force. They are, for the most part, whimsical, tasteful beads of color as opposed to the overdone craziness I grew up with in the suburbs, and, set against the quiet New England perfection of saltbox houses and old-school storefronts, look gorgeous. Driving through town last night on the way home from the supermarket, 3-year-old Lula agreed, squealing with delight each time another glowing facade came into view.

“Are the lights for Thanksgiving, mama?” she asked.

Uh oh, I thought. Here comes Christmas. How to deal with the issue of Christmas?

The window at Marc by Marc Jacobs.

Growing up, Christmas was always a source of tension in my Jewish household. My dad, who grew up  in a north Jersey town rife with anti-Semitism, was especially annoyed and offended by the annual onslaught of light-up mangers and Christmas carols—especially when they were sung by me, gleefully, in school-choir holiday concerts. I could see him cringing in the audience at “O come let us adore him, Christ the lord!,” and even the eventual additions of “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” and “O Hanukkah” never made him feel much better. I loved the harmonies of Christmas carols, though, and was able to ignore the words. My Jewish identity was strong.

Still, I did broach the idea of having a Christmas tree once—a topic that was met with eye rolls and unwavering refusals that were elaborated upon at temple, when the rabbi sermonized us each year about so-called “Hanukkah bushes.” She’d talk about how the approaching holiday was not about presents and innocuous decorations, but the celebration of Christ the lord, with the Christmas tree even symbolizing the wooden cross to which Jesus was nailed. I got it, I did. And I quickly agreed. By junior high—right around the time of my Bat Mitzvah—I was done coveting Christmas altogether, and had even begun to share in my Dad’s annoyance, finally understanding why the holiday turned him off so. I was done with it forever. Or so I thought.

Ptown's lobster-trap Christmas tree, with the light-strung monument in the background.

Fast forward a couple of decades to my first holiday season with my partner—a proud New York Jew who grew up with the dreaded Hanukkah bush, and Christmas presents, because her nonreligious mom delighted in the beauty of the holiday. “We totally knew that it was odd, because we had plenty of Jewish friends,” she recalls. “But we loved it. We did the whole kit and kaboodle—stockings, getting up early—and had absolutely no idea that it had anything to do with religion.” Her family still celebrates Christmas, and with all four of her siblings married to gentiles, it’s an important tradition as ever, especially for the kids. It took me a while to get used to “doing Christmas,” but, a decade in, I’ve grown to adore the tradition of everyone gathering for a warm and fuzzy celebration.

One of the more elaborately decorated houses in town.

And so now. What to do about Lula?

“The lights are actually for Christmas,” I told her during our drive through town last night. And though she’s too young to have any idea about what religion means, I chose to say the next part anyway, because eventually it will seep in: “But we don’t celebrate Christmas, because we’re Jewish. We celebrate Hanukkah.”

She thought about this for a moment, then declared, “But I think I would like to celebrate it!”

And who wouldn’t?

We’ve decided, though, that Christmas will never wheedle its way into our home; we’re Jewish, Lula’s Jewish, and we do Hanukkah with panache. Still, how to explain this all to a 3-year-old? How to let her down easy when it comes to the holiday hubbub? What to do about Santa?

I took a deep breath, telling her, “We’ll celebrate with your cousins, and at Uncle George’s.”

“Okay,” she says. And we leave it at that.

I am ever grateful for for the 3-year-old mind, for which simple explanations are always best—even for the biggest questions.

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“The Business of Being Born” Does It Again

Me and Lula, seconds after her birth in our home.

I dated a midwifery student many years ago who told me, “More children in this country have witnessed violence than have watched a live birth. It’s no wonder our society is so fucked up.” I had never given the idea much—or any, rather—thought. But thinking about it sent me reeling, and when she asked if I wanted to watch some birth videos with her that she had from school, I jumped at the chance. I’d seen countless deaths, both on the news and in horror movies, and even a couple in person. But those videos—intensely personal, graphic, beautiful, and at-times harrowing—were the first births I had ever seen. I was 28 years old. And I wept as I watched them, as if I’d finally found some sort of truth.

My Lula, at 3, is already way ahead of me. That’s because she sat on my lap last night, mesmerized, watching three real birth videos. They came courtesy of the website for the new documentary More Business of Being Born—the follow-up to Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein’s groundbreaking The Business of Being Born. That first film, released in 2008 and looking at the ways in which hospital births have historically stripped women of their power (with drugs, inductions, C-sections and plain ol’ fear mongering), was life changing for me, providing the final push, so to speak, when it came to my decision to have a home birth in our tiny Upper West Side apartment.

Now, three years later, I expect the just-released new film, downloadable in four parts here, will be as meaningful. Its website already has been, thanks to the many mini-videos of births that can be seen following the wonderful trailer. For years now, my partner and I have been explaining to our daughter that she was in my belly and came out of my vagina, so she wasn’t shocked, exactly, but she studied the scenes with more focused attention than she’d ever given any episode of Max & Ruby (which is really saying something). As each one ended, with a tiny, slimy baby in the arms of an exhausted, ecstatic mama, Lula would get very quiet, and just sit there taking it in.

“Are you okay?” I’d ask, to which she’d nod her head. And then, with a look more serious than I’d ever seen, she’d say, “Another one.”

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Gender Constructs: Let My Toddler Go!

So this week in my inbox, along with petitions from the anti-horse-and-carriage folks (signed), anti-ex-gay-torture-clinics-in-Ecuador folks (signed), and a request to “like” United to End Genocide on Facebook (done), landed a little gem of a petition from, urging moms to protest Gymboree’s gender-obsessed clothing—specifically, boys’ onesies that say “Smart Like Daddy” and a girls’ version that says “Pretty Like Mommy.” Seriously, Gymboree? What’s with sticking infants in sexist gender stereotypes? the petition asked. I signed it, of course, because the onesie sayings are seriously egregious. But oh, MomRising. If only it were the one store guilty of such nonsense. Been inside the kids’ department at Macy’s lately? Or Old Navy? Or even flicked through the Hanna Andersson website? Hyper-pink on one side. Dull blues and tans on the other. It’s assaultive. And it takes a focused determination to reach across the aisle and shop on both sides for your one boy or girl.

At a time when societal definitions of gender are becoming more and more blurred—at least from my queer perspective—it seems that gender lines for children (certainly for children’s clothing) are getting more and more aggressively defined. And it’s the marketing of those rules that’s got toddlers brainwashed with ideas of what is and what is not okay for little girls and boys. And the repercussions of that, to me, are chilling.

It’s all been on my mind lately, even before the Gymboree petition, as I’ve been trying in vain to buy a new pair of shoes for my 3-year-old. In vain, because Lula has suddenly discovered her hyper-femme, girly-girliness, and only wants footwear that is pink and shiny and sequined. And my partner and I are not so sure how we feel about it.

I grew up on the girly side—I had shiny black Mary Janes and loved dresses and lived for evenings spent with pretty babysitters who would blow-dry my hair and polish my nails. For my partner, wearing a dress was a punishment. A bad one. So we understand that kids are hardwired toward different ends of the gender spectrum, and if Lula wants to dress as a tiara-wearing fairy for Halloween and eat her dinner in a tutu and lavender feather boa from her dress-up bag, then by all means, we support it. I mean, at least she has a gender-nonspecific imaginary friend (“Her name is John. She’s from Africa. And sometimes she’s a he.”) and knows the difference between Miss Richfield and Dina Martina (thank you, P-town!) and has an amazing Uncle George who wears pink Converse high-tops.

But still: pink sequined Mary Janes? No can do. We’re not even entirely sure why, but we’ve been processing it all week, natch, and we think it goes something like this: Just by walking into a shoe store, Lula’s being sold a bill of goods—gentle little impractical-for-winter Mary Janes in sparkly pastels for her, cute and rugged little butch booties in chocolates and grays for John (well, not exactly for John, but you get my point). When I suggested a pair of the cozy brown booties, she said, “Mama, those are not for girls,” and it stopped me cold. We’d never told her that, she doesn’t watch TV, she’s not in school yet, and—the clincher—I was wearing my unsexy but beloved brown Dansko clogs at the time. Still, she’s somehow learned it. And we want to spend lots more time letting her know that it’s actually not the truth—not our truth, anyway. And then, just maybe (and if she’s not moved on), some sequined shoes.

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Organic lessons

Contemplating the honey selection.

So I’m shopping at our neighborhood health-food store yesterday, like I do about two or three times a week (we basically think of it as our second refrigerator, since it’s just around the corner and because we are so lacking for space in our rent-stabilized 1-BR), when one of the many men who work in the compact shop stops me and my daughter, Lula, and says, “I never see no Daddy with her.”

(OK, let me just pause here to explain that A. We’ve been shopping at this store on a near-daily basis for almost a decade now, and that this particular guy—whom we have nicknamed “creepy Johnny” because he looks like an Indian version of my cute cousin Johnny but is always getting up in Lula’s face trying to be cute and funny, which creeps us out—has been employed there for about half of that time, and B. my partner Kiki and I are often in there together, either with Lula, as lesbian moms, or without, as a pretty obvious couple. I was sure that everyone in there knew we were a family, but apparently not.)

“She doesn’t have a Daddy,” I told him matter-of-factly, slipping Lula into the grocery cart. “She has two mommies. Me and Kiki, the other woman she is always with.”

“Huh?” He said. “What? That is not your mother?”

Kiki is a bit older, but ouch. Not old enough to be my mother by a long shot.

“No, that’s Lula’s mother. And I’m her mother. We are both her mother.”

“Huh?” Creepy Johnny was seriously confused, and this back-and-forth went on for like a full five minutes. “So who is that other woman if not Grandma?”

“She is my wife,” I told him.

His eyes got very wide. “OH! Now I get it,” he said. “Okay.”

He shuffled away, reeling, I could tell, from the news. We did a quick shop for basics—soy milk, almond milk, extra-firm tofu, Japanese sweet potatoes, Kashi nuggets cereal—and got on line to pay. I thought he’d been avoiding us, as he was usually lurking around every corner, waiting to say “Lula! Why you don’t say hi to me?” every few moments. And part of me relished this possible new development.

But no luck.

“Bye Lula! Bye bye! See you soon!” he called after us, smiling, just before we left. And I, surprising myself, felt a small but unmistakable pang of relief. No matter how long out of the closet, some fears never die.

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