Tuesday, January 04, 2022

"But Why Does It Have To Be The Damned Transformers!"

A person lives not only his own life as an individual but also the life of his epoch. ~Thomas Mann

Very early in my teaching career, a parent requested to meet with me to discuss her daughter. Her main point of concern was that they did not have television at home, her daughter had never seen television, and she wanted to keep it that way. No problem, I told her, we won't be watching TV at school, but then she took it up a notch, "I'm also hoping that you can keep the other kids from talking about TV." 

I couldn't promise her that, but the conversation did sensitize me to classroom conversations around television, which, for any younger readers here, is what we had in those days instead of the internet. It was, back then, still somewhat possible to "protect" one's child from TV, at least during the early years. Indeed, most of the families in our school had adhered to the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation of no TV viewing before the age of 2, but these were 3-4 year olds, many of whom had older siblings, so television was by now a part of their lives. 

One boy would wear a red cape to school every day and his play was full of references to cartoon television characters. He was particularly enthralled by The Transformers. Of course, this girl was attracted to his games and before long, she too was speaking authoritatively about The Transformers, a development that appalled her mother. 

What fascinated me the most, however, was that the boy, according to his father, had never once watched The Transformers program. He had, however, once seen a toy Transformer on the shelves of a local drug store and that had been enough. "Now he sees Transformers everywhere," the father complained, Everything is Transformers." By the end of the school year, despite having never seen the program, most of the kids in the class were playing Transformers, capes and all. And this girl who I was to protect from the influences of TV, as an early adopter, was the most enthusiastic Transformer "expert" of all.

Like it or not, "protected" or not, our children are born with an amazing capacity to absorb the cultural values they experience around them. It's an adaptive trait, one that has served, so far, to help assure our species' survival. It was hard not to see our classroom Transformers fad as a beautiful thing. It drew the children together, it gave them a kind of specialized language, a way of being together, a common identity, a common purpose. But as this mother asked me one day in exasperation as I was trying to get her to see what I saw, "But why does it have to be the damned Transformers!"

I got it, of course. The Transformers were everything that's wrong with children's entertainment: violent and flashy, male-dominant, and inextricably attached to a whole host of merchandise, like the toy the boy had coveted. 

But that wasn't the game they were playing. There was a great deal of tough-guy posing, of course, and boasting about powers, but our classroom transformers also had families, homes, and spent most of their time in domestic pursuits, like cooking, going to bed, and caring for babies. In other words, when we looked beyond the superficial layer of transformers, we could see deeper, more profound cultural and family values at work. There was love and listening and caring and cooperation. There was joy and helping and laughter and compassion. 

They were doing the work of every generation, which is to take in society's values, then, through their play, transform and re-transmit them, making something new from what prior generations have left for them. These children weren't simply living the life of their epoch, but rather, as humans have always done, they were creating it.


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"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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