Written by Rachael Cheeseman
Kids are smart. Not all them: some are dirt-eating, vacant-expression-wearing, little morons. But most of them are a lot more astute than we give them credit for. So when it comes time to explaining the ins and outs of big, real world, adult issues things can get a little tough. Believe me, once you’ve stuttered and mumbled your way through an awkwardly embarrassing account of where babies come from, you’ll be wishing you had a kid dumb enough to fall for the old, “the stork brings them” line. So where do we look when the kids are asking the difficult questions and we suddenly realise that we’re not nearly as adept at handling them as we thought? Why to TV of course, or movies or books. I’m not saying TV can do a better job of raising kids than we can but let’s just say I for one learnt far more about the birds and the bees from American sitcoms than I ever learnt from my parents. Luckily for us, when our emotional maturity doesn’t quite measure up, TV is there to shoulder the burden and sometimes it does a far better job than you’d have ever thought possible. So, here’s a quick look at the times when TV, movies, and books did a far better job of tackling the tough questions than we could ever hope to.
1. Adventure Time teaches kids about dementia
Adventure Time is a quirky little Cartoon Network show that, on the surface, is about a boy and his magical talking dog taking down evil and saving princesses. It doesn’t take long to work out, however, that this show has a lot more substance than it first appears. For one, the whole thing is set in an alternative future where our world was decimated sometime in the 1980’s by nuclear war. How heavy is that? It also explores religion and the multiverse theory and dictatorships and political coups; it’s no wonder that this show is beloved by adults and children alike. Adventure Timecertainly doesn’t shy away from tackling the tough issues, and this is never clearer than when looking at the relationship between the characters of the Ice King and Marceline.
Marceline is a vampire who was a child when the apocalypse (or “great mushroom war”, as it’s called in the show) hit. The Ice King, formerly known as Simon, was able to survive the war because of the magical crown he found on an archaeological expedition. The crown affords him great powers but damages his mind more and more every time he wears it. The two form an unlikely partnership in surviving the nuclear wasteland that they now inhabit. Simon becomes a father figure to the young Marceline and protects her using the crown even though he knows he sacrifices his sanity in doing so.
In the present day Marceline is an adult and Simon survives as the Ice King but his mind is so damaged from the crown that he has no memory of the man he used to be or indeed of Marceline.
In one heart breaking episode entitled “I remember you” the show gave viewers a harrowing glimpse in to what it is like to love someone with dementia. Marceline confesses that she avoids the Ice King because seeing him and knowing he doesn’t remember her is too painful. She desperately latches on to any suggestion that the old Simon she knows may still be in there only to be bitterly disappointed when she realises he really is gone. Her anger, frustration and loneliness are so real and apparent it’s hard to remember you are watching a show primarily designed for children. And then you realise that this “kids” program has just done a better job of explaining what dementia is like, and the toll it can take on the sufferers loved ones, than you ever could have.
2. Alice in Wonderland teaches kids the importance of knowing your own mind
Being true to yourself, knowing yourself and your own mind is not exactly a popular concept amongst children. Between peer pressure, bullying and advertising that tells them they absolutely must have exactly the same stuff as everyone else, it’s no wonder that individuality gets lost somewhere along the way. And it’s not so much that us adults can’t explain this concept to kids and more a case of they will never listen to us because we are boring, frumpy grown-ups that don’t have a clue what they’re going through - remember being that ignorant? Kids are the worst. Luckily for us, kids books are absolutely overflowing with great ways to get this message across and, in my opinion, none do it quite as well as Alice in Wonderland.
The story of Alice’s journey into the fantastically weird world of wonderland is a beautiful tale of self-discovery. It is stuffed to bursting with charming quotes that highlight just how important it is to know yourself and what you want. Like this exchange between Alice and the Cheshire cat:
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?'
'That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat.
'I don't much care where -' said Alice.
'Then it doesn't matter which way you go,' said the Cat.
Or between Alice and the Mad Hatter:
“I don't think..." Then you shouldn't talk, said the Hatter.”
Or Alice’s own musings on who she is:
I wonder if I've been changed in the night. Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I'm not the same, the next question is 'Who in the world am I?' Ah, that's the great puzzle!
3. The Labyrinth teaches kids that life’s not fair
I love The Labyrinth. Possibly too much. David Bowie’s Jareth was my first real crush, and the soundtrack is pretty much on constant repeat in my head. The film is charming and funny and weird and offers more than its fair share of life lessons. It even acts as a wonderful metaphor for the emergence of the Neo-Freudian Electra complex during adolescence; but I really don’t have time to get into that here. However perhaps the toughest lesson this movie imparts to children is that life isn’t fair, and we all just have to damn well deal with that.
The Labyrinth tells the story of stroppy teenager Sarah’s quest to rescue her baby brother Toby from the Goblin King, by finding her way through the labyrinth before time runs out and her brother becomes a goblin because… I don’t know why, they never really explain it. The goblins are kind of like the lost boys in Peter Pan if they were green and warty and made in the Jim Henson studio. Anyway, Sarah can often be heard exclaiming “It’s not fair” with varying degrees of whingey-ness throughout the film. It’s not fair that she has to babysit her brother, it’s not fair that the creatures of the labyrinth go out of their way to make her journey harder and it’s definitely not fair that the strangely attractive Jareth keeps turning up and taunting her and making her feel all weird and conflicted with his stupid gorgeous voice. It is in fact in one such taunt that Jareth begins Sarah’s journey to a brutal realisation. He is about to set back her progress through the labyrinth and, predictably, Sarah is ready to point out that this is not fair, when he cuts her down to size with this perfect quip:
“You say that so often, I wonder what your basis for comparison is.”
As the movie progresses, Sarah becomes more resilient to the inherent unfairness of her situation, she learns that sometimes you just have to get on and work harder, no matter how much you don’t like it. And, later, when another character whines “It’s not fair” she has a beautiful epiphany where she proclaims “No, it isn’t, but that’s the way it is”.
Thank you, The Labyrinth for breaking this news to the world’s children in such an entertaining fashion and saving countless parents from this horrible conversation.
4. Winnie the Pooh teaches kids that they have to grow up and leave their childhood behind
A.A Milne’s books have so many beautiful lessons to impart to the children who read them. Lessons about acceptance, selflessness, friendship, bravery and all of them are presented in a way that can’t fail to charm and endear. Even adults can find so much wisdom in these stories and if you analyse the text enough you’ll discover there’s more there than you ever realised: anyone who has read Pooh and the psychologists will understand.
But perhaps the harshest lesson Winnie the Pooh has to offer is the one that teaches children that their childhoods will have to come to an end. That life and learning and responsibilities will get in the way and they will have to leave beloved things behind in order to grow up. This message is felt most keenly in The House at Pooh Corner in a chapter entitled, In which Christopher Robin and Pooh come to an enchanted place and we leave them there. During this chapter Christopher Robin’s friends know that he will have to go away to school, however they don’t really comprehend what this will mean. Christopher Robin struggles to tell them that he won’t have time to visit them anymore. Eventually, just Pooh and Christopher Robin are left doing “nothing”, which is one of Christopher Robin’s favourite things to do, and he knows that he must explain to his best friend what is going to happen:
“I’m not going to do nothing anymore”
“Well, not so much. They don’t let you.”
Perhaps the most heart wrenching thing about this conversation is that Christopher Robin never does get the words out. Saying goodbye is just too hard. But the reader is left knowing exactly what the future holds. So he makes Pooh promise to never forget him and they go to play together one last time. It’s a difficult, emotional moment, particularly if you have followed Christopher Robin’s adventures through all A.A Milne’s work like When we were Very Young and Now we are Six but I can’t think of a more enchanting way to have this realisation.
There are so many examples of when books and films have done a great job of bringing harsh truths or important lessons to children: Bridge to Terabithia teaches them about death, Up teaches them about loss and loneliness, Sesame Street has tackled autism and even The fresh Prince of Bel-Air turned its hand at portraying addiction. I guess the take away is that if you want to explain something difficult to children, make them watch some TV, read some books and see how the pros do it.