I’ve been watching a decent amount of children’s television lately. It’s cold as blank here and has been for what seems like close to forever. I’m still a relatively new Midwesterner and my first two winters were relatively mild compared to this one. Apparently it’s been below zero 90% of the time so far this year. Or that’s what I think my husband said over the din of our children both asking for more or less or differently arranged versions of whatever was in front of them for dinner.
Anyway, the children’s television. Love PBS, love the general idea of teaching kids good lessons about life through TV as opposed to how blowing things up has no consequence whatsoever. But after a recent Dinosaur Train episode in which a young triceratops was encouraged to try something new, was hesitant, but then loved it, I thought maybe sometimes these shows are trying too hard. Or pitching the wrong message.
My problem with the message is that it feeds into our known human tendency to evaluate our decisions based on the outcome. I know I read a book sometime that included real live social science research on this point. And the take home is, we should evaluate whether a decision is a good or bad one completely without reference to the outcome. A somewhat related truth about life is that sometimes we think something will suck, we try it, and then it actually still sucks. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have tried it in the first place. Or maybe it doesn’t mean anything, it just is.
Now I’m not promoting a ‘let’s show the worst that can happen isn’t so bad after all’ approach. That still includes a healthy dose of moralizing. And I’m not saying children’s stories should never moralize. On that point, I can say nothing more profound or eloquent than what is said in one of the first segments on Episode 8 (Kittens in a Basket) of the Organist podcast (put out by the Believer magazine). Just listen to it please. Anyway, I’m all for processing, but what if something just sucks. End of story. The fact of the story ending and moving on to the next thing speak volumes. More, perhaps, than preaching about it.
This is where the Tao of Frog and Toad comes in. I love the Frog and Toad books and now I’m able to put more of a finger on why. They proceed through life – sometimes things work out the way they want, sometimes they don’t, sometimes things have unintended consequences – and that’s that. There’s very little moralizing and they capture so many truths about life.
My favorite Frog and Toad story along these lines is “A Swim” in Frog and Toad are Friends. The gist is that Toad and Frog are going for a swim and Toad doesn’t want anyone to see him in his bathing suit because he says he looks funny in his bathing suit. He manages to sneak into the water without anyone seeing him, but word gets out that he thinks he looks funny, and when it’s time to get out he has a gathering of animals waiting to see him. Frog tries to get them to leave but they won’t. The mouse is my favorite because he says he hasn’t seen anything funny in a long time. And here I was thinking it was nothing but jokes from dawn to dusk with mice. Finally, Toad has no choice to get out or he’ll catch a cold. All the animals laugh, including Frog.
And the story ends like this:
‘What are you laughing at, Frog?’ said Toad.
‘I am laughing at you, Toad,’ said Frog, ‘because you do look funny in your bathing suit.’
‘Of course I do,’ said Toad. Then he picked up his clothes and went home.