Instead of Watering it Down, Narrate What’s Happening; complicating adult ideas about what kids can understand
It would be fair to say I spend a lot of time with kids. These days, the most time with toddlers, but really babies through young people under twenty.
For these reasons, I am often in spaces that offer varied points of view on how to be in relationship with children, and what to expose them to through books, music, social media, tv, other children, conversation topic, anything associated with influencing children’s development. Really this list should be a lot longer than it is, but for the purpose of this blog I’m really focused on movies. Specifically, the movie Smallfoot.
I tread carefully as I type, because it’s a sensitive subject to have strong opinions about relating to children when you’re not a parent, and I appreciate the boundary against unsolicited advice. So, this post is not a perch I’m building for myself; it’s much more personal and practical than that. It’s conversational, simplified into key themes and ideas that caught my attention as a caregiver and educator, and just as frequently, as an adult decoding childhood messages I still nurse and live out.
I tend to be an adult that brings out strong feelings in other adults. I’m an adult that lets two-year-olds paint my nails, and can take or leave naps. I’m an adult who answers questions asked of me directly. I’m an adult who lets chalk be drawn with inside my car. I’m an adult who children and babies tend to like.
I’m often characterized as lenient, though more accurately, I’m specific and consistent about what I say no to, and how I draw boundaries or address boundaries being crossed. I may say yes to a cookie for breakfast, but I won’t brush it off if an older brother tells their little sister they ‘are over reacting’. Similarly, if another child has said no to you about playing or wanting to be touched, I will amplify their boundary’s authority. Cue the comments on how unsustainable or leftist these ideas are, which, on some level I can acknowledge, though not to negate the behavior sets rooted in those frameworks or my belief that we should be applying them to kids.
What I hear most often is that parents and caregivers feel that they are at a loss for entry points, transferrable skills, or age appropriate examples of values and ideas that we expect adults to be versed in: consent, safety, equity, justice, empathy, boundaries, self-regulation. Or more incontrovertible words like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, white supremacy, privilege, toxic masculinity. Words that are more and more daily becoming a part of their lexicon and lived experience, yet not broken down for them to respond or develop skills and self-awareness that can shape their reactions.
What I hear least often is an understanding that my relationships with children are rooted in a skill-set, not solely or even primarily a disposition. And in choosing entry points for conversation and concluding if they are or are not relatable, I have to take my cues from children through their responses and interests. Children show me what they find relatable and compelling, and they bring it up repeatedly.
One recent entry point is the movie Smallfoot, and the following twelve examples that I want to amplify.
But first, I want to share lyrics from one of the first songs in the film, sung by the film’s true female protagonist, whose lyrics initiates a reckoning with information, and how it is pursued and shared.
“Take a look around and see the world we think we know, and then look closer.
There’s more to life that meets the eye, and beauty to behold, so much bigger than we know.
It’s only just beginning to unfold, so let it all unfold.
Far beyond all reason in your mind, there’s a world mysterious there for you to find.
All these questions that we always have, all we are is curious, there’s nothing wrong with that.
So, go around every corner, search every part of the sky, because a life that’s full of wonder is a wonderful life.
Dig beneath the surface find the lessons there to know, then dig deeper.
Feed your intuition don’t leave any stone unturned, be a seeker of the truth, listen when you hear it calling you, you know it’s calling you.”
This song encapsulates a viewpoint resistant to every internalized message that the listeners have absorbed. One of the villagers, a yeti, has encountered a smallfoot, or a human, and shares his experience with the village. In response, the leader of the village tells him that he is wrong about what he has seen, and that if he doesn’t admit this publicly, he will be banished from his community until he can. He is wrong because the stones of truth say he must be, the same stones of truth that dictate that it is wrong to question what is or is not true.
He has a dilemma — assign authority to his lived experience, or deny his lived experience and submit to what is sanctioned as truth by his current reference points. When he can’t deny what he has seen, he is forced to leave his community and find proof that the smallfoot exists. It’s worth noting that he does not arrive at his determination to find proof on his own, only after hearing this song, and heeding the counsel of another villager’s counter perspective.
Simultaneously, another male protagonist in the film is facing a dilemma of his own in his career. Facing an unraveling professional clout, and rising debt and financial instability, he devises a scheme that will gain him notoriety, but cost him his integrity as a journalist. He brings his idea to his assistant in an attempt to convince her to pull it off, knowing he needs her to go along with his idea in order to implement it effectively. She tells him that she won’t help him, arguing that integrity is a reflection of the totality of our actions, not our exceptionality towards modeling behaviors rooted in our stated values. Rather explicitly, integrity is introduced as a characteristic that is present in our choices, and as a metric for how to be accountable to representing information and ourselves truthfully.
Throughout the unfolding narrative, each character will wrestle with this theme — what is the truth, and how do I tell it? Relatedly, what is the cost and benefit to me and others?
You may be thinking that these ideas go over children’s heads, but as they are incorporated into the story’s plot, points are made rather concrete. Examples are brought back to two concepts at every interval — integrity, and truth. And how do you know they’re brought up again? Because those are the words that characters keep using. Connections are re-articulated directly, and characters are allowed to challenge their thinking and conclusions, and their community’s. In effect, characters narrate how they are thinking, and what they noticed.
Within those two ideas, the following elements are well articulated — the 12 themes I mentioned above, each a conversation started between adults and children.
1. Listening to womxn, and in particular Black womxn
2. Contextualizing community norms in (suppressed) history
3. Comparing and contrasting listening to people about what they need instead of protecting them
4. A shift from a criminal justice approach to safety to a public health/public education approach
5. A transfer of decision-making power from one leader back to the whole village
6. Defining integrity as a sum total of behaviors, not to be selectively or sporadically applied
7. Contextualizing using the term crazy to discredit someone’s perspective and push back on decisions that affect the community
8. Demonstrating fear as a tool that is commonly leveraged in favor or decisions by leaders
9. Contrasting critical thinking through scientific inquiry with group think/distorted concepts, here understood as denying one’s lived experience or questions
10. Highlighting the relationship between disrupting violence by the state and those privileged by the related power dynamics and dominant storylines
11. Use of apology and attributing credit for an idea to someone else
12. Demonstrated vulnerability and changed beliefs from parents to their children
What Smallfoot models well is that we don’t have to get stuck in the words, but we do have to use the same words in order for the connections to become clear. We, meaning children and adults, have to know when we’re talking about the same and different things, and have to have opportunities to react to each other’s conclusions through our conversations. We have to have examples that offer entry points into complicated ideas, that don’t take out what makes them complicated, or what makes our application of them seem easier.
The shyness we exhibit in determining what to expose kids to doesn’t align with what they are or might experience before we’re ready for them to, or even if we’re never ready for them to. What we can offer instead is encouragement to think deeply and deliberately, and to call out depictions of choices that don’t reflect our stated values. We can support one another’s accountability by defining how we can be accountable to each other, and by practicing engaging in those routines and behaviors. We can expand our references so that we don’t just have to imagine what could be different, we can trust that we can contribute to those paradigm shifts now. We can, in fact, choose for ourselves and with each other, not by ourselves or for someone else. Even and especially if that person is younger than us, and missing information.