Snookie and Star Wars: Teaching Our Kids to Be Culturally Literate

A few days ago, on the morning of May 4th to be exact, Grace emerged from her bedroom and greeted me with the phrase, “May the fourth be with you.” I must have looked at her a little strangely because she followed with the explanation, “It’s from this movie called Star Wars, in case you didn’t know.”

Duh..

My first instinct was to say sarcastically, “Thanks. Of course I know that’s a play off of Star Wars…EVERYONE knows that.” But then I realized why I must have looked at her strangely in the first place: because SHE wouldn’t know that phrase was a play off of Star Wars. She is a seven-year-old little girl who has never seen the movie, so she obviously learned “May the fourth be with you” from someone at school. And since she didn’t know why it was a cleverly funny phrase, she assumed I wouldn’t know either.

I think sometimes we parents take for granted that our kids know about things that seem obvious to us, things that are part of our everyday social fabric. It is something called cultural literacy, a body of general and collective knowledge that we expect everyone to be familiar with. Like Star Wars, for example. One would assume that at the mention of that movie, every person within listening distance would know what was being discussed. But we are not born knowing this stuff, and part of our job as parents is to raise kids who have a good fundamental literacy of our culture…which means yes, we do have to answer all those seemingly endless stupid questions that flow from their mouths in a steady current of mind-numbing frequency. Thankfully, our exasperated answers are really helping to build our children’s ties to society’s collective knowledge so they are less likely to always be that person figuratively just climbing out from under a rock.

When I was in college I read the book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know by E.D. Hirsch, Jr.  In it, Hirsch takes the position that children are not learning what they need in order to become culturally literate members of society, and he also includes what he believes are necessary pieces of information that every American should know. It is no secret that many believe Americans are getting “dumber” with each new generation. Jay Leno has his popular “Jaywalking” bit that proves the average American can struggle with information that SHOULD be a no-brainer. I am not so sure that we are really dumber than we used to be, but I would argue that what is considered to be “common knowledge” has been changing.

And it changes quickly. What seems to be something everyone in a certain age set knows can be completely unknown to another age set, even just a few years younger. As a new teacher, I figured I had an advantage in being able to identify with the culture of my high school students who were sometimes less than ten years younger than me. I would often compare literary characters to celebrities in modern culture to make things more relevant. This usually worked, but there were a few occasions where what I thought would be hysterical and helpful just fell completely flat.

“Like sands through the hourglass…”

Like the time I spent hours creating a lesson plan where I compared each of the Greek gods and goddesses to characters on “Days of Our Lives” (mythology really WAS the first soap opera), only to find out that pretty much none of my students had ever watched the show. WHAT???? Didn’t they grow up with the afternoon drama of Bo and Hope as the background soundtrack as they played Barbies and their moms ironed clothes? Didn’t they try to arrange their high school class schedules so they had last period free and could watch “Days” in the senior lounge like I did? No, apparently they did not. And then there was the time I thought I was SO funny when I recreated the last act of Julius

My attempt at humor with the final act of Julius Caesar

Caesar as a movie storyboard to help my students keep all the events of the final battle straight. After listing out the “starring” cast of characters from the play, I playfully added “and DON KNOTTS as The Messenger.” Funny, right? Except that none of my students knew who Don Knotts was. Part of me wanted to tell them to watch some “Nick at Night” for homework. As far as I was concerned, that was a failure of cultural literacy.

But I guess that begs the question is cultural literacy a static concept? Obviously, it can’t be. As time marches on, there are more people, events, concepts, books, movies, etc. that inspire and change our culture, and therefore should become part of our common literacy. But once something is considered part of our collective knowledge, must it always maintain that status for future generations? Snookie has certainly become a person of reference known to the masses, but if the average person on Jaywalking in the year 2112 fails to know who the orange-tinted guidette on “Jersey Shore” is (or what a “guidette” is for that matter), should the American public be appalled? I am going to say no on that one. I would argue that there are two types of cultural literacy: generational (to which Ms. Snookie would belong) and trans-generational (to which George Washington would belong).

Considering that the “may the fourth be with you” joke has clearly amused a new young generation of fans, I’m guessing Star Wars has safely retained its spot in trans-generational cultural literacy. But I’m wondering, what will remain common knowledge to my children’s generation?  What will fall by the wayside? And I’m interested to know what YOU think should be taught to today’s children to ensure a society of a culturally literate public. As Linda Richman of Coffee Talk used to say: I’ll give you a topic. Cultural Literacy. It’s both cultural and literate. Discuss… 

Osmosis Boy’s Trip to the Grocery Store

At my recent conference with Michael’s preschool teacher, she told me something interesting. She said that she and his other teacher refer to him as “Osmosis Boy,” meaning that he never looks like he’s paying any attention, but somehow, everything seems to sink in. At first I thought this was probably a pretty accurate description of him. But the more I thought of it, I was not so sure.

Sometimes I think he is just NOT paying attention…at all. If indeed the osmosis process was occurring, I surely wouldn’t be beating my head against the wall multiple times a day over his behavior. You would think that saying, “Please don’t color on things that aren’t paper,” five million times would sink in. Or that setting parameters for behavior before we go someplace would take just ONE of these times. I remember when Grace was little, my husband and I took a Love and Logic parenting course that all but promised us that if we were consistent in our expectations, our kids would catch on. I guess they never said how long we needed to be consistent for. Apparently three-and-a-half years isn’t quite long enough.

Case in point: a recent visit to the grocery store.

Michael and I ran up to the grocery store the other day to pick up some flowers for my mom. She recently had a pretty bad accident where she passed out, fell, and fractured her neck, resulting in a contusion on her spinal cord. After fear that she was paralyzed, she thankfully began regaining feeling in her limbs. However, she still has a long road ahead of her to a full recovery. After having neck surgery last week, she is now focusing on intensive rehab to get her back on her feet. It has been a scary situation for my family, but we are counting our blessings as things could have been a lot worse.

So right after the accident occurred, we ran in to get some flowers on the way to the hospital. That is all we had a to get…flowers. A five-minute endeavor. I even explained to Michael that this would be a quick little trip, and that he could help me pick out which flowers to get for “Mimi.” He asked if he could get a cookie (our grocery store lets kids pick out one from the bakery for free), and I told him if he was a good helper, he could get one. Sounds good. Parameters set. Let’s get some flowers.

We were doomed from the moment we entered the store. Of course, like any red-blooded child, Michael wanted to ride in one of the baskets with the car attached to the front. I explained that we didn’t need a basket since we were only getting flowers, but we would use one next time. I really did not want to push that giant, awkward, impossibe-to-maneuver cart around if I didn’t have to. So that STARTED the tantrum. I almost gave in but told myself I needed to stick to my guns. Love and logic, Kelly…love and logic.

The tantrum continued into the florist section, where Michael refused to help me pick out flowers and instead began punching the mylar balloons that were attached to various arrangements. Awesome. Keep your cool, Kelly. The florist kindly asked me if I needed any help, to which I replied, “Yeah, you want to take my son?” She quickly and wisely said no, saying she has already been there, done that. At least I was getting some sympathy.

Then Michael had the audacity to demand we go and get that free cookie. Oh really?

“Only good helpers get cookies. I’m sorry to say you can’t get a cookie today.”

Well that did it. It was the three-and-a-half year old apocalypse. There was screaming. There was thrashing. And there was storming off…in the direction of the bakery. “That little…”

I grabbed some flowers and took off after my now sprinting son. I managed to head him off at the bakery, but not before he grabbed onto my legs and almost unintentionally tackled me to the ground. I’m pretty sure this was the most embarrassed I have ever been in public. I picked him up and carried him through the store, with him screaming at the top of his lungs. Unfortunately, it seemed to be “senior citizens who either never had children or forgot what it was like to have children” day at the grocery store, because the number of horrified stares and wrinkly, furrowed brows I caught a glimpse of was too many to count. Where were all the other moms who could at least give me that look of defeated solidarity so I didn’t feel like such a complete and utter failure? I probably should have abandoned the flowers altogether and just left, but by then I was determined that this child was not going to put me through this for nothing. So I fumbled through the self-checkout and walked out, with a wailing, angry shadow behind me.

So much for osmosis. My child just does NOT get it.

But then I think of the reason we were getting flowers in the first place. The night before, I told both my kids about my mom’s accident. As I was putting Michael to bed, we said a prayer for her, and I told him we would go visit her at the hospital the next day. He looked at me and asked, “Is Mimi sick?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Can we go get Mimi some flowers? I think she’ll like pink.”

“I think that would be a great idea, Buddy. We’ll go get her some flowers.”

Oh, the irony. But I guess maybe some things do sink in.

Parenting Advice from Some Hippies

It occurred to me today that I should add something new to my children’s diets: dreams.

This suggestion did not come from my pediatrician, or Dr. Oz, or some celebrity chef who would likely scrutinize my sometimes questionable lunchbox choices on days when I hit the snooze button too many times or on mornings before the weekly grocery shopping trip.  In this case, my unlikely nutritionists go by the names of Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young. Wait, not Young. No, yes Young. Let me check….yes, & Young.

Teach Your Children.” I have heard the song more times than I can count, mostly thanks to my father and his almost pristine taste in music. So when I heard it on the radio today, it should not have been any different from the thousands of other times. But then those voices in silken harmony began their sage advice: “Teach your children well. Their father’s hell did slowly go by. And feed them on your dreams…” BAM!

CSNY...parenting gurus?

It was as if I had heard those words, “and feed them on your dreams,” for the very first time. I apparently had never been listening before. But now I was. And all I could think was how beautiful that statement was. How poetic. How decadent in imagery. How representative of the generation of peace and love. How…wise and oddly practical. It was the best parenting advice I have heard in a long time. And it came from hippies.

Parenting is a competitive sport these days. We train prior to the big event. We scout experts and other parents, researching new approaches to the game. We are constantly adding pages to our playbook. We scrutinize every move we make. When we fail, we analyze where we went wrong; when we are victorious, we are awarded the right to brag about our “natural” skills and our abilities to outplay our children. And we are all working toward the same championship prize: for our well-rounded, intelligent, successful child to smoothly transition into a well-rounded, intelligent, successful adult.

That is what I have been told anyway. By whom? Pretty much the entire world, that’s who. Everyone has an opinion on parenting, and we are constantly bombarded by “experts” telling us how we should parent, how we should not parent, how much we should parent, all the things we are doing wrong as parents, and so on and so on. Are you a Tiger Mom? Are you a helicopter parent? Would you be a better parent if you were French? Is my child overweight because there are toys in Happy Meals? Are Disney princesses warping my daughter’s brain?

I am starting to think we are so busy reading about how to be parents that we forget to actually parent. Just pin that parenting tip on your Pinterest board labeled “Kid Stuff” and that’s all you need to do, right?

I am certainly guilty of all of this. I can be a bit of an over-analyzer when it comes to just about anything, my own parenting skills included. This is compounded by the fact that as a high school teacher, I was exposed to teenage behaviors on all points of the spectrum, thereby contributing to an irrational fear that every time I screw up in the parenting arena I have most definitely set my children on the path leading to the defiant, disrespectful, morally corrupt section of that spectrum. Maybe I should hover a little closer. No wait, maybe I should stop catering to my children’s needs like French parents. Or maybe I need to just nip this in the bud right now, pull out some Tiger Mom moves, and start calling my kids “garbage” until they start acting correctly.

Or maybe I just listen to Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young and feed them on my dreams.

My dreams for my children are pretty simple. Love and happiness. Sure, I want my children to do well in school. Sure, I want them to have ambition and drive. Sure, I want them to be successful in life. Would it hurt if they ended up making nice, hefty livings for themselves so they could one day hook up their old crotchety parents with a sweet retirement timeshare in Florida? No, it would not. But deep down, I truly believe that everything I want for my children, everything I dream for them stems from love and happiness. If I feed them love and happiness everyday, that will nourish their spirits, their confidence, their minds, their hearts. It will grow them into beautiful people, and beautiful people do great things.

I know, I know…it sounds a little hippie dippie. But it is not as if I am never going to yell at my kids again, or tell them little white lies, or take away toys, or hold them accountable for their actions. I am still going to do all that. Maybe now I will just start trusting that the kind of parent I am is exactly the kind of parent I need to be, and that losing my cool after asking my children to stop using the couch as a trampoline for the twenty-fourth time is okay as long as it is accompanied by a large helping of love and happiness. Just like it is okay to have a Happy Meal every now and again, accompanied by a usually balanced diet. (That’s right crazy society, there ARE parents who do not need you take toys out of fast food meals. Some of us can make educated decisions all on our own. Shocking, I know.)

And because any view on parenting would not be complete without a healthy dialogue from  many perspectives, I am curious: what ingredients go into YOUR dream meals for your children? Or maybe you think this whole dream diet is just another fad? Or maybe you think I am plain crazy for taking parenting advice from hippies?

Or maybe you find it ridiculous that I just wrote a parenting blog post about how we over-analyze parenting?

Denying My True Self Through Pinterest

I finally know what it must be like to be a drug addict. And I have Pinterest to thank for it.

Last month I thought I would just check out this thing that has become quite the little craze. I was curious, looking for something new to put a little pizzaz into what can be a sometimes hum-drum life of a stay-at-home mom. At first, I really did have control over it. I was just an occassional user, mostly because I hadn’t figured out how to bring up the page that shows you what all your friends have been pinning. I was simply using it as a glorified “favorites bar.” But then my friend Angie opened up the Pinterest world to me, and now it’s not pretty.

Sure, the site has been a virtually endless trove of ideas for organization, DIY crafts, party ideas, and the like. But if there has ever been something that has made me feel such an unnerving combination of hope and self-loathing, I have yet to come across it. As my eyes flutter among the hundreds of ways I can improve my life, be a better mother, have a nicer home, and make more satisfying dinners,  I am at first exhilarated by the promise of what we all secretly desire, but few admit: to move one step closer to Martha Stewart status, one of the most highly prized components of the ever-elusive SuperMom. But here is where that double-edge sword does its handy work. The only thing that promise ever really seems to do is remind me of all the areas I am supposedly falling short in. Becoming panicky at the idea that I totally suck at life, I almost mindlessly grab a pen and start making a list of materials I need to buy at Michael’s to make this nifty little menu planning board that will surely revolutionize my family’s dinners. Yes, the menu planning board. If I just make this menu board, I will eradicate all those inferiorities I feel as the nourisher of my loved ones. But chances are, after I end up spending $35 on supplies and hours of time I don’t really have creating this board, I will still end up staring into my refrigerator at 5:15 pm wondering for the first time all day what I can throw together for dinner. Here comes the self-loathing again…and here comes Pinterest with my next fix.

I have to face reality. Pinterest is not going to change me. There are four laundry baskets of clean clothes sitting in my front hallway as I write, and at least some of them will likely be there again tomorrow. The day I put away all the laundry the same day I do it will be the day you need to suspect the pod people have finally made it to earth. My car has smelled like Wendy’s for three days now, probably because there is a wrapper or stray french fry in some crevice, and finding it just really is not on my “to do” list at the moment. I will continue to be the kind of person who one day decides she needs to clean the house like a freak until you can eat off of every surface, but on a regular basis is too lazy to throw her dirty clothes down the laundry chute and instead tosses them on the floor right in front of it. I will forever be someone who craves organization, but can never stay organized. All the DIY crafts in the world can not save me from myself. If my Pinterest boards reflected reality, they would have titles like Television Shows I Watch While My Kid Naps, Things I Always Meant to Scrapbook and Never Did, Things I Convince My Kids to Do So I Don’t Have to Do Arts & Crafts With Them, and of course Favorite Recipes, with only two pins, “Spaghetti with canned pasta sauce” and “Imo’s Pizza.”

Fortunately, I read something today that made me feel okay about that. I am sure many of you by now have heard of the blog “People I Want to Punch in the Throat,” home of the now infamous post, “Over Achieving Elf on the Shelf Mommies.” I am a fan. The author, Jen, cracks my cookies up. Check her out if you haven’t already. Anyway, today she posted an interview that DC Metro Mom had done with her, and she said something that really resonated with me: “There’s a real movement out there to manufacture memories for your children and I just don’t buy it. Every day is not a party and kids don’t need it to be.” Pin that, Pinterest. Jen is my guru for the day.

My kids aren’t going to fondly remember that mom had this kick-arse menu planning board and 25 different ways to make zucchini. They are going to remember the time I was too tired to cook and let them have cereal right out of the box for dinner. Or maybe they won’t. But they will remember that when they were hungry, I had food for them (well, except for maybe today…the cuppards are pretty bare because I am bound and determined to wait until $10 off Thursday at Shop ‘n’ Save).

Don’t get me wrong, fellow pinners; I will not be entering Pinterest rehab anytime soon. I doubt my enthusiasm will even be curbed. I may have just uncovered it as a harbor of the manufactured mother myth, but a girl can still have dreams. I may be smart enough to realize Pinterest will not change my inferiorities, but I am also smart enough to realize that if I stop striving to be better, I am not really living at all.

And to prove it, I just went and moved those four laundry baskets out of the front hallway and into my bedroom so that the pizza delivery guy wouldn’t see them and judge me as the housekeeping slug that I am.

By the way, you can pin this is you want to. Pin It