Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Imagination of Youth

My daughter loves Dora the Explorer - a cartoon from Nickelodeon about a young girl and her talking monkey friend and their many imaginative adventures. We're got access to Amazon Prime, so there are a lot of episodes available to watch. Naturally, we started in Season 1.

It's a pretty standard format throughout - a problem must be solves involved a journey of some kind, a helpful map provides three landmarks along the way, our imperious adventurers overcome child-sized adversity to accomplish the goal and be slightly more bilingual in the process. Dora has a few friends and, I guess, fremenies, for lack of a better word, she encounters along the way (no one will convince me that "Benny the Bull" is not an intentional clever allusion to Benecio del Toro) - my favorite is Tico the Squirrel.

As we moved through the episodes of Seasons 1 and 2, I became very comfortable with the world in which they'd created. There was magic and imagination, but the cast of characters and the lives they led were relatively defined and understandable.

But Season 3. Oh, Season 3. In Season 3 they changed up the opening montage, speeding up the theme song and throwing a cavalcade of flashing images and colors at us, most clearly designed to bring on seizures (or satisfy the ridiculously face-paced, stimulation addicted attention span of the modern child). They also added another main character - Diego, Dora's older cousin who's well versed in animal husbandry and often performs feats of valor beyond his years. I think Diego eventually got his own show (I don't know - Amazon charges us for things starting in season 4, so we haven't seen them).

The whole of Season 3 struck me as just a total affront to everything they'd established for the show. It was like a different thing - yes, with familiar characters and vaguely similar plot lines, but certainly something different.

I tend to be change-resistant and pretty obsessive-compulsive by nature. I had really come to appreciate, if not enjoy, the show. Certainly it was loads better than most of the other options out there (although, I am on team Backyardigans for life). I hated the changes. I didn't think they worked well and I see no point in change for change sake.

My daughter, on the other hand, loved it. It took a couple episodes to adjust to the changes (she was beyond overwhelmed by that new opening), but she adjusted quickly and enthusiastically. She doesn't hate Diego, she loves him - just like she loves everything else on the show.

For a moment, I had some frustrated, righteous anger. Clearly this is some attempt to grab a larger market share (coinciding with Season 3, Dora moved from a Nick JR. show to the big time on regular Nickelodeon), and profit from something that was already a success. For a moment, I was quite concerned that I'd failed a parent because my daughter had so easily bought into this pandering crap they'd pulled.

Then, of course, I remembered she's two (one and a half at the time).

I began to analyze what exactly is it that makes her so easily adaptable to what I considered to be a tragic turn of events in children's program development.

Then it struck me. I'm old.

Not that all old people have closed their minds to new possibilities, but a lot of us have. We encounter the world in ways that become predictable - we build a world for ourselves where expectations are usually met (if we've been paying attention) and things turn out the way we expect (even if not the way we'd like). We're set in our ways. We want comfort, familiarity, stasis.

Kids are different. My daughter is still very much experiencing the world for the first time. Each day brings understanding and encounters that are genuinely new to her. She's full of imagination because she legitimately has no clue about the boundaries of the world in which she lives. She's embraced the larger, more complex, fuller world of Season 3 because that's the kind of world she's used to - one with surprises around every corner, one that is constantly expanding and growing. She's used to a world that's confusing at first and she's pretty darn good at learning.

There's clearly a message here - at least there was for me. I may not be able to help getting old, but I sure don't have to act like it. No one does. I want to engage the world with wonder and imagination. I want to take confusion and unfamiliarity as a beautiful gift, rather than a troubling challenge.

This is made even more real by my faith. I believe in a world that works differently than it seems, a world of endless - perhaps miraculous - possibilities where the typical rules and assumptions are just not set in stone. I believe that, but it doesn't often show up much outside my preaching.

Yes, I can say, perhaps I embrace the craziness of the world with a little more comfort than most people, but it's not even a fraction of the way my daughter does. She's pretty confident balloons can't talk back to her, but that doesn't keep her from talking to them.

I've spent two years of my life, now, trying to instill in her the value of imagination and reinforcing the notion that possibilities are indeed limitless. I think I'm doing ok passing my world view on to my daughter - she's brave and hopeful and confident, most of the time - but I don't seem to be listening to any of the words coming out of my mouth.

Hopefully I can change that. I'm gonna start by trying to like this Diego guy; I'm not sure I've yet given him a fair shake.

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