Peeling back the layers

I spent the morning looking through an online Pokedex with Morgan, pages and pages of Pokemon, lines of evolution, abilities, types, battle strategies… it was quite an endeavor, hours of one thing leading to another. I’ve done similar things for my own enjoyment, poured over a dictionary or thesaurus, an appendix or other reference work. I enjoy that sort of thing. Recently George got a new book on guitar making and we’ve all picked it up at one time or another and been sucked in. That sort of book is eye-candy around here.

Yeah, I know: geeksville.

When Ray was little and we were homeschooling (not unschooling) I loathed Pokemon. It was, I was entirely sure, the epitome of commercialism, a symbol of All That Is Wrong with modern culture. I mean, think about it; in addition to the fact that the game and all the so-called stories are nothing but blatant vehicles for peddling merchandise (gotta get ‘em all!) the shows themselves were appalling! People enslaving creatures
for the sake of making them “battle” one another, like some sanitized version of cock-fighting! A preponderance of “win one for the team” spirit that’s clearly all about promoting brand and corporate loyalty! Disgusting gender stereotypes with thinly veiled homophobia evident in the portrayal of Every villain (can you say “effete”?).

But, naturally, being the open minded, liberal parent that I was, I didn’t tell Ray he “couldn’t” play Pokemon, rather I expressed my heartfelt sentiments on the subject. I believed the game and shows to be horrible proponents of the worst sort of thinking possible, and told him as much. That’s called “being authentic” right? Ray, alas, got the brunt of my parenting blunders.

How and when did these attitudes change… or did they change? What happened in between “Pokemon = Bad” and being the one to shout out “Look, there’s Darkrai! Oh, let’s read about him” and actually mean it? How, in the words of the song, did I get here?

I didn’t really have any “aha!” moments on the subject, not as such anyway. Learning about learning played a role. Seeing a fascination with Pokemon as an expression of naturalistic intelligence helped a lot, especially in conjunction with the oh-so-painful acceptance of the fact that my kids are not me. Coming to see the learning potential (in the early days, when I thought in those terms) of all the various aspects of the phenomenon helped: the cards and game (math, logic, strategy), the quirky names of all the Pokemon (decoding, etymology, history), the types and evolutions of the creatures (science, obviously, but also mythology and spirituality). There’s a whole rich world of inference tied up in Pokemon lore. Even the competitions and the character interactions in the shows and movies are fodder for talking about people and goals, planning, courtesy, custom and social change. I haven’t even gotten to the literary value of the series and movies, which explore a range of genres from sci-fi to mystery to comedy to drama and romance. Even with all the fighting thrown in, when you get right down to it Pokemon isn’t any less rich than, say, Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Ultimately, though, what has let me be okay with Pokemon and other similar enterprises has more to do with me than with my kids. It was a slow process of giving up something that was really important to me: a measure of my cynicism.

Barbie, and others such) because I wanted to, because I wanted that wall between me and those big, sparkly eyes – my kid’s eyes, not Pikachu’s although Pokemon does typify the big-sparkly-eyed style of animation second only to Hello Kitty. I wanted to hold on tight to my surety that the world is a cold, dark, dangerous place that eats babies for breakfast because without that hold All is Surely Lost.

I was wrong about that. Without warm, soft places to cuddle and play, people are surely lost. And to create that warmth and softness, some of the cynicism had to go. Had to. Cynicism isn’t the least bit soft and warm.

My partner, George, helped by being smarmy. He’s a cynic, too, but he has a big warm heart under all that and still manages to go misty-eyed at sunsets and baby possums. He gave me warm, soft places in his heart and somehow I managed to be gentle with him and return the favor. That didn’t carry over into parenting, though, especially once we started homeschooling. Parents and teachers, as far as I knew at that time in my life, weren’t supposed to be soft. We’ve all heard that bit of mis-advice: be a parent, not a friend.

Learning about unschooling chipped away at that assumption. Reading stories of people with older kids, kids raised gently, even “difficult” kids like Ray, reassured me that all this softness didn’t “ruin” children. Being gentle and gracious didn’t unfit kids for life in the big, scary world. Learning that made giving up a measure of my cynicism easier. I was, frankly, relieved to know I didn’t need all that defensiveness any more… even
though the idea was unsettling.

Without my hard barricade between myself and my loved ones, I found I could see learning unfold naturally without hunting for “learning potential”. I could see wonder, creativity, experimentation, playfulness and contemplation, where before I fretted about seeing my kids brainwashed into zombified consumers. In a way, that’s the key to unschooling, seeing that kind of natural learning, knowing its there all the time regardless
of what my kids are doing so that I don’t have to think about it. I just have to think about Them as people I want to get to know, to spend time with, to share my life with – really share it, not “share” my panicked assessment of the cruel grip of corporate death-mongers. Without my barricade, I could Be the better parts of the world, the better parts of human nature. I could be someone my kids would want to share their interests and fascinations with and so get to grow closer to them.

I didn’t give up all my cynicism – I’m not sure that’s possible or even wise. I don’t see my kids growing up starry-eyed and trusting of everyone and thing irregardless. They know that parts of the world and humanity suck royally. They’ve met assholes, been cheated and lied to, had their feelings hurt, been treated poorly. Being safe and warm and kind, setting them up for success more than failure, helping them work things out,
saying yes as much as I possibly can… those don’t make strangers better or kinder or the world gentler or softer. So they have strategies and barricades of their own, defenses against the world. They’ve learned, are still learning, those things too. What they do have is a soft warm place to cuddle and play, an opportunity to snuggle up to a warm shoulder and spend the morning immersed in Pokemon without risking censure.

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