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‘Wow! Am I so ready for this change?’

When I first watched Frozen I was pleasantly surprised. At least, it’s the women who sort their crisis: Sven doesn’t get there in time, not that he could do anything if he did. And Anna is after all pretty plucky, despite her stupidity over evil Prince Hans. And the whole Frozen story is about how we deal with fear and how love and acceptance can resolve this – positive and hopeful, if naive. So, I’m not a Frozen hater (well, I am in that – If I see one more bit of merchandise….hear that song…. Argh! kind of way), but something I read this week made me think some more and question whether the films our girls are watching are really moving forward in terms of their portrayal of women.

Linguists (Fought and Eisenhauer) have completed a study which reveals that increasingly – with the exceptions of Tangled and Brave – Disney films over the last 30 years have seen women speaking for considerably less time than men; Frozen sees men speak for 59% of the time and The Little Mermaid, a staggering 71%. Yet, back in the days when Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty hit the celluloid – in spite of their subservient roles and appearance-motived plots – it was the reverse, with female characters speaking the vast majority (71% in Sleeping Beauty, 60% Cinderella) of the lines.

Now, part of me immediately recoils from this conclusion that the proportion of lines given to women is critical in this debate for several reasons: it’s obviously down to the story – the three good and one wicked fairy in Sleeping Beauty are all women. Looked at from the male perspective, Cinderella doesn’t have step-brothers for instance (although it is interesting that Cinderella’s father is cut out of the plot which doesn’t help the gender imbalance). It’s obviously the case that what the genders say and how characters evolve is the critical factor in how roles are being defined. And these stories are set in the “olden days” where people didn’t have women diplomats and women  administrators.

We can’t make the past a Feminist idyll. And the beauty and romance of enjoying stories from the enchanted age of castles and frilly ball gowns is still one to watch even if there aren’t men changing nappies and women changing tyres.

Linguist Karen Eisenhauer, who co-wrote the report thinks Disney has shown a tendency of seeing men as “the norm” (great line!) but the serious point being made was that when Disney go about choosing more incidental speaking characters – shop keepers, fishermen, diplomats or just funny characters – these are usually men. So you may well have strong female leads, but women have the crises, they don’t just live; they don’t have small, comic parts; they are not simply there.

I think it’s fair to say that Disney should be on guard against immediately chucking a man into a role which could be filled by either sex.  Report co-author Professor Carmen Fought continues:

“We don’t believe that little girls naturally play a certain way or speak a certain way….. “They’re not born liking a pink dress. At some point we teach them. So a big question is where girls get their ideas about being girls.”

Now, I seriously tried not to gender-stereotype my children. I don’t know about you, but I could not get my son interested in pushing a dolly in a pram, and his main interest with the plastic cooker was mending the doors with his Bob the Builder tool kit. And with my daughter, I resisted pink…honestly, but it was like squatting in front of the Niagra Falls – personally I think our children aren’t quite so easy to deter from the stereotypes and there seem to be some ingrained tendencies, much as it bemuses and faintly concerns me.

But that caveat aside, clearly what our children watch – especially as these days it dominates parties, toys and every little thing you buy – does influence them greatly. The study also shows how women are valued far more for their attitudes and abilities than their beauty in recent years, and to be honest that matters to me far, far more than how many lines they have.  Worth noting that the study shows that the two films in recent years which have bucked the trend for female lines – Brave (74% women) and Tangled  (52% women)- have both been written by women and Disney is clearly aware of the sensitivities.

Thinking about this study though, has left me drawing a slightly different conclusion about how to model inspirational women: it’s not so much about the predominance of a character (in so much as the lines) or the casting, it’s the choice of story made into a film which needs greater consideration.

I think we need more female writers and directors to generate the sorts of films that hold up for our children women of strength, passion and integrity. At the same time, I certainly don’t want a ‘Feminist agenda’: let’s also see men of strength and integrity and women and men working together – be great if that was “the norm”.

So what do you think? Does it matter how much women are on screen? What determines how children view gender?

 

You may well want to take a look article from The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/01/25/researchers-have-discovered-a-major-problem-with-the-little-mermaid-and-other-disney-movies/

 

 

 

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Do you ever lie?

So, I was recently having a drink with some friends, one of whom now has grown-up children. She told us how a few years ago her son had asked her if she ever lied; he’d been horrified by her frank response of “All the time!”. Now, I should add here that my friend is…to my knowledge…a very honest person, wonderful Mum and known for her integrity, so it got us all thinking about quite how much we do tell lies and why.

“No, it’s really no trouble at all.”  vs “That’s going to seriously put me out, but go on then.”

“No, I’ve only just got here.” vs “I’ve been standing here with feet like ice for ages. Better have a good excuse!”

Put it this way, if our children were there they’d certainly out us telling these lies!

I think we probably tell most of our daily lies to make things easier; easier for our friends, ourselves and the smooth running of our days. Making things easier on our friends and smoothing over situations in relationships can’t be frowned on that much surely? And there are times when we need to flake on a social engagement for our own sanity.

There are the duplicate Christmas presents for instance. I tied myself in knots with this this year. My son got a great present that he “really likes” except he really likes the other, identical one he had last year. So the thank you card read, “Thank you for the XXXX . I really enjoyed playing this……” It was totally true. My son was also tying himself in knots – “We could write…I played this once before and liked it …but now you’ve got me one…….you made a good choice.” Oh dear.

I had to tell him that we weren’t going to lie (we don’t do that!), but we didn’t want to hurt XXXX’s feelings;  she’d put thought into it and come up with a great idea and it’s always the thought and effort that counts.

 

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BUT, why exactly do we tell our children not to lie? It seems very hypocritical given that we do it so much  “white-lying ” and we maybe don’t see that much wrong with it? I suppose the heart of it is that we need to be able to trust what people say or our community can’t function so well. Hang on….isn’t that why we’re saying we end up lying? To smooth things over and ease awkward situations?

I remember when my first child was a baby, chatting with a couple of very good friends who also had babies at the time, about how dishonest we felt some Mums could be. It was probably just their coping mechanism, but it wound us up feeling hormonal and guilty as we invariably did. We said there and then that we’d always tell it like it was, for our sakes and each others sakes, because no-one likes feeling a failure and especially not when it’s by an unfair comparison. And when it comes to having a good old whine about the disorganised state of our lives, we certainly do still honour the honesty. But I don’t think I do this in all the other areas of my life.

For instance, how many times have I let something that’s upset me get swept under the carpet and said “No, no…no I wasn’t upset at all!”; or worse still “I’m really sorry, I must have given the wrong impression/said something/done something wrong.” when, on that occasion, I just don’t think I have? (Obviously it’s good to be able to be self-critical and recognise our own failings, but a false apology can lead to resentment, so it’s hardly a long term smoothing over.)

When we ‘ease’ a relationship by telling a lie, I think we have to do it for right reasons. If my friend’s having a tough time and she’s late, I’m obviously going to make her feel better about it. If my friend asks for an opinion on how tight some jeans are but I really think she’d doesn’t want the truth, of course I’ll lie. (In fact, how often have you given the unvarnished truth on a question about clothes?). BUT sometimes we ease relationships to our own (and sometimes to our families’) cost. We accept doing things when we are actually at capacity ourselves, with a carefree, “No, no that’s fine I can do that.” It’s harder to say, “Actually you could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back!” Especially hard because it is just one straw.

I don’t expect that my children won’t grow up similarly compromised themselves. I do hope it’s a while before they’re there. And  while I can’t imagine lying about anything dramatic (and I’d hope to be unequivocal on this), I do wish I had it in me to be more honest in these sorts of social situations, where I’m so often driven to “white lies”. These may well be in a different league to major dishonesty, but I think they can still be potentially destructive.

I want my children to be fair to themselves, and that means not dumbing down on the truth in order to make for a superficially easier life.

The other day a friend stopped me by the school gate. She looked so puzzled and bemused as she said,  “You look really well.” I thought about it later. I did feel quite good. I don’t think I had a jot of make up on. I was walking around like a bag lady – with plastic carriers, a coat with a bust zip showing off a depressing (but warm) brown jumper. But, you know, the reason I felt good and looked better than normal was because I’d spent the week saying no to things. I had just focused on my ordinary life. I hadn’t taken on anything else. I wasn’t trying to cram my every waking hour. I felt relaxed. And it wasn’t just doing less, it was taking back control by turning down things and actively putting myself first.

When we lie in the sort of social situations I’ve been describing, I think we are putting someone else’s happiness before our own. Putting our friends first is obviously laudable and something we should do and should encourage our children to do. But if we don’t look after ourselves we can’t give to anyone, let alone our family who sees us without the lies and bravado.

I want my children to feel they should say when they’ve been hurt, felt used or when they simply can’t do something; not to feel judged, but to tell it plain; when they don’t do that they aren’t valuing themselves.

And that’s why I hope my children won’t lose the innocence of honesty too young. Because, let’s face it, there are decades of dishonesty ahead. When we lie we are not just not valuing honesty, we’re not valuing ourselves….and maybe not the people we lie to either.

So what do you think? How many lies are too many? How on earth to navigate this with your children? Please share your thoughts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is a hundred bigger than infinity?

First let me say that I got a C in Maths and it was my most prized GCSE result because I was so appalling at it and convinced I was going to have to re-take. So…..we are not discussing pure maths in this blog and we are not musing on mysteries of physics.

My son has been obsessed with infinity. My favourite example being his version of that sweet children’s book about the Daddy and baby hare entitled, Guess How much I love you?, where they compete to give visual representations of how immense their love is for each other; the culmination being “to the moon and back.” For my baby hare, bless him, it was “infinity times to the moon and back”.

I think all of us find it hard to take in quite how much more of existence there is beyond our horizons. But if you’re a child it must seem even more stunning.  3And yet, because they haven’t travelled and haven’t got a developed sense of distance or of perspective, it’s totally impossible for them to realise distances even within our own planet. They don’t know that a long car journey from London to Devon wouldn’t get you an ants length on a gigantic play map.3

So, yes infinity is bigger than a hundred and infinity is bigger than everything because it’s not a number, it’s an idea. We cannot go beyond infinity. But like all competitive children they surely want to!

It’s the Somewhere over the Rainbow syndrome. And like children, we adults have it big time. Our horizons frustrate us, but perhaps if our children realise how seemingly close to them an ant’s horizon is, they’d see how the rest of planet earth might as well be infinity to those tiny creatures. 1

Talking about infinity is really talking about perspective. Perhaps that’s a practical way of getting a sense of this unfathomable concept.

And I think it helps that children know we find it unfathomable. That shouldn’t be seen as frightening, although it could be; they don’t want us to be ignorant. We need to show excitement I think; excitement that we live in a universe barely discovered. Maybe their generation – or even they – will be the first to set foot on Mars. That perspective will  push the horizon still further, but there will never cease to be an horizon to move towards. I suppose that could be the definition of “hope”.

So how do your children deal with the perspectives of time and space? What sort of questions have they asked? 

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Is Santa real and do Angels have feet?

This season is so alive with wonderfully powerful and magical stories. Children and adults alike have their imaginations charmingly tickled as they strain their ears to hear sleigh bells in the night sky, or engage with the image of glowing hay surrounding  an adorable baby and baaing, fluffy lambs.

But as they grow up they want to know the answer to a question never far from their lips the rest of the time….Is it real? Sure you’ll agree that they ask it about as often as “Are we nearly there yet” on a car journey don’t they?

If it’s not real, what do they lose? What do we lose as parents, otherwise trying to make Christmas as magical and wonderfully mysterious as possible?

Why do we tell stories? Stories can show us truths and teach us things. Stories can be a way we deal with things we don’t understand. Stories can entertain us and we can lose ourselves in them and imagine we’re the characters. Stories can be inherited traditions, long cherished as part of our culture’s way of connecting across time with deep truths.

Do stories necessarily lose their potency if they are found not to be based in truth? Now, I’m not a philosopher as you know, so we won’t go into the whole ‘What is Truth?’ discussion here! But as far as our children are concerned, the question they – at some point – come to ask us about all the wonderful stories they hear, is whether the figures of Santa, God, Mary, Jesus really exist or existed and whether the events really happened.

I wish we adults had such meaningful conversations as our children. There was apparently a big discussion in the playground this week about whether you had to believe in Santa if you believed in God. The two were seen as inextricably linked. The whole idea of one package of beliefs going with another is a fascinating can of worms isn’t it?

Untitled design-9The other week I was playing the role of Mary in a dramatisation for local schools. (I always wanted to at school…didn’t know I’d only get to be Mary at 37! Not me above by the way!) I was rather tickled by one boy’s comment, that the elderly man playing the Angel Gabriel, couldn’t possibly be an angel. He added indignantly, “I saw his feet!” 

 

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We all have our own take on how to deal with reality and stories. My personal thoughts for what they’re worth, are that when my children ask me if Santa’s real I tell them he’s not BUT with a strict warning not to burst anyone else’s bubble. We still have loads of fun with Santa pictures on practically everything around the home; singing ‘When Santa got stuck up the chimney’ a zillion times, and leaving mince pies out for Santa, with a knowing chuckle that it’s really Daddy. But faced with a point blank question about what’s true and what’s not, I feel I need to answer.

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And if that means I re-examine my own beliefs about the account of the first Christmas and if I have to explore what I really believe about angels and how much I think stories within the Bible are figurative or imaginative models,  and how much they’re true to real life events, then so be it. It’s a good result for all of us.

And of course, if you don’t believe the Christmas story, then why would you confuse your children when they ask you if that’s real? But that’s just always puzzled me.

I want my children to decide for themselves what’s real. But they do look to us for opinions on the way. They ask for a bit of a steer  about what really happened versus what is a story of Disney-like fantasy.

I will tell my children I don’t believe in Santa. I will tell my children I believe that Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph in very humble circumstances long prophesied by spiritual people through the ages – something which never fails to excite me. I will tell them I find believing in angels – especially the gold winged flying variety – really tough! (And of course, when we look a little deeper we may see that this version is more due to Victorian artists than Biblical accounts.) 2

But what an opportunity…whatever your beliefs, to be able to explore with your children how a story is never simply JUST a story, and perhaps never simply true.

Some stories can have more basis in fact than others. Some can be literally true, although they’re bound to have some spin on them. Some can be figuratively true in that they point to truth. And of course, if we separate Santa from St Nicholas we see where both the Santa and the Christmas story connect:  bringing kindness and joy to the world, irrespective of race, wealth or beliefs. We need both stories, and what bits you think are true is inevitably the compelling discussion of the holidays both for children and adults. May feel a bit daunting, but I think it’s worth grabbing the bull…or the reindeer…or the oxen…..by the horns/antlers/horns!

Please do share your thoughts – how do you deal with Christmas stories with your children? At what point do you tell them about Santa? and what have you told them about the first Christmas?3