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POP Culture Can Make Hard Conversations Easier

“Daddy, what’s death?” This is a question no father (or mother, or grandparent, or caregiver in general) looks forward to, but we all know it’s going to happen sooner or later. However, if you look at it from a strategic angle, possibilities arise for making it a relatively painless encounter. At least in theory.

One of the basic rules of strategy is, “choose the battlefield.” Sometimes you know that a battle is inevitable, so the best thing you can do is try to make sure you dictate the terms. For example, if you have a small force facing a large force, make them attack you in a place with bottlenecks so they cannot overwhelm you. This was basically the entire Spartan strategy in Thermopylae (or, for the more pop-culture minded, 300). This axiom transcends actual battle, though, and applies to all types of encounters, not all of them adversarial.

If you’re in a tense negotiation, try to have it in a warm room and dress lightly. If you know your pet is likely to be sick, spend a lot of time in a room without carpet. And if you know that a difficult conversation is coming with a child, try to set the stage for it to happen as naturally and uneventfully as possible. You know that they need to know and understand what you’re telling them, and the best way for them to do that is for them to start the conversation after already observing things–and trying to figure them out–on their own, without having it thrust in their face.

Everyone has their own tricks and tactics for doing this, and I’ll be honest, mine is something I’m making up as I go along. I’m sure there are studies out there about something similar; but I haven’t read them. This is something that just makes sense to me, so I’m sharing it in case it makes sense to you. It doesn’t really have a name, but today I’ll call it Hints in Pop Culture.

We live in a time when there is a wealth of easily accessible entertainment for all ages, from tv and movies to books and music. And unlike real life, where we can’t really exercise much control over what a child observes (no matter how much we may try sometimes), we can definitely exercise control over what happens in, say, a movie, because it’s a movie. It has a script and we know what happens. So if we want to set the stage for a difficult conversation, we can show a child a movie that might touch on it, lightly. The last part is the most important part to this idea. If the issue at hand is a major plot point or hammered home by the movie, that’s too much for the first time. Children need to see something happen in passing or through metaphor, then try and figure it out from the hints they saw, then ask. They can’t do that if the characters are actively discussing it like a very special episode.

Here’s an example. There is an extraordinarily underrated animated movie called Cats Don’t Dance. It posits a version of 1930s Hollywood where anthropomorphized animals interact with humans, sort of like Zootopia if there were humans too. The animals are basically second-class citizens in the film industry, and the focus of the movie is on the effort to make animal actors be treated the same as human actors. To not be judged, as it were, by the texture of their skin, but by the content of their character. But while the discrimination is present throughout the movie, nobody really monologues about it beyond some short conversations. It’s something that’s just there, and because they don’t debate it or spell it out, the conversation that it spawns is just the important first principles:

Why are the people being mean to the animals?

Because they are different.

That doesn’t make any sense.

No it doesn’t.

And that’s all that really needs to be said in a first conversation about discrimination. Instill the belief that treating someone differently because of how they look doesn’t make any sense, and save the details for later after they’ve had time to think about it.

(As a side note, Cats Don’t Dance also teaches a very subtle lesson about how the villains don’t always look like villains, which may be obvious to an adult but is absolutely mindblowing to a toddler.)

Another favorite in our house is Bolt, which is basically the answer to the question, “What if The Truman Show but for kids?” The story revolves around Bolt, the canine star of a Kim Possible-style tv show who thinks that everything in the show is real and is then unceremoniously thrust into the real world. It’s a fun, action-packed (on occasion), sweet romp that teaches lessons in friendship, love, girl power, and scooter bravery (no joke, we got our daughter over her fear of falling off her scooter by reminding her “how cool you thought Penny was on her scooter”), but the most useful lesson it allowed us to broach was the difference between fact and fiction, and how you shouldn’t be scared if something happens in a movie because they’re just acting. Sure, this is something you can try to explain, but until our daughter saw the “bad guys” walk off the set and be friendly with the “good guys,” I don’t think she really understood it.

This isn’t a movie review, though, so I’ll just stick a brief list here of “Movies Mr. Kel Thinks Teach Important Lessons” and move on. A movie where a character has a crazy dream and then wakes up (like the “Heffalumps and Woozles” song in The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh) teaches us not to be afraid of dreams. For the non-religious, a movie where religion is just present in the background is good fertilizer for a future conversation about religion (we like Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit for that). The Netflix Carmen Sandiego show is good for teaching how “bad guys” aren’t always bad people and can turn into “good guys.” All of these are conversations we need to have with children, but a lot of us are either so eager or so apprehensive about having them that we don’t allow it to happen organically, and when the topic is raised–as it inevitably will be–it is often at a time when the child lacks sufficient context to completely understand it.

Which brings us full circle: to death. Death is probably the next big conversation we’re going to have, because we’ve been extraordinarily lucky and nobody–human or animal–close to us has died since our daughter was born. The fact that we haven’t had it yet is the entire reason I wrote “at least in theory” in the first paragraph. But she is starting to notice things, like dead worms on the sidewalk, and we know that if we don’t choose the battlefield for the conversation she’s going to choose it for us. So we’ve started letting her see things that she previously wasn’t allowed to watch. She’s seen a documentary about bears which includes a scene in which some grizzlies catch and eat salmon. She’s seen most of The Little Mermaid (except the climactic fight scene), in which Ariel asks, “Is he dead,” Sebastian sings in passing that they are “what the land folks love to cook,” and a chef sings an entire Sweeney Todd-style song about cooking fish. The key to all these movies is that death isn’t integral to the plot; it’s just something that the characters refer to as something that happens.

So we’ll see if my process still continues to hold true. So far we’ve had pretty good success with it, but there’s always next time. My suggestion to the rest of you is, think about a difficult conversation with a toddler like you’re planning a military strategy. Plant seeds early that will come in handy at the right time. Choose the playing field. Shape the narrative so that you can predict the questions, and prepare your answers.

And bring snacks. Lots of snacks.

Kel McClanahan — Contributor

Kel is the executive director of National Security Counselors and an adjunct professor at the George Washington University Law School, where he teaches Law of Secrecy. He spends his free time with his wife Kate, daughters Saoirse and Felton, and two cats. You can follow him on Twitter @NatlSecCnslrs.

You can find more on parenting here.

*The views expressed in contributor posts are those of the contributor and do not necessarily represent those of Mr. Alex’s Bookshelf.

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