Tuesday, September 6, 2011

teaching realistic expectations: Dora vs. Fancy Nancy

I have a pet peeve with Dora the Explorer and it's not just her perpetually perky, high-pitched voice (although these qualities of said voice should be noted). There's nothing evil about Dora; it's one of Burrito's favorite shows and we'll continue to let her watch it, reservations aside.  But I worry sometimes that she is not getting an understanding of how to react to real life from watching Dora.

I can hear you saying, "Realistic?  Come on!  It's a cartoon!"  But one good thing about cartoons these days (as opposed to when I was growing up) is that most of them are no longer pure entertainment.  Most of them now have an objective to teach.  For Dora, the teaching is partially in the learning of Spanish.  It also teaches following a simple progression of directions ("Bridge...mountain...island!").  And there are the always good admonitions against swiping ("Swiper, no swiping!").

But Dora doesn't do a great job of preparing kids to handle normal preschooler problems and respond to them in a helpful way.  Does your toddler's world normally work this way?: Follow a simple formula, stop and congratulate themselves along the way, reach desired destination and congratulate themselves again? And do things work out the same way every time? 

I'm not talking about solving world peace here; I'm just concerned that Dora creates an idea in preschooler's minds that everything will always work out perfectly as we want it to and then we will congratulate ourselves on how "we did it!"  (And of course, there's nothing wrong with a healthy self-esteem and feeling good about accomplishing something and overcoming an obstacle.  But what about a story that would throw a normal obstacle or real life challenge into the path of a toddler?  A story that would teach them coping skills for these kind of obstacles?)

Well, never fear!  Such a series of stories exist!  I would recommend for the teaching of dealing with real life frustrations the Fancy Nancy series of books by Jane O'Connor.  This is probably a more helpful series of books for toddler girls, as they do tend to be rather "girly," but I think Fancy Nancy does a great job of throwing some real world obstacles and frustrations into Nancy's path, as well as entertaining and teaching some vocabulary in a fun way along the way. Through the everyday challenges Nancy faces, she regularly learns that life will not always give you exactly what you want, but that you can learn to adjust and still enjoy life.

For example, in Fancy Nancy at the Museum (I Can Read Book 1), Nancy embarks on a big exciting field trip to an art museum.  Nancy dresses up in an extra special outfit, but is heartbroken when she gets roadsick and throws up on her pretty shirt.  Her teacher takes the matter in hand, however, and lends her her art smock to wear over her messy shirt.  Nancy discovers that it's pretty cool to wear a smock like this to an art museum.  She learns to adjust her expectations to reality and enjoy what she has.

In Fancy Nancy: Splendiferous Christmas, Nancy is super excited about decorating her Christmas tree with a gorgeous (and gawdy!) tree topper that she saved up for earlier in the year.  But when the tree is jostled and her treasure falls to the floor and shatters, she bursts into tears!  How could this happen?  Is Christmas spoiled?  Her grandpa arrives just in time to comfort her with a big hug and come up with a solution.  Using simple craft supplies, they put together a sparkly tree topper that they plan to make an heirloom for the future.  They talk about the story they will have to share with future generations.  The love of family and the power of creativity save the day.  Rather than a simple progression of doing everything right and having everything work out perfectly, again Nancy learns to adjust and make the best of reality.  And she is lovingly comforted too.  Yay, Jane O'Connor!

In Fancy Nancy Sees Stars (I Can Read Book 1), Nancy has her usual enthusiasm for her latest adventure: a trip to the planetarium to see a night sky show.  But a rain storm and traffic jam cause her and her friend, Robert, to miss the whole show.  She is very disappointed, but when the family returns home, the clouds have cleared and she decides they should have their own night sky show in their back yard.  Again, she adapts.

In Fancy Nancy: Poison Ivy Expert (I Can Read Book 1), Nancy doesn't pay enough attention (as her Mom told her to) and gets poison ivy.  She is unglamorously red, itchy and completely miserable.  She makes it through a rough night, uses a home remedy given by a neighbor and feels better soon.

Yes, Nancy has misunderstandings, gets poison ivy, throws up, and breaks things.  Life isn't perfect for Nancy.  She doesn't lose her "fanciful" joy (hooray!).  No, she keeps her imagination, but learns to adapt when life doesn't quite live up to her expectations.

I'm probably not being fair in picking on Dora alone for her promotion of an unrealistic picture of the world.  Princess stories are no better.  "They lived happily ever after???"  That doesn't happen anywhere but heaven!  Too many girls have read princess stories and been unprepared for the realities of marriage.  Realities that are not glamorous or exciting, like the stomach flu, exhaustion from being up all night with a baby with colic, moving past infatuation to a deepened love, money struggles, and on and on.  Love can be great forever, but the story doesn't end at the wedding.  It's just beginning, with all the ups and downs of real life.

Life happens.  It disappoints us.  Things don't turn out the way we planned.  We can't always have our way.  What stories are we telling our children?  Are we preparing them for a life of frustration when life doesn't live up to their expectations?  Or are we preparing them for life as it really is: messy, awful, wonderful, disappointing, glorious?  Are we preparing them to live with life as it really is?

Dora might teach how to speak Spanish and how to follow a map, but I don't think she helps much with this skill.  I'm glad there are stories out there like Fancy Nancy that do.

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