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I was recently reminded of an incident I wrote about three years ago for the Chicago Tribune and it inspired me to re-post the essay:
My husband, daughter and I had just settled in for lunch at one of our favorite local restaurants when another family was escorted to the next table. The mother helped the little girl, who looked to be about 4 years old, off with her coat and lifted her into the booster seat.
Then, before removing her own coat, the mother placed a personal DVD player on the table in front of her daughter and hit the “play” button. Disney’s “Cinderella” started up, and the little girl began to watch. Without headphones.
Even after we moved to a table on the other side of the restaurant, we could hear the strains of “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” as we ate our tandoori chicken and talked about how many things were wrong with that picture.
Here’s what we concluded:
First, the little girl’s parents were teaching her to completely disregard the feelings, the rights and the preferences of anyone else.
The DVD made it harder for us to hear one another and the waiter and impossible to enjoy the quiet music that is normally a part of the restaurant’s pleasant atmosphere.
Instead of teaching their daughter good manners and consideration for others, these parents demonstrated through their own thoughtlessness that they did not believe it was necessary to devote time or energy to thinking about how their actions might affect others.
Second, her parents showed the child she had nothing of interest to tell them and they had nothing they felt was worth discussing with her.
Family meals and car rides are the best time to share the stories of our days, to coordinate upcoming plans, to discuss the news in our communities and to make clear our values and priorities. This family communicated to its youngest member that she was neither valued nor a priority.
Third, the parents failed to take advantage of the opportunity to teach their daughter an indispensable life skill — the ability to participate in a thoughtful and courteous conversation. If her parents keep it up, this girl will become a young woman who has nothing to say to anyone and no way to respond to comments and question at school, with friends, on dates, at job interviews.
Children need to learn the structure of a conversation, namely how to listen, when to nod, how to look the person who is speaking in the eye and how to know whether the other person understands and is interested in what you are saying. The art of conversation also involves knowing how to include everyone in the discussion, how to select the appropriate details to evoke a scene or convey an opinion, and how to disagree without being disagreeable.
Like music, these skills come naturally to some people and are harder for others, but everyone can benefit from practice and example.
Fourth, the girl’s parents lost the opportunity to show their daughter how to pay attention to what is going on around her. The more we allow children to numb their brains and cut themselves off from their environment, the less we are able to encourage their powers of observation and inspire their imaginations.
By using “Cinderella” as a distraction instead of a fully engaging experience, the parents turned it into what Fred Allen called television, “chewing gum for the mind.” The children who will grow up to create the next generation’s “Cinderella” are the ones who are looking at the world around them and exercising their imaginations.
Parents should stretch their children’s attention spans, a challenge in this media-saturated world. One way to do that is to set an example by turning off television, iPods, BlackBerrys, cell phones and PDAs when the family is together.
When our children were growing up, we had a “no headphones” rule on car trips. I preferred having my children argue about which radio station to listen to (that disagreeing without being disagreeable skill takes a while to get right) than having each of them off in separate zones of solitude.
Children need to learn to be engaged observers. Parents should both set an example and explicitly teach their families to be junior Sherlock Holmeses, seeing what they can deduce from what they see, and junior Scheherazades, telling stories to develop their senses of narrative, drama and humor. Is that couple at the next table on a first date or do they know each other well? What language are those people speaking? What can you tell about a person’s profession, hobbies, education, political views and favorite sports team? How do you know?
As we looked across the room at this family — the girl watching the movie, the father talking on his cell phone, the mother looking down at her plate — we wished there was a “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” spell to turn their devices into pumpkins and get them to talk to each other.
NOTE: I got a few emails when this essay first ran asking me if it was possible that the child had some learning issues and was not “neuro-typical.” As someone who worked in a school for disabled children and has disabled family members I am always sensitive to this issue as well. I did observe her in brief conversation with her parents and it seemed clear that this was not the reason for the DVD.

The loss of the lovely, charming, elegant, and talented Natasha Richardson is terribly sad. Her greatest opportunity to show what she could do as an actress was on stage. She won a Tony award for her performance in “Cabaret” on Broadway. She was the daughter of one of the great acting families, with both parents Oscar-winners. Her mother is Vanessa Redgrave and her father was the late Tony Richardson, director of “Tom Jones.” On film, she is perhaps best known as the mother in the Lindsay Lohan remake of “The Parent Trap.” I loved the way she and co-star Dennis Quaid brought a bittersweet but tender and very dear quality to their scenes together as the estranged couple who were increasingly unable to deny their powerful connection. The poignancy of the Ray Charles song, “Every Time We Say Goodbye” on the soundtrack is even sharper now.

Paul Rudd is a national treasure. His smaller roles were a highlight of movies like “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up,” and “Anchorman.” He was charming in “Clueless,” heartbreaking in “The Object of My Affection” and “The Shape of Things,” and downright hilarious in a brief cameo as John Lennon in “Walk Hard.” This movie seems to be about the big, loud, dumb, humiliating moments — an unexpected same-sex kiss in public, an embarrassing photo made public, an intimate moment made public — but Rudd is at his best in the small, perfectly timed moments when his character is trying hard to be a “regular guy,” even though in his heart he suspects that whatever it takes, it is beyond him.

Whether it’s a romance or a bromance, movies about couples almost always position them as superego and id. On one side is a responsible, mature, thoughtful person who follows the rules. On the other is someone who is impulsive, outspoken, and a lot of fun but not quite a grown-up. Generally, both discover that they are missing something and it all ends happily ever after.

The romantic couple in this movie are both pretty much in the responsible and rule-following category. In its first moments, Peter (Paul Rudd) proposes to Zooey (Rashida Jones). She accepts. And then she immediately has to share the moment with her nearest and dearest — her friends. On the way home from the proposal she puts them on speakerphone and they do everything but launch into a conference call version of “Going to the Chapel” before inadvertently revealing to Peter that Zooey has kept them privy to the most intimate (and I mean intimate — and privy) aspects of their 8-month relationship.

Peter now has everything, a wonderful fiancee and some great career prospects in real estate (if he can just sell Lou Ferrigno’s house to get the investment capital). But when he has no one to call to share the news of the engagement and he overhears Zooey worrying that he will be too dependent on her, Peter decides he has to find a male best friend. He goes on some “man-dates” but no one is right. And then he meets Sydney (Jason Seigel of “How I Met Your Mother” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”), whose unabashed honesty, easy acceptance of Peter’s floundering attempts at guy-talk, and endless time for hanging out make Peter feel at home. Sydney lives in a “man-cave” but he is in essence a boy, a cross between Peter Pan and Lampwick, the kid in “Pinnochio” who turned into a donkey on Pleasure Island.

The film shrewdly salutes and makes fun of the way that the progress toward friendship parallels a romantic relationship, the attraction, the tension in the initial invitations, the thrill of finding what you have in common (they both love Rush!, the sweetness of feeling completely at home with someone. Rudd is terrific as we see him trying hard to interact with Sydney, for whom male friendships come naturally. The expression on his face as he tries to match Sydney’s comfortable conversational rhythms is a gem of comic mingling of anxiety and pleasure. There is some nice understated support from Andy Samberg as Peter’s brother and J.K. Simmons (“Juno”) as his father, but the shrillness of the stereotyped hostile married couple played by Jon Favreau and Jaime Pressly is annoying. Thankfully, the rest of the movie avoids the usual terror of women usually found in man-boy comedies, but it would be nice to let the girls get a laugh once in a while, especially when they are as talented as Pressly and Jones. The script is predictable and the movie falls apart whenever Rudd is off-screen, but as soon as he returns he makes it watchable and even endearing.

dora_new.jpg Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful comments on the new “Dora.” I promised to follow up, so here is the latest picture of what the older version of Dora will look like.
As I have said, I am keeping an open mind, but the emphasis on “cutting-edge fashion doll play” in the press release was very disappointing. The new doll will let girls “customize their doll and watch as she magically transforms right before their eyes. For example, by changing Dora’s hair length, jewelry, and eye color on screen, the Dora doll magically changes as well.” The purpose of the doll seems to be about her appearance instead of learning, accomplishing, or kindness. The release goes on, “The online world will include descriptions and biographies of Dora’s Explorer Girls™ and an immersive online world that will be tied into the complete collection of toys….Adding to the play value of the line will be a wide range of accessories (sold separately) as well as the Dora’s Seaside School playset that will work with Dora Links to expand traditional offline fashion doll play as well as to expand the online experience.” I understand that Mattel and Nickelodeon are in business, but I would feel better if I thought they had given as much consideration to what is best for girls as they did to selling as much stuff as possible.

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