Wednesday, September 21, 2016

An Imperfect Saint: A review of St. Vincent

One of my favorite things about the Catholic Church is the Communion of Saints. I love being able to ask my grandparents to pray for me. Over the years, I also feel like I have made best friends with some of our brothers and sisters in heaven: St. Therese of Liseux, Sts. Zeilie and Louise Martin, St. Lucy, St. Monica, St. Francis, and St. John Paul II. It's so great having advocates in heaven cheering us on and interceding on our behalf. The Communion of Saints seems also to be one of the many misunderstood teachings of the Church, and the film St. Vincent is one of the films that demonstrates one of those misunderstandings.
St. Vincent is actually a really great film. Melissa McCarthy (Maggie) and Bill Murray (Vincent) are an unlikely duo in this film yet they bring a perfect balance of comedy and drama. This is one of those films that really doesn't fit into either genre perfectly. The film is about a struggling newly divorced mom whose son finds an unlikely mentor in their new drunken, gambling neighbor. As the boy learns more about his neighbor who can truly be described as a diamond in the rough, their relationship along with that between him and his mother are thrown into turmoil. The story culminates in the "Saints Among Us" presentation where at a school-wide assembly where Oliver and his classmates present someone in their lives who is similar to a canonized saint. Oliver's presentation is truly touching and brings the film together in a way that I was not expecting.
Because I'm Catholic, I'm pretty picky about details in movies about Catholics. My friend and I were at a student film festival and there was a story about a Catholic priest prior to Vatican II. I sat there pointing out to my friend, who was not Catholic by the way, the little details that were not accurate to the period the film takes place. Now, I am of the belief that a writer, director, and producer should do their research before making a film no matter the subject matter. Never assume you know enough to write about it. My biggest issue with the film was not that this sinful man was considered a saint by a young boy but the film's description of what a saint is. Oliver's teacher, a Catholic priest, describes a saint as someone who devotes themselves to make the lives of other people around them better. While this description is not inaccurate, it is incomplete. The only saint really talked about is St. Teresa of Calcutta. She's not a saint because of her good works but because of her undying love and devotion to God. Throughout the entire movie, while Catholicism places a central role in the story, God is never mentioned. Okay, he's mentioned once when the priest makes Oliver lead class prayer. It makes me really sad because this movie could have been great, amazing even if God played a bigger role in the movie. Our good works mean NOTHING if God is not at the heart of it. Like I said, calling this sinful man a saint is not wrong; the presentation scene actually was really heartwarming and touching.
This movie really is worth watching. I absolutely love it. I just feel disappointed when a movie doesn't live up to it's potential. I have to note, this is one of Melissa McCarthy's best roles. She has the best line in the movie, and I'm convinced she came up with it because it was unexpected, hilarious, and only could have been written by a woman. I highly recommend the movie. The Communion of Saints is so mysterious because we don't know who all is up there. God's mercy is deeper than the ocean, and we have no idea who opens themselves up to receive it. That means we have no idea whose up there praying for us and waiting to greet us when we join them in heaven.

Friday, September 2, 2016

A Parent's Guide to Preschool Television

We now live in a very strange time in history. Where once parents considered television to be the bad guy, I would now argue that among your technological options, television may be the safest. With nine-year-olds having cell phones and my own two-year-old possessing his own Kindle Fire, it can be scary navigating the technological landscape. I have read a lot about this and some experts would say television is bad and children should never watch it while some say it's OK in moderation. Some experts would say that children should never play video games, but how can we parents fight that when teachers hand out iPads to preschoolers and call it "education?" As I have explored homeschooling and watched my son interact with technology in a way that our parents couldn't even fathom when I was a kid, I have learned a lot about the use of technology with toddlers and preschoolers. I will save video games and devices for another time, but today I'm going to play favoritism and advocate why television may be a good option for your preschooler and how to approach the whole matter. My experience is limited to toddlers and preschoolers, so that is where I will focus.
Father and son enjoying Mary Poppins together.
First of all, some parents and experts would say to never let your preschooler watch television. While it's not inherently evil to hold such an opinion, neither is allowing your child to watch as much television as he would like. Fortunately, we're Catholic, so we have the virtue of temperance. (Yay, Catholics!) Temperance is basically all good things in moderation. Personally, I do not advocate for allowing your child to consume as much media as he pleases for he has not yet developed self control. Neither would I advocate for never allowing media for how can a child learn self-control around media with no exposure to it at all? It may be different for preschoolers, but let me help you out with the appropriate way to teach a healthy relationship with television with your preschooler.
First of all, do NOT be fooled by "educational" television. Yes, I love and advocate for Sesame Street. However, television should be used to reinforce what your preschooler has already learned from the world around him, not be a substitute for life experience and true education. Yes, educational television is OK, but do not treat it like class time. The only exception to that that I would say is for in cases of learning ASL or a foreign language and only if it is used as a tool within a broader curriculum. The best educational show out there by far is Sesame Street but right up there is Tumble Leaf. It may first appear that Tumble Leaf is not an educational show but it is. Tumble Leaf teaches preschoolers about science and in the best way possible. Rather than lecturing preschoolers, children are taken on a journey with Fig the fox to explore the world. My son has seen concepts on the show and applied them to real life. He saw a magnifying glass on Tumble Leaf and now picks one up whenever he sees it. The same can be true of many other tools he's seen on the show. What makes Tumble Leaf unique is the seamless weaving of art, story, and education. It's a show I find myself enjoying. This show is so countercultural because it's released on Amazon, it's CLAYMATION (no kids' show is claymation), and as I said it is educational in the way that the target audience truly learns. If you're concerned about your kids watching educational TV, those are the two I would advocate for.
Second, there is an appropriate way to watch television with your preschooler. I'm not perfect at doing this, but parent and child should be interacting throughout the show they are watching. As I said, television should not be educational but even Jesus used storytelling to teach morals. My favorite show about teaching morals to preschoolers is Daniel Tiger's  Neighborhood. Daniel Tiger is a modern version of Mister Rogers's Neighborhood of Makebelieve. As Ni and I watch the show together, we talk about what is going on. How do the characters feel? How do they react to certain situations? The show has catchy tunes which can be helpful for kids to remember things such as penance after forgiveness, what to do when we're mad, and using our words to express our feelings. Ni will take games and "advice" from the show and apply it to his own life. For example, we went out to a restaurant a week ago and that morning he happened to watch the episode of Daniel Tiger where Daniel goes to a restaurant for the twentieth time. While we were out, Ni played a game he saw on the show, and it kept him entertained the entire meal. Lots of shows, not just Daniel Tiger, can be used in a similar fashion. (Octonauts being another family favorite.) My point is, when a preschooler does watch television, it should be conducted in a similar fashion to storytime on a loving caregiver's lap. 
Thirdly, beware of bad television! Even though there is a plethora of amazing television shows for preschoolers out there, there still are some that are just okay and some that are just bad. One example of a bad show for preschoolers is Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. No, I'm not just out for revenge, I have some legitimate concerns. I have been an avid television watcher since I was Na's age. I know what I'm talking about, people. On the surface, this show seems benign. However, my biggest concern is that the show is not designed with the best interest of the viewer in mind like some of the other shows aforementioned. Mickey Mouse Clubhouse is specifically designed to simply bring pleasure and entertainment to a child rather than build up his or her brain or heart. Most of the storylines are superficial, the characters have been distorted from their original beauty to more dull, one-dimensional characters, and they try to disguise their propaganda by being educational because they "teach" children their colors and how to count. The show is designed to give children warm fuzzy feelings about Mickey Mouse and his comrades, so that they'll want every Mickey Mouse toy they see and will beg to go to Disneyland. (Though Ni has other reasons to beg to go to Disneyland.) Television can be used to build a child's attention span (Sesame Street is very good for that) but everything about Mickey Mouse Clubhouse is designed to keep a child engaged for every second rather than build any skills. I might be okay with all of this if the animation or stories could make up for it. Sadly, that is not the case. That being said, yes, I let Ni watch the show. He really only watches his favorite episodes and he gets a healthy variety of other shows. I would advise, however, if your child has never seen Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, NEVER show it to them. If they have seen it, either keep them from watching it or make sure they watch a variety of other shows. Plus, the music is really bad. Just throwing that out there. 
Wow, I wrote a lot more than I was intending. This particular topic is very personal to me partially because as I have mentioned I have been watching and analyzing television and film since I was my baby boy's age. It can also be scary as a parent hearing horror stories of the dangers of media. I want to give a perspective that was balanced and positive. The bottom line is, there is so much media out there. Take advantage of streaming services where a child can watch his favorite episode of Daniel Tiger over and over but be careful of time spent doing so. The messages will really sink in and you don't have to worry about commercials. Be wary of bad television and always make it interactive. I would not advocate you stick your child in front of the TV completely unsupervised and passive even if you allow them to watch a lot of it. I'm mostly saying that you don't have to prevent your children from watching television entirely. No mom-shaming here if you're on either end of the spectrum. We Catholics tend to sit comfortably in the middle, so I want to help my fellow parents out there who sit in the middle with me, so I just want to show you you're not alone. The parents who have blackouts at their homes and who allow an overindulgence in media get all the attention, so I want to offer a guide to parents who want to let their preschoolers do something enjoyable and not inherently evil without feeling guilty. As long as you're mindful of what your child is watching and HOW they are watching it, you really have nothing to be worried about.