When I was a child, about the only thing I ever learned from a cartoon was to be wary of coyotes bearing Acme products.
But like a lot of things since the ‘70s, cartoons have changed for the better. These days, some actually come with a nice little takeaway. A smidge of morality that can help little ones set their miniature moral compasses.
One of my 4-year-old daughter’s favorite cartoons is the Berenstain Bears. This is an adaptation of the book series that we’ve had around our house for many years. In case you aren’t familiar with the bear family who lives in the big tree house down a sunny dirt road in bear country, they’re pretty much your typical middle-class American bear family, of the teddy variety. Aside from living in a tree house and having a little extra fur, Brother Bear and Sister Bear are a lot like regular human kids. They struggle with many of the same issues. Chores. Homework. Bullies. Over scheduling. Fitting in. Obeying Mama Bear and Papa Bear. You know, typical bear stuff.
In one particular episode, the cubs get an unwelcome visit from the green-eyed monster. Old green eyes is related, in a lot of ways, to that pesky little devil that appears on your shoulder and gets you to do bad things — only the green-eyed monster is a specialist, dedicated to instigating want. Planting the seeds of envy. Stirring the pot of malcontent. And in the Berenstain Bear’s story – turning otherwise lovely little darlings into sniveling, greedy little stinkers.
Emma chose The Green-eyed Monster episode one morning (video on demand, another notable improvement since the ‘70s) while I squeezed in my daily half-hour on the stationary bike. I look forward to my faux cycling time. Not necessarily for the exercise, but because it affords me a few minutes to make a dent in the weekly accrual of magazines that are perpetually piled on my bedside table.
This is my quiet time to research investments, brush up on foreign policy and get to the heart of our country’s $1.8 trillion deficit.
While there is usually one or two real magazines tossed in the mix, just so the housekeepers don’t think I’m completely shallow, 90 percent of them are retail catalogs — zero editorial content, 100 percent stuff. I just hate to put any of them in the recycle bin without a good once over. After all, you never know when I might stumble upon that thing I didn’t know I couldn’t live without.
Truth is, I like looking through the pages. It’s sort of my modern version of the giant Sears catalog, a.k.a. “The Wish Book,” that would land on my childhood doorstop with a window-rattling thud. The main difference is that today I’ve got a little 2×3 piece of plastic that doubles as a magic wand. With this magic piece of plastic, I can turn anything on the page into a reality that shows up in the form of a UPS package by the front door. Isn’t that fun?
So this is our weekday morning routine. I scan my magazines, alright, catalogs, and Emma watches one of her favorite shows. On this morning, as I half listened to the story, I made a comment to Emma, over the dog-eared pages of my new Anthropologie catalog, “Tsk. Tsk. Looks like Sister Bear’s got a bad case of the green-eyed monster.”
I put the catalog down and watched the plot unfold. Sister Bear was in a tizzy because Brother Bear got a new bike and she didn’t.
I peddled along shaking my head and thinking if I were Mama Bear, I’d take that greedy little fur ball by the shoulders and shake some sense into her. “Don’t you know there are cubs in this world who don’t have any honey to eat? Cubs who would love to have all those Bearbie dolls you have? Just appreciate what you have and stop begging me for more. Now march it up to your room and start hibernating right now missy. I don’t care if it is spring.”
That’s what I’d say. But not Mama Bear.
That Mama Bear is a true saint. Patient. Soft spoken. Wise. Pretty much everything I’m not. In all the episodes I’ve seen, she’s not once shown her claws or growled at her cubs. And she always seems to know just the right thing to say to get Brother and Sister back on track.
Now this may sound strange, but I look up to Mama Bear. Not since Yogi has there been a bear pushing such a good agenda. And it’s not just this one episode. I’ve known Mama Bear for a number of years now, what with three cubs of my own. She helped me gingerly introduce my kids to the somewhat scary idea of strangers. She’s shown my boys how pointless it is to play the blame game. And made them see that even bear cubs get the jitters before going away to camp.
But by far her most ingenious parenting moment was the plan she implemented the time Brother, Sister and even Papa, started loosing their manners. It was a punitive plan, designed to get the family back on a tactful track. And it was true genius.
Each breach in behavior resulted in a punishment. If you were caught interrupting, you had to dust the downstairs. Forget to say “please” or “thank you” and you were off to sweep the porch. Rude noises? You get the pleasure of weeding the garden. It went on.
Thank you, Ms. Cartoon Bear, for the fabulous idea. My mind starting spinning – wow – I could really use this to my advantage. With all the bad manners around here, I could have this house in shipshape in no time. I’ll be like an army sergeant – “Uh oh. Interrupting Mommy while she’s on the phone. Give me two scrubbed toilets.” Oh, this could be good.
I’ve actually found myself in situations where I think, what would Mama Bear do? Maybe I’ll start a new catalog filled with things no one needs and launch it with a WWMBD bracelet. But Mama Bear wouldn’t do that. In fact, if Mama Bear had a leaning tower of catalogs on her bedside table, she would probably realize it was sending her cubs the wrong message and quickly take her name off all the mailing lists. Killjoy.
But back to The Green-Eyed Monster. The message was such a good one that I even snuck it in on Emma’s older brothers. Of course they wouldn’t be caught dead watching a “baby show” but since they’re not allowed to watch any TV during the week (homework and all), I could probably get them engaged in C-SPAN just for the opportunity to stare at the screen.
To put my plan into motion, I slyly asked them to keep an eye on Emma while I took a phone call for work. They were told to do their homework in the living room while Emma watched an unspecified show (The Green-Eyed Monster, of course). If you have school-aged kids, you know it’s absolutely impossible for a child to even get past the “Name” portion of homework when they’re in the same room as a working electronic device. It’s like a transient paralysis, if you will, ensuring that my plan would be foolproof. They’d soak up every second of the show while holding their pencils in ready position and their mouths agape for the entire running time.
I didn’t want to reveal my ulterior motive, so we didn’t discuss the show. But a week or so later, it was evident that my clandestine moral lesson had sunk in when Ben and I made a quick run to Target to pick up party favors for his eighth birthday. I promised him that we’d go straight to the party section. In and out, lickety-split.
Who was I kidding? This was Target, after all, green-eyed headquarters.
Sure enough, the rapid romp-thru skidded to a halt within three feet of the threshold when the 99¢ bins beckoned like a bunch of cheap, plastic little carnival barkers. After a slow mo trek past them, with Ben’s urging, we moved on. But not far. The sight of t-shirts reminded me I needed a t-square to help Alex with a social studies project. This sent us to the art supply aisle, which meant we had to pass the greeting card aisle which reminded me that one of my client’s just had a baby girl so I needed to pick out the perfect card, which reminded me that my own girl Emma needs some new pajamas, which reminded me that I’ve been wanting a new pillow. Ben shadowed me all over the store like the sullen, dutiful child of a shopaholic.
About the only thing I truly needed to buy was a pair of horse blinders, so I wouldn’t be distracted by every chotchke and thingamajig lining the shelf. As we made our way past the small appliance section, the cart instinctively turned (really, can you have too many Crockpots?). “Hold on honey,” I said as I checked out Rivals latest model. My ogling was interrupted by a dash of ice water splashed in my face, in the form of a comment from Ben.
Completely under his breath and mostly to himself, my young son shook his head in disgust, tapped his little foot, looked up at the ceiling tiles and said, “the green-eyed monster.”
“What?” I asked.
“The green-eyed monster,” he repeated cautiously and with a sly grin.
“Oh my gosh! You’re right,” I laughed, shaking the cold water off my face. “You’re absolutely right.”
My clandestine lesson had worked. Only this time, it was on me. Chalk another one up to Mama Bear.