Race and Thomas the Tank Engine

Trains, trains and more trains. The Island of Sodor exploded on my counter

Like many little boys, Daniel loves Thomas and the 48 billion other trains, cranes and vehicles living on the Island of Sodor that I cannot identify because I lack a Y chromosome.  In our house, it’s all-Thomas, all the time with the preferred movies and TV shows being Thomas ones and the train table as well as the kitchen table, our pseudo train table, in heavy use.

I mostly think that Thomas and his cronies are decent role models for Daniel although I haven’t liked the influence of “bishing” and “bashing” on Daniel’s behavior, something I mused about in my review of NurtureShock.  I tell him he’s a little boy, and he insists he’s a train.  OK?

However, when you really pay attention to one of the Thomas movies or episodes, it’s clear there is some disturbing or at least questionable stuff going on in the Island of Sodor.  Others have written about various issues better than I can here, here and here.

I tend to err on the side of thinking a carrot is a carrot and rolling my eyes at over-analysis, but I didn’t expect to have to address racial issues with Daniel based on what he observed on the Island of Sodor. Really.

While Daniel loves Thomas, Percy, Gordon and the rest (as I type this, he has his stuffed Percy in a death grip in bed), he also loves Diesel.  Diesel is a diesel engine (duh) while Thomas and his pals are steam engines. Diesel is also kind of a jerk who is determined to get Thomas, the uber-useful engine, in trouble with Sir Topham Hatt. But Daniel LOVES Diesel. Loves him.  To the point that when he asks me to make up stories, he wants Diesel to be the main character.  He even wants to be called Diesel now (a few weeks ago, he wanted to be called “Hiro,” so I guess this is progress?).

So imagine my surprise when Daniel started saying things like, “Diesel engines are dirty” and “Steamies are better.”  WTF?  Seriously?  I’m going to have to address racism on the Island of Sodor?  I was appalled because while he adored Diesel, he said nasty things about the diesel engines as compared to the steam engines.   I replied quickly that Diesel is not dirty and that while he uses different fuel, he is just as useful as the steam engines. Different does not equal bad.

I couldn’t deny his interpretation, though.  A cursory watching of the movies and TV episodes makes it clear that there is, um, ethnic tension between the steam engines and diesel engines and that the steam engines, meant to be the good guys, are better than the stinky, oily, trouble-making diesel engines.

Daniel is THREE and he absorbed this message.  I know that an older, more sophisticated audience (OK, maybe the parents) could understand that the movies and shows are trying to set up conflict, but the lesson a 3-year-old absorbs is that diesel engines are not good.  They are bad. Wow.

I think this issue is on my mind because I read NurtureShock.  I mentioned in my review that I’ve seen Daniel imitate some aggressive behavior based on the movies, but now I’m thinking about the chapter on race and when is the best time to talk about it with your children.

Despite our instinct (perhaps preference) to talk about race with our children when they are old enough (in our opinion) to understand differences and discuss it with us – if we discuss it at all -it turns out that it is much better and effective to talk it about as early and as directly as possible because by the time we feel ready to address any racial issues with our children, it’s too late.  Their attitudes have been formed by their environment and the lack of open discussion around differences.  We like to think that putting children in a multi-cultural environment is enough, but it isn’t because 1) a lot of the times, the message we send that “we’re all OK” is too vague for children and 2) children will self-segregate.  The takeaway from NurtureShock is that we must talk about differences – racial, gender, sexual, etc. – early and explicitly if we expect to impact and influence our children.  Honestly? That kind of discussion is uncomfortable as hell when I contemplate it, which is also why so many parents shy away from it.

Yet I’ll be damned if Daniel’s attitudes about racial differences are formed at the age of 3 by watching a British series.  It’s also important to me that he understand and appreciate gender and sexual differences.  Clearly Jimmy and I are going to have to put on our big boy and girl pants and start having these conversations with him sooner rather than later.

I grew up in the South and while I’ll hotly defend it to outsiders and insist that overt racism is a lot less prevalent than in other areas of the country because of desegregation, I know racist attitudes still exist.  I’ve heard them in my own extended family.  I know that I myself have issues of my own. However, I vow for us to do things differently with our son.  I want to impart to him our values, values that include supporting equality for all despite gender, racial or sexual identity.

Guess we better plan to have those discussions soon.

Or maybe I’m over-thinking a cartoon?  What do you think?

Parenting: (Nurture)Shocking the System

I read NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman for PAIL’s Fall 2012 Book Club.  Subtitled “new thinking about children,” the book addresses why many strategies we’re told to use to raise our children backfire.  Using case studies, research and new findings in child development, the book addresses provocative topics such as praise, declining sleep’s impact on intelligence, when to talk about race, how speech develops, sibling rivalry, giftedness evaluation, aggression, and lying, overturning conventional wisdom along the way.

I was excited to read this book.  It came out in 2009 while I was on maternity leave with Daniel, and I remember adding it to my Amazon wishlist which doubles as my “to read” list.  There is so much to talk about from this book that I’ve had a difficult time writing this post, so I’ve decided to focus on my overall impressions of the book and what stuck out for me the most.

The experts in best-selling parenting books provide a lot of theories and strategies on how we should parent our children in order to raise the most intelligent, empathatic, well-adjusted, non-aggressive, successful, open-minded children, and we eat up their wisdom.  It helps that a lot of what they tell us to do seems like common sense:  if you want your child to acquire better speech, you need to talk to him all the time.  Narrate everything.  If you want your child to be color-blind and see race as a non-issue, you should avoid talking about race until they are old enough to understand.  Aggressive, bullying children are deviants who come from families with less-than-stellar parenting.    All of those ideas seem plausible and make sense.  This book challenges all of those conclusions.


The chapter on how language develops was probably the most anxiety-generating one for me because it dealt with language development in babies and toddlers, and my son is 3, well beyond that stage. I had been worried about his speech because he was a bit of a late talker, finally starting to use more than just a few words and phrases a few months after he turned 2.  I knew he could understand everything we said to him, but he couldn’t or wouldn’t use language.  So I read this chapter with some trepidation.

Parents have been instructed that constant chatter and talk is necessary in order to develop babies’ language skills to the highest extent.  As a result, parents feel pressure to narrate every interaction with their child, often feeling exhausted by the task.  Many buy videos of disembodied voices promising to enhance children’s language. What Bronson and Merryman gleaned from research is that what is more important than talking to your child is rewarding their attempts to communicate.  When a baby babbles at you, the parent that responded immediately with attention, a caress or verbal acknowledgement had greater impact, rewarding the baby’s vocalization and encouraging more or it.

A touch. A kiss. A smile.  That and the response time (immediate instead of delayed) was all it took to impact the child and encourage further efforts.  So very simple and within the means of any parent.  I was haunted by the fact that the authors reported that lower income families bought videos purporting to enhance language development because it was all they could afford and they wanted to give their child what they could.  Following the recommendations from parenting gurus ultimately had little impact on their child’s language development.  Instead, these parents had the means to help their children all along: paying attention and rewarding the child’s effort. While the authors and researchers caution that this finding doesn’t mean that parents should be on guard to acknowledge every grunt or coo every minute of the day, it is counter-intuitive to what we have been taught encourages language to develop in a child.

Back to me (of course, right?).  I tried to talk to Daniel non-stop during diaper changes, in the bath, making dinner, putting on clothes.  It was hard for me and felt weird to narrate everything: “now we’re putting on your clean diaper and doesn’t your bottom feel good?  Now we’re going to put on your pants and then your shirt.  And your socks!”  It didn’t come naturally to me, and I think I felt a little bit of a failure because of it.  Maybe because for a lot of people, especially introverts, labeling everything and providing a running commentary isn’t natural.

While I feel a little better that my failure to provide running commentary on everything wasn’t too harmful, I hope that I responded to his verbal cues enough to encourage him.  I think we did.  I hope we did.

Aggression/Playing Well with Others

While I agree that bullying is a major problem that needs to be addressed, I’ve become alarmed at how any behavior or language that disagrees with or differs from some norm is now labelled “bullying.”  This chapter was interesting because it addressed why we haven’t been able to reduce or eradicate aggression in children despite a lot of attention to it and zero-tolerance policies.

Do you feel superior that  your child watches educational programs on PBS or Nick JR?  It turns out that those so-called educational programs may actually be inspiring aggression in children because they spend a lot of time setting the stage with verbal insults and conflict while spending only a few minutes on the resolution, losing the preschooler’s concentration and comprehension in the meantime.

So you’re saying my child would be better off watching Law & Order instead of Thomas DVDs after all?  Ok, selfishly I hope that were true because it would be a lot more interesting for me!  Bronson and Merryman found that children’s so-called educational programming was full of unresolved conflict, over-the-top insults and aggression that wasn’t resolved in a meaningful way. I’m…surprised yet not surprised by their findings.  While my son’s adored Thomas DVDs have good lessons, I’ve noticed that there is a lot of not-so-nice behavior and name-calling while the conflict is being revealed.  I’ve noticed that my son likes to “bish” and “bash” into walls, furniture and people because he has observed his trains doing that and while it’s not poor behavior for trains, it is poor behavior for humans.  At the same time, my son adores two of the biggest jerks on the Island of Sodor, and I wonder what that means that he can’t differentiate their behavior as negative.  Before reading this book, I would have considered that to be an indication of his empathy, but now I wonder. Maybe there is something rotten on the Island of Sodor.

I think the primary finding from the chapter on aggression is that aggression isn’t a trait that characterizes deviants.  The authors found that many popular, well-liked students considered socially well-adjusted used aggression to get their way and cement their authority.  Interestingly, the more in-tune and empathetic a student was, the better they could target their aggression.  What this means is that aggression isn’t a purely negative trait.  Aggressive tendencies can go hand in hand with high emotional intelligence.   American society wants to stamp out aggression or pretend it is the province of those who are deviant, but it isn’t that easy.  It’s not black or white.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this chapter because as the mother of a boy, I worry about the restrictions society wants to place on him: don’t run; don’t act out; sit and be quiet.  Unfettered aggression for aggression’s sake is obviously a bad thing, but I don’t want my son caged because he is a boy who might be a little aggressive.  This chapter was a great reminder that it’s not black and white: aggression does not necessarily mean “bad;” human behavior is much more complex than that.


There was a lot going on in this book.  I don’t even want to think about the chapters on teenagers yet.  Part of me welcomes the upheaval this book has brought to conventional parenting wisdom, but another part of me wonders if it is truly any better than the parenting tome du jour.  I did like that it used actual research and theory to bolster the claims it made, but I wonder if the book was futile because a parent is more likely to pick up a copy of What to Expect and accept the information inside at face value instead of looking for valid scientific research and genuine theory.

I felt like some of the chapters were more uneven than others in terms of the claims made and research cited, but overall I thought the book was well-written and engaging.  I did find it interesting that when I Googled the Tools of the Mind program mentioned in chapter 8, the first results dealt with debunking its results.

I’m left wondering how much of this book’s knowledge I can trust. Yes, this book makes its case with research and case studies, but in the end, is parenting as much of an art as a science?  Should I put my faith in any book?