“I Said Ay, Man…” (So, you want to be a Huxtable)

cosby showIf it isn’t enough that my children—thanks to XM radio’s 80’s on 8—think that Beat It and Come on Eileen are current radio hits, add to that my insistence on exposing them to the child-rearing of the Huxtable family and let’s see what we have here. Kids who live in a time warp of one-hit wonders and family togetherness? Check. Kids who maybe shrug their shoulders and list Bon Jovi in their top three favorite singers list? Check. Kids who ask their friends if they’ve seen the one with the Gordon Gartrell shirt and look puzzled when their friends walk slowly away? Check.
 “But why the Huxtables?” you might ask and not the Bradys or the Keatons or the Seavers or, gasp the Duncans. Well, if you’ve heard of every one of these families EXCEPT the Duncans, I think you already know why. Because I trust Cliff and Claire Huxtable, that’s why. And it isn’t that I don’t trust the earthy Keatons or the well-intended Bradys or the having-it-all Seavers.
  It’s that my kids trust the Huxtables, too. And I’ve figured out why.
 First, they’re funny. And I mean witty funny, not Dad walks into a door funny the way tv shows nowadays have funny dads. Heathcliff Huxtable had some funny things to say, and a put-down-your-i-phone-and-watch-this-show-with-your-kids-funny way of saying them.  My kids laugh at his antics, at the things he says, at Claire’s I’m-gonna-teach-you-thing-or-two-abut-life face. And not only do they laugh and laugh and laugh, but they are interested in the lives of every character.
 It is a tribute to this show that my kids sit quietly and listen to Cliff’s parents reminisce about World War II alone on their sofa on their wedding anniversary with nary a sassy kid in sight. It is a tribute also that when Cliff tells Vanessa he trusts her, even after her friend lights up a cigarette in Vanessa’s bedroom, I let out a sigh of relief. I don’t know if I would have done that, I think to myself. But I see now it was the right thing. And making her play a drinking game was both the right thing AND the funny thing.
 And they are creative together, this family—emptying out Theo’s room and turning the house into The Real World Apartments, lip-syncing Ray Charles, and schooling their children in music and history, and morality all at once.
 And nevermind that Stevie Wonder shows up, or that the quality of Phylicia Rashad’s fury should have had its own category for an Emmy, this show gets it right for many reasons. But the one that appeals to me most in these days of kids growing up too fast, of quick and sassy sitcoms where the parents are mostly bumbling through their own lives, serving only as entertainment and the occasional best friend to their kids—it is that these parents are real-deal parents.
 They are teachers and mentors, and cheerleaders and disciplinarians and historians, too. They are people—bright and complicated people with a sense of humor that draws all of us to the sofa to watch and see what will happen. So, I’ve turned off modern-day tv for my kids and I can’t say I’m not hoping just a little bit that the next time my kids ask yours if they’ve seen the one where Cliff pretends not to be a doctor at the car dealership, no one backs slowly away. Maybe they lean in. Maybe they’ll laugh about it together—maybe they’ll even know that Sinbad was the car dealer. You just never know.

Whatever would they do without us? (More than you might think!)

A friend recently told me that she went to a bookstore looking for something new to read to her daughter. The bookseller made some age-appropriate suggestions, like –(and I know I write this a lot—it’s an epidemic)—Rainbow Fairies. My friend was not so impressed and pushed back. How about The Boxcar Children?  She wondered out loud.

The bookseller shook her head no. “Those kids have no parents.”

Though I was the very person who made this recommendation to my friend, I tried not to take personal offense to this reaction. Why did I think this book was okay and this trustworthy bookseller did not? Was it my own nostalgia for The Boxcar Children? Definitely. But it was something else, too. Yes these kids have no parents and yes that is disturbing and complicated…to us, the parents. It isn’t all that disturbing to kids. And I think I know why.

The same way we’re okay with Sam Gribley running away from home and living in a tree, or Claudia and Jamie Kincaid running away to the Met and making a home for themselves in the musty velvet of an antique bed. Kids are not so concerned with the Amber Alert of it all. What they care about is how those kids survive, how they make it out there in the wild world all on their own. Not a grown-up in sight.

Just yesterday I tested my own child. We were in a shopping center parking lot and I said, “pretend I’m not here, how would you get to the car safely?” She got a wide, serious smile on her face, let go of my hand, looked both ways and hustled to the car –very carefully. More carefully than if I had been holding her hand tight, tugging her along while she daydreamed about the row of colorful jeans we had just left behind. She was more careful because she had to be. And I was relieved. I had not sheltered her into oblivion, she had gotten to the car.

I do this a lot. When my kids watched Home Alone, I asked them if they thought they could get to the supermarket for milk (or, let’s be honest, a big old box of Frosted Flakes) in my absence.  Both of them mapped out all of the logistics, and eventually thought that yes they could. And again, I was relieved. The beauty of a book like The Boxcar Children is the voyeurism of it. Kids get to look inside the lives of kids who—either by circumstance or daring-do—are alone and have to eat, and stay warm, and stay safe, and take care of siblings, and make money, and the list goes on and on.

These stories are spectacular for showing us how kids might go about surviving outside of the watchful eye and grasp of their parents. How they might secure a commuter rail train pass from their parents’ waste basket, how they might give up their weekly ice cream sundae bought and paid for out of their very own allowance so they might save enough to eat on the mean streets of New York City. These authors are showing us resourcefulness at play, and extraordinary resilience, and I thank them for this.

Because in an age when we are all a tight hand-hold away from our kids—or maybe a text, or a facetime call away, we kind of need someone to expose them to a world without parents so that they at least pause to wonder if they themselves would know to make an abandoned boxcar into a shelter should they come upon one.

I, for one, loved the escape of these books and wasn’t at all fearful of them. Thankfully, my daughter feels the same way, and thankfully, when she did get to the car on her own, she turned to me with pride and relief and said, “can you go back to being here now?”

Far too many to list, but here is a selected list:

For early to middle graders (K-4):

The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

Grades 3-6:

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

And for ages 8 to 80…(we all might as well get a skill set, just in case):

The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn Igguidan and Hal Igguidan

The Daring Book for Girls by Andrea Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz