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Sometimes Things Are Just Terrible, Horrible, No Good, and Very Bad

Every year for Christmas, my girls get “experience” gifts from their grandparents: tickets to a few shows each year, accompanied by the family, of course. These shows are always children’s shows, and usually a musical written out of an existing book, such as Fancy Nancy or Martha Speaks or something like that. We absolutely love going to the shows, and the girls think that seeing the book come to life is incredibly cool.

This weekend, we had tickets to go see “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”. It’s been a favorite at our house, because it’s so darn relatable: Alexander starts off his day by waking up with gum in his hair and then accidentally stepping on a skateboard, and the day goes downhill from there. You can practically see the black cloud hanging over Alexander as the day goes on, and his mood gets fouler and fouler. As little pebbles are thrown at Alexander – no dessert in lunch, a teacher who doesn’t like his drawing of an invisible castle – those pebbles become an avalanche until all he can do is go to bed and hope that the next day will be better.

We like this book because it shows that some days just, well, stink. Sometimes nothing seems to go right, to the point that you think you’ll move to Australia to get away from it, and nobody notices how bad you feel or even tries to make it better. Alexander doesn’t seem whiney, just miserable, and everyone in my house can relate to a day that’s bad from start to finish. At the end of the day the mom doesn’t come in with a milkshake, the mean brothers don’t treat Alexander kindly, and the universe doesn’t apologize for throwing him a rough day.

At least, it doesn’t in the book. The show we saw, however, was another story.

Alexander had a rough day, all right, though the actor playing him smiled the whole way through it. Perhaps he didn’t want to make the kids feel too bad for him? That I could live with, but then came the ending: Alexander’s in his least-favorite pajamas, feeling miserable in his bed, and suddenly everyone in the family comes in to sing to him and let him know they all love him and it’s going to be ok. Alexander’s room gets a makeover, his brothers are sweet to him, and the whole family wears matching horrible pajamas in solidarity with Alexander. The music swells and they all end in a happy, smiling picture.

As we left the theatre, I was trying to figure out why I was so disturbed by this ending, and we began talking about the show on the car ride home. Both girls said – with no prodding from me or Brian – that it wasn’t the best show they’d seen, and the music seemed to be thrown in there and was “too happy” , not really going with the book at all. And they both thought the ending felt funny. A little later Maddie said it felt “a little bit like a lie”.

And that’s it right there- the ending was a lie. Because sometimes, days DO stink.

I think my generation of parents are so intent on raising kids in a happy childhood – we are more intentional about our parenting and choices than any other generation, I believe, partly because we have the options and money to be so – that we create this false world. There was face painting before the show and my dad commented on how face painting seems to have sprung up in the past few years and is light years away from where it was when I was a kid. And he’s absolutely right: I can remember perhaps two times in my childhood when I got my face painted, and both were HUGE times. The girls, on the other hand, probably get faces painted a half dozen times a year.

I’m not knocking face painting; I love it. But its ubiquitousness is a sign of the fairy-tale world we are building for our kids sometimes. Nothing’s too good for them, and we tell kids that “everyone is a princess” or “every kid is a superhero” and “each day will be AMAZING!” Because that’s what we want for our kids.

So when a book like “Alexander” is put on the stage, apparently the powers that be think our kids are too fragile to handle the reality of a world in which whole days STINK and no one apologizes or buys you a pony to make up for it. And perhaps those people think this because it’s what we’ve told them: clean up the story, don’t make it too scary, keep it happy and fun and light and peppy.

Don’t make it a downer or we won’t buy the merchandise.

But how does this help our kids? A friend of mine is an author who writes young adult fiction, and I remember him being asked once in an interview who his favorite writers were when he was growing up. “Well, too many to mention, of course,” he said, “But I specifically remember reading Road Dahl and feeling like a world had opened up to me. Up until then, all the books were about rainbows and unicorns and happy endings, and Road Dahl was the first author I ever read who admitted that sometimes, adults are just mean. And sometimes, life just stinks and isn’t fair. And it felt like something in me had been acknowledged, and validated, like I wasn’t crazy after all. The world isn’t perfect, no matter what all the parents tried to tell me.”

I’m not saying I want my kids to read Anne Frank any time soon. But the Holocaust has come up recently, and we’ve sketched in the truth about it. We’ve discussed 9/11 with the girls, and try to be truthful about hard subjects while still keeping it age-appropriate and maintaining their innocence as long as possible. I don’t want to burden my daughters with details about child molesters, but I have to say SOMETHING so they know about Stranger Danger.

And if I pretend every day is good and every night ends perfectly, how do they feel when that doesn’t happen? Do they feel like they have to pretend, or hide their feelings away? Or God forbid, even lie about it to me?

This is a whole big burden to place on a little children’s show, I know. But it got me thinking. We owe it to our kids to provide them with a great childhood. To allow them to have great memories and experience wonderful things. To teach them to see the beauty in the Everyday World, but also feel compassion for people who have less than they do. To see the reality of a broken and flawed world, while still seeing potential in people and having hope in seemingly hopeless situations.

But my kids also need to have it acknowledged: sometimes a day is just Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

And that’s ok.


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