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Filed Under , on January 19th, 2019

Toxic Bambi

By Seth Kabala

Yesterday while I was writing, Ella, our seven-year-old, came up to me and said she had thought of a joke. “My first joke,” she announced, pride streaming from her voice and face. I asked her what it was. Here’s what she said, “What does [we'll say Bob] want to do for school? Me U. Get it? Me U instead of Wii U?” She thundered laughter at her cleverness.

Being the supportive Dad that I am, I said I was impressed with her creativity to think of a joke. Being also a fastidious writing and comedic critic, I also said, “But I think it’s missing something.” Looking apprehensive, she asked what. I explained there are three basic forms to a joke: 1. inherently clever/shocking. 2. Left turn. 3. Metaphor/simile. Her joke, I explained, fell into the first category in that it was inherently clever to think of a different, rhyming name for the Wii U gaming system.

However, it lacked a connection to the beginning, I said. Why was Bob playing video games for school? Why did he create a rival gaming system, setting up a certain intellectual property legal battle with Nintendo? (I didn’t ask that last question, but it passed through my mind. Maybe when she’s eight.)

I suggested she change the setup to draw a direct connection between the punchline–Me U–with something about the character. We ended up with this:

[Bob] is pretty selfish. What do you think he wants to do for school? Me U.

This, I explained, made it clear why Bob was calling his game system Me U. It also explained why he was willing to substitute traditional schooling for video games: because he was a selfish turd who wanted things named after him, including a video game system. With the addition of four words, I explained, the joke was now internally consistent and inherently clever.

I assured Ella that my suggestions did not alter the ownership of the joke. It was still her joke, her concept. I simply “punched it up,” which I explained. How much of my technical joke writing lesson did she retain? About as much as Bambi understood the dangers of paying attention to Faline without asking for affirmative consent. Surefire cautionary tale for toxic hoofed animal masculinity.

In truth, Ella is smart enough to understand the concept of tying the setup to the punchline, but I’m not sure how much of that she’ll retain or if she understood that the humor comes in recognizing the inherent cleverness: selfish guy = plays video games for school + names video game system after himself + willing to fight a high-powered legal battle with Nintendo over intellectual property rights. On an intuitive level, she gets it. Children display emotion on their faces as clearly as the jumbo screens in Times Square tell you there are more musicals playing than you can ever afford. When they shift from information processing to comprehension–you know, and I knew.

Maybe I should have said, “Yup, nice joke. Good work” and gone back to my projects. I do that often. Perhaps too often. The teachable moment as a concept has gotten a lot of flack. Life can’t possibly come down to a handful of moments where if you miss them, the trajectory of your life will inevitably head off a cliff. Can it?

I’m not so cavalier as to suggest that if you miss a teachable moment opportunity, you won’t get another. But I will say this: they are easy to miss, and even if you do recognize them, they are easy to ignore. Sure, hand out platitudes. Give false praise. Build up your child’s self-esteem with zero evidence to back this up. (You think 2 + 2 = green, but, sure, you can be an astronaut!) You would be neglectful if you did otherwise, at least most of the time.

However, you should pull your punches on some of that false praise. Recognize effort, buttress that with a discussion of technical skills that can be improved, and provide a means for improvement. This means you must think through how your little one might go about improving these things that you’ve pointed out. Don’t ever criticize without having the words to explain a path to improvement.

That is toxic.

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Seth Kabala

About: Seth Kabala
Seth is an entrepreneur, writer, and musician. He lives with his wife and three children in Portland, OR.

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