Thursday, September 19, 2013

We all love Lucy: why my husband and I are thrilled about our daughter's TV watching

This summer, while education experts were going on morning talk shows to bemoan "summer learning loss" and to suggest preventive strategies, my eight-year-old daughter was watching I Love Lucy. She was watching lots of it, in fact: the entire first five seasons, or 154 episodes. Many episodes she watched twice; a special few she watched five or even ten times each. Obviously, my husband and I allowed this Lucy Fest. We allowed it not because we are lazy, but because we are unschooling parents who believe that learning is everywhere, and that having a personal interest in a subject, and parents who support that interest, is the best way to ensure that learning will take place.

Neither my husband nor I can remember exactly why it occurred to us that Hadley might like I Love Lucy, but I think we'd noticed how much she enjoyed other examples of physical comedy, as well as movies set during earlier periods, and how many questions she had asked about the collectible I Love Lucy Barbie dolls in her cherished Barbie collector's guide. Regardless, sometime in early May, I ordered the first season on DVD from Amazon, opened the box in front of Hadley when it arrived, and asked if she'd like to watch a bit of it with me. She was instantly hooked.

Subject classifications, while unavoidable in schools, can actually hinder natural learning; thus I am reluctant to cram everything my daughter gained from I Love Lucy into neat boxes that would satisfy some curriculum committee. Yet a little borrowing from the language of schools might be useful to those who find unschooling a questionable educational approach, or to those who are attracted to unschooling ideals but can't help worrying, "But what about the math? What about geography?"

So here, in very broad subject terms, are some of the topics Hadley learned about this summer via her favorite red-haired comedienne:

  • The United States' "Good Neighbor" policy toward Latin America
  • The coup that brought Batista to power in Cuba and the resulting immigration of Desi Arnaz's family
  • Castro's Cuban Revolution and the exodus of Cubans to the United States
  • The gay nineties
  • The flapper of the 1920s
  • Discrimination against African Americans and their virtual absence from 1950s television comedy
  • How constitutional monarchies work
  • Changing of the guard at Buckingham palace
  • Reign of the current Queen Elizabeth (Elizabeth II)
  • Edward VIII/Wallis Simpson abdication crisis
Sociology and Psychology
  • Why people get divorces
  • The differences between public personas and private lives
  • How changing domestic technologies in the 1950s affected gender roles and women's lives
  • Mid-century social games: bridge, canasta, mahjong
  • Mid-century gender roles and stereotypes (e.g., women are irresponsible with money, men aren't good at taking care of children)
  • Public perception of and discrimination against multi-cultural families
  • Why there were only 48 states in the early 1950s
  • Methods of patrolling international borders
  • What a passport is and how to obtain one
  • Public transportation vs. car ownership in New York City and other major metropolitan areas
  • The Alps and avalanches
Cooking and Cuisine
  • Traditional Italian winemaking
  • Traditional Cuban foods
  • Breadmaking
  • Etiquette surrounding escargot
Art, Drama, and Design
  • Use of facial expressions, stunts, and special effects to make physical comedy
  • Mid-century clothing, including garments rarely worn today in the United States (e.g., girdles, slips, smoking jackets)
  • Costuming and how often particular items are repeated during a season
  • Makeup techniques
  • Set design, including architecture, props, set changes between episodes and seasons
  • Popular furniture styles of the 1950s (mid-century modern, early American, modern Chinese)
  • Vaudeville performers
  • Advantages and disadvantages of filming before a live studio audience
  • Sponsors, advertising, and product placement
  • Child actors and child labor laws
  • Aesthetic differences between black-and-white and color film and implications for set design
  • Old Hollywood (actors/actresses and significant Hollywood locations)
  • References to I Love Lucy in the contemporary movie Rat Race and people who act professionally as Lucy impersonators
Literature and Language Arts
  • How puns work
  • Figures of speech
  • Plot devices and narrative patterns
  • Narrative differences and similarities between radio shows and early television sitcoms
Economics and Math
  • How checking accounts work and what it means to bounce a check
  • How store credit works and why it's rarely used in the U.S. today
  • Meaning of the adage about not mixing business with friendship
  • How the value of collectible items is determined
  • Rights and responsibilities of landlords
  • Home-based businesses and the importance of correctly figuring one's profit
  • Currency exchange rates
  • Counterfeit money
  • Inflation
  • Minimum wage
  • Exporting of American jobs in second half of twentieth century
  • Operetta as a genre and how it differs from opera
  • Traditional Latin music and Latin jazz
  • What bandleaders and conductors do
  • Square dancing and rockabilly music
  • References to I Love Lucy in popular music (Jimmy Buffet's "Pencil Thin Mustache" and Weird Al Yankovic's parody song "Oh Ricky")
Health and Biology
  • Health effects and changing public perception of cigarette smoking
  • Physical and behavioral effects of alcohol consumption
  • Changing medical advice and social norms surrounding childbirth (e.g., mid-century bottle feeding, homemade baby formula, Dr. Spock)
  • Biological causes and emotional effects of miscarriage

While television watching is often characterized as "passive" and a withdrawal from "real life"--especially when children are the watchers--Hadley's I Love Lucy-thon was neither. Would a passive viewer bother to pause a program two or three or five times an hour to ask her dad to explain some word or name or concept, or wait excitedly while her mom searched the internet for more information? Would a passive viewer replay a scene over and over until she was certain she got the joke? We had some deep hour-long conversations, just before going to sleep or in the car, after new ideas from I Love Lucy had percolated and given rise to new understandings or questions. And how lovely it was for my husband and me to snuggle with our sweet daughter on the couch and watch her face as she smiled and thought deeply and laughed! Those times will provide special memories when all of us are older, and when opportunities to gather on the family couch aren't so plentiful. Sometimes our family will be out and about and Hadley will say, "Do you know what that reminds me of?" and we all share a good laugh because we know exactly which Lucy episode she has in mind.

Critics of unschooling like to speak of the importance of "well-roundedness"--a characteristic they can't imagine an unschooled child possessing--and thus I find it satisfying to share that while watching 154 episodes of I Love Lucy this summer, Hadley still found time to attend weekly gymnastics and karate practice, enjoy the county fair, swim in our community pool, play with the neighbor kids, attend a few birthday parties, complete two challenging sewing projects, build with Legos, help in the garden, attend a week-long art day camp, hunt for fossils, tour a lighthouse, play on numerous playgrounds, compare and calculate prices of things she wanted to buy with her allowance, and visit a history museum. That certainly seems well-rounded to me.

The next time you hear parents worrying (or boasting!) about limiting their children's "screen time," or when you encounter experts bent on convincing you of television's inevitable addictive lure, I hope you will consider my family's Lucy experience. With a positive attitude and parental involvement, television can be just another great resource for learning, and a conduit for family closeness and joy.

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