Rocky1Liberators, meet Rocky. Rocky is a year and a half old orange tabby who loves bacon, tuna, tummy rubs, and “playing” with squirrels. He also thinks he’s right all the time, insists that everyone should fend for themselves, and talks back to me and Miles constantly.

If we’re being totally honest, he’s kind of a shithead.

I realize that sounds ridiculous, so let me give you a little background.

Back when Miles (my husband) was growing up, his dad regularly put on these ridiculous puppet shows starring a olive-green frog and a love-worn river otter. They came to be known as “The Toadborg and Otter Show,” and usually comprised of the two puppets playing leapfrog until they started wrestling, and eventually it would devolve into threats of, “It’s time to play French Chef!” or “Let’s play Fur Coat!” Toadborg and Otter delighted Miles like no other game from his childhood. (This was probably the only “violent” game my father-in-law ever encouraged. He was known to interrupt Super Mario to ask why Mario couldn’t just talk things out with the Goombas, and to walk out of movies with gratuitous violence.)

So when my in-laws presented Bean with her very own puppet, I knew that Miles would be following in his father’s footsteps by bringing that innocent little kitten to life with a belligerent, selfish, and all-around obnoxious personality.  I didn’t love this at first (even though it was definitely hilarious). I was kinda’ worried that if Bean watched Miles play this part, her train of thought would go like this: Rocky is a rude jerk who ignores other people’s feelings. Daddy is playing the part of Rocky. Daddy must think this is a fun way to behave. Therefore, I am going to behave like this!

But I really didn’t need to worry. In fact, playing Rocky has turned out to be one of the best ways to teach Bean our moral and political values.

I think one of the most challenging things about teaching young children about our values is that it can feel so heavy-handed or didactic, especially when our viewpoints are far outside the mainstream. My family’s radical leftist morality and politics aren’t represented fairly in the media, and they contradict a lot of the messages that are presented as normal. So even the most every-day events often raise a lot of questions for Bean. It’s important to me that I tell her the truth about my politics and worldview — but I’ll also admit that it feels a lot like telling her what to think, rather than how to think.

But then came Rocky, with his selfishness and refusal to consider other viewpoints. Watching the way Bean responded to his antics made me realize something: she doesn’t play with Rocky the same way she plays with her other stuffed animals.

Bean argues with Rocky.

Now, I don’t know what it is exactly about small children and puppets, but Bean really does interact with Rocky like he is his own person. Even when she controls Rocky herself, she mimics his voice and attitude. Bean and Rocky’s dynamic hasn’t changed in the year and a half that we’ve owned him: he says something with that snarky tone, and she says “ROCKY!!! That’s not right!”

So we capitalized on it.

We decided that Rocky wouldn’t just be rude — he’d represent our ideological opposite. He’s our Devil’s Avo-cat (eh? eh?). Instead of just complaining about wanting more bacon to eat, Rocky’s started sharing some opinions that really need to be argued with, like….

  • “I am helping! I’m helping myself.”
  • “I always solve my problems with biting and scratching.”
  • “Why are you going to Feed the Community? People should buy their own food.”
  • “Ugh, don’t talk to me, puny human.”
  • “WHAAAAAAAAAAT??? Big Bear gets a treat and I don’t?”

And Bean doesn’t put up with that! When Rocky says he solves his problems with hurting, Bean firmly tells him to stop it and use his words. When he asks why we’d go to Feed the Community, she explains that it’s important that everyone have good food. When he complains about being denied something he wants, she sings a Daniel Tiger song to help him cope.

In other words, Bean is learning to apply the social-emotional skills she’s learned, describe our family’s values, and respond appropriately when someone disagrees with her. Best of all, she’s deepening her own understanding of our values by talking through them. She is, essentially, learning by doing. A process that used to feel heavy-handed now feels natural and fun again.

All thanks to a fluffy little puppet — and my clever husband, of course!

Hey liberators! If you can believe it, the first day of school is this Thursday (Aug. 3)! I’ll be taking a break from LL that week, and probably figuring out a new publishing schedule that works better with my work schedule. So I’ll see you again in a couple weeks. Send good vibes — this is an exciting time for me!


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