On Thursday, March 20, MMM turns 4! To celebrate the blogiversary we’ll be hosting Four Days of Fab Giveaways, kicking off today. Up for grabs will be products (from people) I came to know through blogging these last four years; ergo, some good stuff, yo! Stay tuned to the blog and MMM’s Facebook page for updates, announcements and info. You don’t want to miss this. Trust.
I met Kristin Wald almost immediately after the launching the Ms. Mary Mack blog in 2010, and she’s been squarely in my corner ever since. She’s a mother of two, a (now not-so-new) Brooklyn transplant in Montclair, NJ, and a woman unafraid to stand up and raise her voice about the important and sometimes controversial things.
K-Dubs, as I often call her, is smart, compassionate and genuinely kind. I’m glad I know her (and actually got to meet her in “real life” at BlogHer ’12!). She’s also one of those people always willing to help connect you with other good eggs in this world.
Exhibit A: Dave Palmer. He’s a multiple Emmy nominated director, animator, writer and illustrator, best known for his work as Director of the breakthrough preschool series Blue’s Clues, and the hit animated children’s series The Backyardigans.
K-dubs knew I wanted to bring back The Confab feature on MMM , and she also knew Dave, so doing what she does best, Kristin made the email intro and here we are, interviewing the man about being the Supervising Producer of Nick Jr.’s new show Wallykazam!, which premiered in February to the highest ratings of any preschool show on Nick Jr. in almost a decade. (It’s currently number one rated preschool show on Nickelodeon.)
So thanks, K-dubs! And welcome back to The Confab, friends. Time to chop it up with the talented Mr. Palmer.
Q: You’re a director, an animator, a writer, an illustrator — plus, Emmy-nominated many times over. How did you even get started in this line of business? Is it something you’ve wanted to do since childhood, coming up watching cartoons on Saturday mornings?
Dave Palmer: Well, everything in my bio — spanning almost 20 years in the animation industry (egads!) — really stemmed from not being able to get a job in animation after I graduated from Ithaca College in 1991. I moved to New York in 1994 to attend NYU’s Graduate program in Film Animation, with the specific goal of making contacts in the industry. And thankfully, that’s what I did almost right away, which led to some brief freelance work on commercials before I stumbled on the opportunity to work on the Blue’s Clues pilot in the summer of 1995.
As to what led me to pursue a career in animation — like most kids, I watched a lot of cartoons on Saturday morning, and at any and all other times that I could. My favorites were the classic Warner Brothers’ Bugs Bunny shorts, as well as the Pink Panther, Jonny Quest, the Charlie Brown specials, and others. And of course, I loved Disney films. My parents would take my brother and me to see movies at the local drive-in, where we’d see Disney double features — Herbie The Love Bug or Escape to Witch Mountain, paired with an animated film like Robin Hood or The Aristocats, which I adored then, and still do.
I was always interested in drawing as a child, and had some facility in that area at an early age — I remember moving to a new school in the 2nd grade, and having kids rave over something I was drawing, which was a great ice breaker for a shy kid, as I was. So I kept drawing, and took classes where I could, and had some aspirations of being a classically trained artist when I got older, but I don’t think I ever associated drawing with the cartoons and films that I loved until I was about 11 years old, when I saw Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings at the local second-run movie theater. It blew my mind. It was so different from the polished, kid-friendly, funny Disney films that I loved — so raw and violent and rough around the edges. The mixture of paintings and rotoscoping and hand-drawn animation, for me, really revealed that you could turn art into film. And that’s what started me thinking about animation.
Living in the suburbs of upstate New York, however, I didn’t have any clue about how to break into the industry. For me, saying I wanted to make movies was like saying I wanted to be an astronaut — I just saw no path that would lead me to my goal. Years later, as I was applying to colleges, my Mom pointed me toward Ithaca College, which has a wonderful film program, because she heard that they had (and still have) a robust internship program in LA. So that’s where I started my journey, although I didn’t take that LA internship back in 1990 — it took me another 23 years to get here!
Q: How did the new show Wallykazam! come about? Is it a long process to go from show idea to the actual program airing on network TV?
DP: Wallykazam! was created by Adam Peltzman, who is an extremely talented writer. He and I met on Blue’s Clues, and worked on The Backyardigans together as well, and we had spoken over the years about working on something together. Around the time The Backyardigans was wrapping up, Adam sold the Wallykazam! pitch to Nick Jr., and got the opportunity to make a five-minute short, so he asked me to direct it.
Nick Jr.’s plan at the time was to produce shorts for a few select pitches, air them all, and then decide which would be further developed for series. We did the short in New York in 2010, and that’s where Adam started to develop the voice of the show, and we really developed the look and animation style of the short. We played with some pure 2D styles, but the animation studio we were working with suggested working in more of a 3D space. We then started to experiment with CG characters in a world that was made up of flat cards, arranged with depth — like a kid’s shoebox diorama — with a shallow depth of field so only the area right around the characters would be in focus.
Those ideas evolved throughout production, and we eventually settled on a mixture of 3D characters and 2D elements. We finished the short that summer and waited until the end of the year before we heard that the shorts wouldn’t actually go on the air. That was the bad news. The good news was that Nick Jr. really liked the short, and wanted us to produce a longer pilot. So in 2011 we went into production on a 16-minute episode, which was produced at the Nickelodeon animation studio in LA.
The pilot, which I directed, took a few months to produce. We were already getting the feeling that Nick Jr. liked the show even before we finished the pilot, which was nice, but it still took another few months to get a series pick up and it was probably a year later we were fully in production.
Long story, short: yes, it was a long process. But our story isn’t the longest or most difficult development story I know, so I consider us lucky to go from first short to series premiere in about 3-4 years!
Q: How incredible is it to have a firm hand in creating a world in which kids immerse themselves and fully believe? Would you say that’s one of the best parts of your job?
DP: Creating a world and characters that our viewers can immerse themselves in is definitely something we work really hard at on Wallykazam!, and it’s something that’s very important to me personally. The greatest strength of TV as a medium is that you can spend so much time with the characters (and in the worlds) you create and really develop them deeply over many seasons.
For a Preschool show like ours, we don’t really get to do long character arcs like you can for older demos, where the characters age and change over time, but you can (and should, I think), still develop well-rounded characters by reinforcing their personalities and revealing additional layers over time.
The goal for me from the beginning of my career has been to create characters that kids identify with, and fall in love with, and become completely invested in, the way I was invested in Bugs Bunny and Charlie Brown in my day. I heard something while working on Blue’s Clues that’s stuck with me: the acme of character-based comedy is when your audience knows the character so well that they laugh before they even see the punchline. The idea that the mere set-up would cause the audience to imagine what the character would do and start to laugh, and that we could create such strong characters, really resonated with me.
Q: What makes Wallykazam! different from some of the other quality kids’ shows on air now?
DP: That authentic, living-world feel we’re going for is one thing that sets Wallykazam! apart, for sure. The delicate balance between character and curriculum is pretty rare, and to be honest, not appropriate for every preschool show, but it’s right where we want to be. Something else that’s pure Wallykazam! is its sweet, funny and weird tone. We go to some odd places in our show, and create some strange and silly situations, and I love that we get to play in a world where those things feel like they truly fit.
Internally, we’ve often referred to Wally’s world as Middle Earth for Preschoolers — a place where there is something amazing to discover in every dark forest, or over every mountain peak. The world should feel vast but safe, unexplored but oddly familiar, and every episode should ideally feel like we’re getting a glimpse of one piece of a much longer narrative about Wally and his friends. And in that world there is this amazing artifact that can create words, and those words have weight and heft and power in that world.
Q: Do your three kids think that you are the coolest dad in the world? I know your children are young, but do you see the “animation bug” in any of them yet?
DP: Our twins don’t get it yet — they just turned 3 — but my oldest is 6, and he understands that I work on Wallykazam!, although I don’t think he understands exactly what I do every day. He actually draws beautifully, though, and has a terrific eye for color and spatial relationships. (I must sound like every proud parent whose child brings home drawings, but I love his them so much. We have his drawings up on the walls all over the house, and I hung some in my office at the studio, too.) He seems to have some interest, but the other day he asked me if someone could have two jobs when they got older. I said, “Well, some people do. Why?”, and he said, “Because I want to be a soccer player and an animator when I grow up.”
Q: What do you hope kids — and by extension their parents — come away with after experiencing Wallykazam’s world?
DP: First, I hope kids laugh. I hope they laugh their tiny socks right off! And their parents, too. I’d also like them to really connect with Wally and Norville, and truly think of them as friends. And if those two things happen, I know kids will come back to our show again and again, and they’ll learn about a lot of specific phonemes, but if they take away any one thing from Wallykazam!, I hope they’ll adopt Wally’s love of words and language.
Q: This last question may be a little prickly, but do you think that kids today are spending too much time in front of screens (TV and iPads, etc.)? Is there a “too much” when it comes to animation and TV shows for our kids?
DP: Absolutely, yes. That goes for everyone, not just children. We’re becoming very screen-centric as a culture, with communication and entertainment and information at our fingertips 24 hours a day. I personally find it really hard not just to avoid looking at my phone for an extended period of time, but I do try. And my wife and I are diligent about limiting our kids screen time.
The bottom line is that I love making TV shows for kids, and someday I hope to make movies for them, and after that TV shows and movies for older kids and adults, as well. I love the visual storytelling of TV and film, both as a creator and a consumer, but I know that the things I create and consume should be enjoyed in moderation. I’m sure the same could be said of folks in other fields. The great pastry chefs of the world would love as many people as possible to enjoy their work, but I don’t think any of them would suggest that their desserts should be eaten at every meal, day after day.
I understand how alluring what we create is for kids, and I hope that the children who enjoy our show are balancing their time with us with plenty of outdoor play, imaginative play, building toys, and drawing, and reading books, and playing games with their family and friends.
It means so much to us that folks are watching, and we know that those few hours a week that our viewers spend with us are precious, so we really work hard to provide a show that is as funny, warm, engaging, and smart as possible, to really justify that investment of time.
Release the doves and rainbows, people — it’s Giveaway Time! So, for Day 1 of Four Days of Giveaways, the prize will be a 30-day supply of Honest Kids juice pouches.
Honest Tea is another fantastic company that I have been so fortunate to meet (in person too!) in my four years of blogging. Shout-out to Jordan over at HT for always being so generous with his time and help! Looking forward to keep the fun rolling with these folks.
To be entered to win, just leave comment below about your animated show faves — could be something your kids enjoy now or a cartoon from the way, way back that you could not miss on Saturday mornings. The randomly-selected winner will be announced Thursday, March 20. Good luck!
Jennifer Gilbert was just 22 years old when she was followed off the subway in New York City and viciously attacked. She was stabbed 37 times with a screwdriver by a stranger. That was 21 years ago, but she can still tell you exactly what she was wearing on the horrible day. “Black flats, a tan linen wraparound skirt from Ann Taylor, and a black T-shirt.”
For decades, Gilbert tried to piece herself back together, suffering in silence (she never told anyone about the attack). But it was her two-year-old son’s own health struggle that opened the floodgates on her trauma.
We spoke with the mother of three about that day in May 21 years ago and her new memoir about finding her way back to life, I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag.
Q: You’ve probably been asked this 100 times, but what made you decide to write the book now — over 20 years after the attack?
Jennifer Gilbert: I never wanted “victim” and my name to appear in the same sentence or to capitalize on the attack to draw attention to me or my business. So I never said a word to anyone, and kept building my business, Save the Date®. But when my son Grey developed alopecia (total hair loss) at two years old, I started writing my thoughts down. I was feeling so angry, vulnerable and out of control. The last time I felt like this was 20 years prior when my attack happened. I started journaling to sort my feelings out because from experience I know people don’t know how to deal with someone else’s sorrow, they tend to “at least” it away.
Once I started writing and remembering and understanding what my lessons had been and how my life had been built on those years of heart ache and overcoming them, I realized that I’d been treating his trauma the same way my parents had treated mine — with denial and silence that led me to years of shame and feeling unworthy. That was the light bulb; if I don’t do this, I’ve learned nothing.
That was the turning point for me in writing the book. Rather than ignore the elephant in the room, I decided it was time to open up the shutters and let the light in. I thought OK, I’m ready to share now, in fact, have to share what I have learned … in hopes it inspires people to share their feelings and to help others with their grieving.
Q: How difficult was it for you to go back to that horrible time and relive it all for this book?
JG: The hardest job I’ve ever had in my life was writing this memoir. I wrote draft after draft as one big long run-on sentence, a stream of consciousness, just to get those feelings and memories out of my head. There was so much I forgot. I had to interview my own family to jog my memory and to remember times that I simply blocked out. But, like removing your finger to block the hole in the dam, they [memories] would explode and all rush out.
There are parts in my book that are so “in that moment” for me, that I can’t reread them, even now. I start to cry. This book is really not meant to be about my story, it was just the starting point, but reliving my time-line and exposing myself was probably the final piece in healing me.
Q: What message do you hope parents come away with after reading your story?
JG: Our children’s only point of reality is ours, and if we make it OK for them, well, then it’s OK. Something has happened to everyone in our own unique way, whether it’s illness, divorce, losing a loved one, unemployment, or just feeling unworthy in our own bodies — we all carry something around. Our painful memories are the “stories” we have told ourselves for years, and we repeat every day from habit, but if we step out of that same groove and choose a different path, we can change everything.
We have a choice in life. We can choose to do it better, or differently than it was done to us. That while we cannot control WHAT happens to us or to our kids in life, we can control and decide who we want to be afterwards. This is very simple to say but the hardest paradigm to shift. That letting go, of the anger, the sadness, the resentments or expectations and just deciding to be different is really very simple when I understood that I was standing in my own way … and that was slowing shaping the way I was reacting to my kids.
Q: Do you think the attack — and, moreover, the 21 years of silence afterwards — shaped who you are as a woman, as a mother?
JG: The label of “victim” — someone to whom bad things happen — penetrates every facet of who you are. To this day the very thought of being pitied makes my stomach turn in revulsion. More than anything, my desire to rise above the label of “victim” is what propelled me forward past those scary dark days. So instead of looking at that gloomy horizon, I decided to stop looking back.
As shattered as I was on the inside, I polished up my outside and decided to start Save the Date®. My mission became to surround myself with other peoples joy and happiness. I started to shed some pain, and feel less broken inside. I began to start to hope again. And each new lesson of forgiveness or acceptance forged me forward to the life I wanted.
It took decades for me to realize the power comes from the surrender. It wasn’t until I LET GO of the illusion of control that I found my real power to heal and move on. I am better woman, mother, and person because I understand this now.
Q: You write about your fertility issues and also about suffering a devastating loss when you were six months pregnant. Was there a lesson in that harrowing experience?
JG: I still mourn the loss of that baby. If there is a lesson in it, it’s that at the end of the day you have no control over what happens. I spent YEARS trying to control every event after my attack, every detail for a party, every morsel of food I ate, so I could force everything to be OK in the hopes that nothing bad would ever happen to me again. But of course, that’s not the way life goes.
Everything in my life has taught me this; instead of worrying about my life and what it has in store for me, or worrying about my children’s future, all I can really do is throw my hands in the air and enjoy the ride.
We have this one life, we better make it count.
We’re giving away a copy of Jennifer Gilbert’s book! A little something for your “goodie bag.” Just leave a comment below on the interview, the power of hope or anything that’s on your mind, and you’ll be in the running to win.
In part one of The Confab, we talked with child psychologist Dr. Beth Grosshans about the imbalance of family power and the unruly kids and unhappy families that result from it. Grosshans (with my mother-in-law, Jan!) wrote the book Beyond Time-Out: From Chaos to Calm, which offers parents an action plan to take back the power and get their house back in order.
Today, in part two, Grosshans gets into that action plan for parents, called The Ladder to Effectiveness. It’s basically the five steps “in the discipline sequence.” And each step on the ladder represents the level of parental response to a child’s lack of cooperation, Grosshans says.
Although it may sound easy — oh, just five steps? – it’s not. Like most things around raising children, it’s nuanced and totally dependent on who you are and the choices you make as parents. There’s never a blanket solution. As Grosshans rightly says, “There are no short answers or quick fixes when it comes to parent-child relationships. This is complex and ever challenging business.”
Q: How important is tone when climbing “The Ladder”?
Beth Grosshans: Maintaining a tone free from irritability and anger is critical when implementing the Ladder. Children become more agitated and out of control if you treat them harshly and disrespectfully. If you are tentative and have little confidence in your authority, your child will know it in a minute and will quickly take the power you cede.
You want to create an environment where cooperation is most likely to thrive. Your children will want to please you the most when they respect and admire you. If you are competent and strong and also loving and respectful, then your child’s motivation to cooperate and work with you will be at it’s highest.
Many parents, because they do not move quickly enough into action, become fed up with repeating themselves over and over and not getting cooperation. This leads to parent’s using time-out as a threat. Through clenched teeth they say: “If you don’t stop it and start listening right now, you are going to get a time-out.” Or they may wait until they blow up, and then yell, “That’s it! You have pushed me too far. Now, you have to have a time-out!” This is not the emotional stance you want when redirecting and correcting your young children.
Q: In the book you often talk about being “matter-of-fact” even in the face of a child trying to push your buttons and their limits. How do we keep our tone in check when frustration levels start to rise yet let them know that we (the parent) mean business?
BG: Communicating in a serious, respectful, matter-of-fact tone is best. You want to convey clearly and in a good–natured way that you are your child’s biggest supporter, but that you are also comfortably in charge: you are the leader and he is the one who needs to follow without exception.
The Ladder will help you exercise parental control and remain calm, so that you do not need to resort to a bullying style. The steps of the Ladder always keep you in the lead, effectively responding to your child’s challenges. They leave little room for your child to doubt whether you are up to the job of parenting him. You want your child to learn to be confident of your authority, not feel threatened, shamed, or harshly criticized by it.
Q: What are some of the easiest ways to tripped up (“parent traps”) when attempting to climb The Ladder?
BG: Parents usually have more than just one or two behaviors in their repertoire that fuel opposition and defiance with their kids, and they tend to make these missteps at different times as they scramble to be effective and have an impact on their children. The message here is not that missteps cause outright damage, but that when they are relied on too heavily as a means to gain their children’s cooperation, they wind up fueling the very behavior parents are trying to stop. Here is a list of the top ten parental missteps that encourage acting out rather than extinguish it:
- Over explaining, reasoning, and negotiating.
- Apologizing too often.
- Seeking a child’s permission and approval.
- Not owning parental decisions and directions.
- Being overly focused on parent’s needs and feelings.
- Manipulating with too many bribes and threats.
- Repeating the same direction over and over.
- Blaming the child and looking to him for answers.
- A dismissive and disrespectful manner.
- Being too heavy-handed and using corporal punishment.
Following the structure and the script of the Ladder corrects all of these missteps. The Ladder is a very effective tool when the structure and script are adhered to, it is only when parents use it half way, or half-heartedly that children can find holes to slip through.
Q: What’s the most common misstep of all of these?
BG: I would say it’s over-talking. While most parenting advice is centered around trying to offer parents new ways to “say” things, I am convinced the core lessons of self control, respect and cooperation are learned through action based lessons, not through talking based ones. Never repeat yourself or provide explanations once you have started on the Ladder. With every repetition or delay, you underscore your impotence. Instead, your child should be offered one “I mean business reminder,” and that is all. This is a key sequence in the Ladder: say it once, give a reminder, and then act. One, two, ACT.
Giveaway time! Leave a comment below about the challenge of raising strong, well-adjusted kids and you could win a copy of Beyond Time-Out.
You’ve seen them. In restaurants, public parks, waiting rooms, malls, parking lots, you’ve definitely seen them. Hell, maybe they’re even yours, sitting — or rather jumping, climbing, screaming — right next to you, causing you headache, frustration and shame. Talking about them misbehavin’ babies.
Maybe you’ve watched hours of Supernanny on TV or scoured the internet for the latest parenting trend to help restore sanity in your home. (Attachment, Free-range, Helicopter, Tiger … Lordy! Sounds like an updated version of the Five Animals of Kung-fu. Wait, parenting as self-defense. Am I onto something here??)
Put all of that stuff away. There’s something, a book, that’s offering sound advice on how to get your family power dynamic in check and take you from “chaos to calm.” Enter Beyond Time-Out. Written by clinical child psychologist Beth A. Grosshans and (my mother-in-law!) Janet Burton, the book delves into what’s behind the current epidemic of unruly, unhappy kids and gives parents an effective action plan for getting the runaway train back on track.
We’re pleased to have Beth joining us in The Confab — in the first of a two-parter — about going beyond time-out.
Q: What pushed you to write this book?
Beth Grosshan: The families in need. Parents are so invested in being good parents. But the truth is, it’s not translating into to the outcomes parents are looking for. Family life is filled with headaches and difficulties; kids seem to have more and more tantrums, protests and unhappiness.
There are a lot of things that are weighing families down: they’re not finding the cooperation, the self-control and the sense of getting along that everyone is looking for. I discovered that the answer lies in power dynamics. It’s really the heart of the matter. I wrote this book because I wanted to educate parents about this whole issue of power dynamics, and help them to see that when kids have more power than parents — both behaviorally and emotionally — it doesn’t go well. The kids’ behavior deteriorates terribly and there is going to be a lot of disruption and disturbance in the parent-child relationship.
When parents have the power and are in the lead, this is the foundation for the kind of harmony that they’re looking for. Their kids can acquire self-control, respect and cooperation.
Q: How does a parent go about establishing a balance of power in the family?
BG: Parents need to understand what we mean when we talk about power. It has to do with who sets the agenda. It must be the parents. But the reality is, it’s often the children’s agenda.
Children are hardwired to test for power. They want to know what is it that gets them their way. I refer to it as a power drive, and every child is born with one. Like many things in the behavioral and the emotional realm, it occurs on a continuum. Some kids have a very strong power drive. These are the “you give them an inch and they’re going to take a yard” kind of kids. On the other end of the spectrum, you have the softer temperament kids.
From the time babies are five or six months old, developmentally they begin to have deliberate behavior. For example, rather than crying just because they have a need, babies cry because they want to achieve an affect. There are two verbalizations that children learn quickly in order to get parents to accommodate them: one is making distress noises like a weeping “eh eh eh” type of cry and the other is a protest verbalization where they sound more angry and frustrated. Those two noises are pre-verbal, and are very powerful in getting parents to respond and do something for the infant. That’s when power dynamics start to get established.
Q: How can a parent make that call — that this cry is a need versus a want?
BG: If parents start to have that active framework in their minds, it will make a really big difference in terms of how their responding to their kids. Sometimes kids can fuss and it doesn’t need immediate response. Parents tend to over-respond to children’s verbalizations of stress. They over-respond in terms of the frequency in which they are responding, and also the extent of response that they give. It gives kids the message that whenever they make a peep, their parents are going to jump.
Q: That’s an important point to make because there is so much anxiety around not wanting your child to be upset and many parents do fall into that trap of over-response. We need remind ourselves that crying is just babies doing what babies do, right?
BG: Exactly. Those are just the sounds the babies make. Granted that parents are very attuned to those sounds, and it’s very much in us to want to turn them off. Parents must have this framework of power dynamics to help the temper frequency and the intensity with which they are responding to those noises, and to understand that they’re very natural.
If kids fuss a little bit, this is hardly a problem for them. As you said, they’re doing what kids do. Parents need to be reassured that sometimes a low key response is not only fine, but it’s also the best response.
Q: What do you say to the parent who feels like the low key response is akin to not being a present parent?
BG: It’s a different framework. I know that my contribution to parenting advice goes against the grain. The current parenting culture is saturated with the notion of overdoing and over-attending. We have basically told parents that they need to be exquisitely sensitive to the needs of their infants and toddlers.
I think it all needs to be turned down significantly. We have a culture that is increasing anxiety in parents, and I’m saying we need to change the way we’re looking at it. This over-parenting style is fraught with difficulty. It is not going to lead parents down the path that they ultimately want. At some point, parents get sick of it because it’s not a path that is sustainable. Parenting becomes such a burden: the kids are not happy, the family unit is struggling, the kids become bratty, and the parents become bitter. They feel frustrated and are desperately looking for the answer to, “What do we do now?”
Imbalanced family power is not just an issue of a family living with headache; this is about a very compromised pathway for development in children. They struggle enormously with their personal selves and in their relational lives as a result of having had too much power. It’s a trajectory of all types of problems.
Q: When parents realize there’s an imbalance in the house, are there steps they can take to change the family dynamic?
BG: Absolutely. The thing that has been so gratifying and fun about working with this perspective with families through the years is watching how they transform. If parents learn how to utilize their natural power in service of their children’s well-being, things change and they change fast. This not a long drawn-out process, within a week you will see improvements. In two weeks you will see a lot of improvements and within a month things will be transformed.