Friday, June 23, 2006

Thomas the Propaganda Engine

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a series created by a man who uses "Rev." as a first name serves as a relentless inculcator of the Protestant work ethic. Bub has just discovered Thomas the Tank Engine, that adorable little blue train whose deepest desire is to be Really Useful. We bought the Track Stars DVD a few months ago, but Bub didn’t express any interest in it until this week, when he handed it to me ("There you go!") and settled in comfortably on my lap to watch Thomas deliver Farmer McColl’s eggs safely to the station, the corners of his little engine-mouth pointing downwards the whole way because the slow pace prevents him from working the hardest, making the most journeys, and becoming the most useful of all the Really Useful Engines. The story has a happy ending, though – even though Thomas’s overweening ambition results in a few broken eggs, he receives a figurative pat on the head from the Benevolent Dictator, Sir Topham Hatt (also known – I kid you not – as "the Fat Controller"), who gets to enjoy some scrambled eggs for his breakfast. Lesson learned: it is better to be plodding and useful within the sphere in which God has placed you than to seek success through vain ambition and self-conceit. Another lesson: the most important determinants of value are usefulness and hard work. (The DVD ends with an ad for Thomas’s new full-length special: The engines are quarrelling! Work is not getting done! What will happen to the Island of Sodor?)

For Bub, though, these messages, for now, are lost in the more fundamental excitement of narrative. We have been working with him lately using flash cards to help him recognize and label his emotions: Dad’s car pulls out of the driveway and I jump to shove a crying-face flashcard in his face: "Sad! It’s sad when Daddy goes to school!" This quite naturally enrages him, but it also works – he shoves the card away, but then sneaks a peek at it from the corner of his eye, his sobs ceasing abruptly as he whispers, "Sad." One reason Bub is interested in Thomas is the clarity of the emotions carved into the trains’ faces. (Hence Thomas’s official status as SpokesTrain for Autism Awareness Month: apparently autistic boys are fascinated by Thomas, to the point that there is a book on the use of Thomas the Tank Engine in autism therapy.) In Bub’s eyes, Thomas’s story is reduced down to the bare bones, which he encapsulates in his excited commentary: "Thomas sad!…Thomas sad!" If I wander off to the kitchen, he will come running in with this report, and then return to watch with an eagle eye until, finally, triumphantly, he can announce, "Thomas happy!"

There are few stories, I suppose, aside from Greek and Shakespearian tragedy, that do not follow this simple formula, which Bub is just now discovering for the first time. We could, for instance, create the Bub-version of Pride and Prejudice with little more than a few variations on "sad": "Lizzy embarrassed (by her awful mother) … Lizzy flattered (by Mr. Wickham) … Lizzy mortified (to realize that her allegations against Mr. Darcy are false and her refusal of his proposal perhaps not entirely judicious) … Lizzy worried (about Lydia’s elopement and the effect of the disgrace upon the whole Bennet family) … Lizzy sad (that Mr. Darcy no longer loves her) … Lizzy happy! (The End).


GeekDaddy said...

VERY cool! I had no idea Thomas was being used to help autistic kids. My three year old's pediatrician recently expressed concern that Christian may have some form of autism. Both of my boys love Thomas, so we may have to check into this.

Oh, thanks for the recommendations of bloggers who are more Christian oriented. I really enjoyed them and found a few more through their sites!

Mommy off the Record said...

Wow, that is some deep stuff about Thomas the Tank Engine. I am going to watch that in a whole new light now!

Btw, I love your idea of using flashcards. Where did you get yours?

bubandpie said...

geekdaddy - (love the name!) I would love to read more about your son - I'll be keeping an eye on your blog (my son is also waiting to be assessed).

MOTR - Our speech therapist made them - they're very simple black-and-white drawings that she laminated for us.

kittenpie said...

Oh, we are so mired in Thomasville here too - Pumpkinpie loves it. I find it a bit heavy-handed in its messages, but I guess a lot of the situations about teasing and interaction between the engines really speak to kids just learning about social interaction. They can see it modelled out and the consequences happening. I don't mind it though, it's one of the shows I am quite happy to ler her watch, since it is not Dora or Barney...

lildb said...

lord. I could hear the narrator's voice when you mentioned the bit about the Island of Sodor. argh. it's cemented in there.

that's fascinating about the autism link to Thomas. I don't think I knew Bub was presenting autistic tendencies? I occasionally worry that my kiddo may be, but that's probably partially due to general worry about any/everything. from what you're indicating, it's not something that be can truly determined until a certain age - when will you be able to have him tested with certainty?

and whatever happens with Bub's diagnosis, he's a lucky kid to have such a genius for a mum. (same for Pie, natch.)

Her Bad Mother said...

So, so interesting. Do more of this kind of post. (WonderBaby commands it!)

And, if you ever get around to doing Austen board books, I'll be first in line to buy.

Christina said...

We got to ride on Thomas the Tank Engine's train when it came through our area. Cordy was too young to care, but it was a nice scenic train ride.

And LOL at Pride & Prejudice. :)

bubandpie said...

Kittenpie - There are worse things that teaching children to work hard, so I won't be forbidding the videos anytime soon - but I do find it a bit eyebrow-raising!

lildb - The long answer to your question is in today's post, but the short answer is that although there is a growing consensus that early intervention is critical for autistic kids, there are no therapies available in my area before age 3 (grrrr).

HBM, Christina - My brain is burgeoning with P&P children's book ideas...glad you liked that part. ;)