Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as a Teacher: The Pushover

When I start revisiting Adventures in Odyssey, one of the things that upset me most was the way Whit would manipulate kids to teach them lessons. It’s one thing to give advice that I disagree with. Everybody gives and gets bad advice from time to time. We still have freedom to choose what advice we take, as well as how we interpret it and when, if ever, we should stop taking it. That’s why it’s good to live in a world with multiple viewpoints. While nobody can be perfect all the time, when you’re exposed to multiple ideas you can compare perspectives, try a new approach if the first one doesn’t work, and gradually work your way to something that works.

… of course, a good part of Whit’s advice is “only listen to me.” But there are other episodes I can use to criticize that. My point is that bad advice happens, and it’s not the end of the world. But when you manipulate someone into doing what you think is best, you’re in extremely dangerous moral territory. Even if you’re right, you’re taking away that person’s freedom to make up their own mind, and make mistakes on their own terms. This applies equally to adults and children, but with children there are extra layers to consider.

This episode opens with Cody, a new kid in Odyssey. Some kids are making him a super special sandwich for lunch. Ingredients include salami, mayonnaise, peanut butter, a banana peel, liberwurst, broccoli, and pickled pig’s feet.

Ugh. What budding sociopath would make another kid eat broccoli? Little monsters.

So this is an effective way to establish that Cody is being bullied. The worst part is that Cody isn’t being threatened with violence or name calling. He’s just shy and lonely and bad at standing up for himself. The other kids have realized that he can be pressured into doing just about anything, if you make him think you’ll be his friend. It’s horrible, and also not unrealistic.

Next, we meet Jared, who won’t let his friend Sarah play in the Bible Room, because “she’s doing it wrong.” Not, as far as anyone can tell, breaking things or playing in a way that will interfere with somebody else having fun. She’s just not playing the way Jared thinks she should, and nobody can convince Jared that there’s no such thing as “playing wrong.” They argue back and forth, until Whit separates them, and gives Jared a pretty solid lecture about how people need to make mistakes in order to explore and grow.

Hey, that was the thing I was just saying! So Whit and I agree that you don’t have to control anybody’s behavior a hundred percent of the time. So long as nobody is being hurt, you can let people make mistakes until they figure things out for themselves, right?

Sorry, back to the episode. Jared says he gets it, but he’s clearly just trying to get out of the conversation, as it takes about two and a half seconds for him to criticize another kid for carrying books wrong. This is realistic, and can happen for several reasons. One, sometimes kids understand a principle but need practice to get it right. Two, sometimes kids understand that something is wrong, but don’t know the right way. Adults, who figured things out long ago, sometimes forget that there was a time when somebody explained to them how to play nicely. Three, sometimes kids don’t agree with the adults, but know they won’t win the argument, so they say whatever the adult wants to hear in order to escape the conversation. Then they fall right back into old habits. From Jared’s tone, this feels like the third situation.

Cody’s father comes by to pick him up. Cody is hanging out alone, looking at Bible maps. Cody’s father is worried that Cody doesn’t have friends and is willing to do anything for attention. He tells Whit the sandwich story, and about some other incidents. Cody’s character is fleshed out; he is generally a follower, not a leader, but he has never been this bad. He used to be able to use a modicum of common sense, instead of just going along with anything and anyone. Cody’s father asks Whit to keep an eye on him, and maybe help him make some better friends. Whit promises to do what he can.

So far, it’s a dang good episode. It’s funny, the characters are interesting, and Cody’s Dad has some great insights into what may be going on with Cody, and what might help him.

We get another scene of Cody being taken advantage of. The same kid who made him the sandwich has invited him to join a club, but part of the initiation is giving the founding members toys. Suuure, not suspicious at all, that. Cody delivers a remote controlled car and a baseball bat, and is rewarded with a time and an address. Which actually does lead him to a club meeting. It’s just that the club is a bunch of old ladies doing aerobics.

Worse, they decide he’s so cute, they start badgering him to join them, and because he can’t say no…

When Cody goes to Whit’s End that afternoon, every muscle in his body is burning. He walks in on Whit trying once again to talk to Jared. Seeing Mr. Bossypants and the ultimate shrinking violet in the same room gives Whit an idea.

The next day, Cody and Jared meet at Whit’s End, and he gives them a job. He has some soda bottles for them to deliver to Tom Riley, and he will pay them for their help. Jared wants to take the lead, but he has a notoriously bad sense of direction. Cody, on the other hand, loves maps. So Whit hands over a map with directions and says they should be all set.

Yeah, this doesn’t go well. The moment Jared starts stating his gut feelings in an assertive voice, Cody caves and starts following him over the woods, ignoring the map Whit gave them. They  take the wrong path out of the town and hit a dead end, but Jared insists on pressing forward through the brush. He runs into a barbed wire fence and scratches himself, but, determined to not be wrong, he decides the fence is a good sign. It must mark the beginning of Tom Riley’s farm. Cody makes some effort to stand up for himself, but Jared becomes all the more determined to prove himself right.

They wander on. It gets dark, and they start hearing things. Then a mysterious animal emerges and starts following them. They panic and run, and Jared trips in the dark and sprains his ankle, leaving them both helpless as the animal bears down on them.

It’s a sheep, which makes them both feel rather sheepish. It also makes Cody realize that they are not on Tom’s farm at all. Tom has apples and horses, not sheep. Cody carries Jared back to the edge of the farm, following the map. The fight has all gone out of Jared.

Whit finds them. He was expecting them to reach Tom long ago, and eventually realized Cody and Jared were in trouble. So he came out looking for them. As they are explaining the story he looks over the pair of them, and points out how Cody stood up for himself, and he is fine. An explicit parallel is drawn between Cody, the good kid who took the lead and was unhurt, and Jared, the bad kid who scratched his hand and sprained his ankle.

Ok, time to unpack everything wrong with this. First, if you want the two of them to work on their issues by teaming up on a task that Cody is better at than Jared, great! That’s a fine concept. But if you know how both of these kids are, you know they will royally fuck up their first attempt.

So maybe make their first task something simple, like doing a scavenger hunt at the mall? Somewhere indoors with lots of adults around to ask for help. Not, you know, the middle of fucking nowhere!!!

I mean, this is legitimate child endangerment right here. What if, once they got lost, Cody wasn’t able to get them un-lost? What if they actually had run into a dangerous animal? What if they had come across an old well or … God, I could keep listing dangers for pages but you get the point. Whit was responsible for their safety, and he should know better than to put them in a situation like this without some safeguards.

Problem number two: Whit tells Cody to look at himself, and notice how, despite his fear of taking charge, Cody is completely fine. When Jared points out that he was hurt, Whit tells him, point blank, “It’s because you didn’t follow directions.”

Bull. Shit.

There was no control here, except the control of contrived, terrible writing. Cody easily could have been the one who got hurt, while Jared was fine. Or both of them could have been hurt. Or, despite what I said about the danger of the situation, they both could have been fine. That happens sometimes; kids wander into the woods and get lost and scared, but they aren’t hurt. The point isn’t what happened. It’s what could have happened, and what steps Whit took to allow or prevent from happening. Two children were under his responsibility. He let them take a course of action, knowing they were likely to not follow directions and possibly get hurt.

Problem number three: we shouldn’t act like a kid scratching his hand on a rusty fence and then spraining his ankle was a fucking moral victory. An essential part of childcare is providing appropriate consequences for their actions. Sparing kids from natural, appropriate consequences is unhealthy, but you know what else is unhealthy? Exposing them to fucking tetanus!

When you’re trying to find that line, you should look at the natural consequences, both long and short term. What is happening right now, as a result of the child’s actions, and what will happen down the road. Jared was being a rude kid. Right now, kids are refusing to play with him because he’s so bossy and controlling, they feel like they can’t have any fun with him. If he keeps acting this way into adulthood, people will continue avoiding interacting with him. So what does he need, apart from what is being done already?

Nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

Whit needs to follow his own advice and be patient with Jared’s mistakes. He needs to keep pointing out that kids like Sarah have a right to choose not to play with him, if he is not respecting their choices. Jared won’t change overnight, but most of the time, kids like him need will eventually realize they don’t like being alone, and they’ll experiment with compromise. When Jared makes his first genuine effort to cooperate, that’s when he will probably need more support. Other kids might be reluctant to give him a second chance, and it will be important to remind them of times that they needed a second chance in order to grow. That’s how you handle a Jared.

Cody’s situation is different. In a weird way, he’s being rewarded for caving. I know that’s an odd statement, given how the kids are physically torturing him, but lonely kids who don’t know how to get positive attention will often pick negative attention over being completely ignored. You see it all the time; a kid who is hungry for connection finds an unhealthy way of getting attention, and they will usually cling to it until they are actively shown a better way to build relationships. Cody needs some help.

Here’s some things Whit could have done instead:

  • As mentioned above, use the same concept, but in a mall or a suburban neighborhood, or anywhere less likely to result in injury with no grown-ups present. Anywhere at all.
  • Given Cody and Jared a teamworking task that they can do right there in Whit’s End. Like one of those games where two people have to build things, but one of them can’t look at the directions, and one of them can’t touch any of the objects. They win free ice cream when they’re done.
  • Given Cody some practice scripts for standing up for himself. Roleplaying scenes can help nervous kids work up a lot of confidence. Then, check in with him regularly, and any time he can tell you about a time he stood up for himself, really celebrate that with him. You can’t control the way all his peers treat him, but as the adult, you can be the social connection he craves.
  • Introduced Cody to some friends who are likely to be a better influence on him. Pretty much anyone who doesn’t manipulate him for fun will be a step up, so that won’t be too hard.

That’s just off the top of my head. It’s not hard.

The final thing that bothers me (and this may seem small in comparison to the risk they were in, but it really matters) is the underhanded sneakiness of it. Kids learn a lot through observation and interaction, especially when it comes to social learning. The way we interact with children sends messages about normal ways to treat each other. Whit didn’t need Cody or Jared to deliver those bottles. Tom and Whit see each other all the time, plus, as adults, they both have cars. Whit lied. After these events are over, Cody and Jared can easily figure that out. That does one of two things. First, it creates a deep sense of betrayal. Second, if they get over that sense of betrayal, they will probably internalize the message that it’s okay to lie, so long as you meant for the other person to learn a valuable lesson.

This was a small manipulation, but Whit does stuff like this all the time. He does it to kids in front of other kids. In other episodes, he loops the kids into the scheme. No matter what he says about honesty, he models manipulation, over and over again, as an acceptable way to interact with people. That will stick with the kids he works with.

In fact, kids like Jared are often controlling precisely because they see adults in their life act that way. They don’t understand why adults are saying X is wrong, and then turning around and doing it. There’s layers to this; personality traits affect which behaviors stand out as worthy to copy. An assertive kid with aspirations towards leadership will probably look to Whit’s behavior as a role model. Whit says, “be patient and let people make mistakes” but he quickly loses patience, tells lies to manipulate kids into acting the way he wants, and then justifies children literally getting hurt on his watch with “wasn’t this a valuable lesson for you?”

The episode ends with Cody’s dad walking him up to the guy who stole his things. Dad gives support from his car while Cody asks for his things back, and sticks around until Cody gets them. Cody still feels nauseous afterwards, but his dad reassures him that he did great, and things will get better.

Now, that’s how you teach a kid.

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