I can’t remember exactly when I started reading Calvin and Hobbes, though I suspect it was somewhere around sixth grade. The collected volumes like Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat and It’s a Magical World were hot ticket items in our school library, and any time I passed through it, I checked the low corner shelves to see if one had been returned. On those rare occasions when one had made it back into circulation, I snatched it up, even if I’d already read it.
Looking back, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Calvin and Hobbes was one of the most formative works of art in my life. Even after all this time, it still feels true – maybe even moreso to my 29 year-old self than to my 12 year-old self, which is quite an accomplishment – in a significant, uncommon way.
I am now a card-carrying member of the adult world that so baffled Calvin (doubly so: I’m a parent and a teacher), and the grown-up anxieties that Bill Watterson filtered through the prism of his titular heroes are a part of my daily reality. Like Calvin’s parents, I am sometimes pushed to my wits’ end by a precocious kid. Like them, I don’t handle everything the way I should.
My favorite running gag from Calvin and Hobbes has become the joke that Calvin’s dad has to run for re-election and serves out his term as “Dad” under the scrutiny of a one-kid electorate. What’s so great about these strips is how perfectly they distill the disconnection parents often display from the stuff kids spend much of their minute-to-minute lives worrying about.
Here a few of my favorite parenting-centric Calvin and Hobbes strips, along with a few of the lessons they’ve helped me to remember since I’ve found myself holding down the “Dad” office.
Maybe it’s just me, but it feels like parents are more concerned than ever with being “cool” in the eyes of their kids. This strip is a good reminder that it’s probably an exercise in futility. The things that get me excited (and this is only going to get more true as we both age) are probably going to baffle my kids on a good day and annoy the heck out of them on a bad day. Probably best to take Calvin’s dad’s advice from this strip and just steer into the spin.
One of the great things about kids is how much enthusiasm they can muster in response to even the most ordinary stuff. It’s easy for we adults to forget how genuinely exciting it can feel to experience something for the first time or come up with an idea that feels totally original (even when it’s anything but). It’s even easier not to match that enthusiasm or even to be dismissive of it. I catch myself all the time “listening” to my son breathlessly recount some elaborate story or share some detail from a book he’s read or a show he’s watched, but without putting in the effort to match his exuberance. Calvin and Hobbes shows us repeatedly how much of a letdown that can be to kids. That doesn’t mean I’m going to do a perfect job of it, but it’s nice to think Calvin’s voice might pop into my head from time to time to give me a nudge in the right direction.
Speaking of imagination, the strip above is a great (and hilarious) example of just how tuned in to the sheer weirdness of kids’ minds Bill Watterson was. It’s easy sometimes to forget how much of my own childhood was spent more or less in my own head, spending time exploring whatever strange thoughts crept in there. And though it’s probably good that most of them never made it out from between my ears, I’m totally convinced that being given time and space to just be bored and let my mind wander was key to the development of a healthy imagination. As a parent though, it can be tempting to keep our kids endlessly busy, constantly engaged in some activity or another for fear that some key component of their development is being ignored. But Calvin and Hobbes reminds us that a childhood filled with imagination is the very best kind, and whatever we parents can do to help that along, we should probably take it as seriously as Calvin took his outings as Spaceman Spiff.
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