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Cultural literacy: Explaining the funny pages

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, pho...

My kids might be the only ones in town who don't watch Sponge Bob. They don't watch many other commercial shows, either. In fact, it's probably a shorter list to tell you what they do watch than what they don't.

In part because of this, when Alfs started reading the comics pages in the local paper a few years ago, we spent quite a bit of time explaining the jokes to him. Invariably, there was at least one and usually three or four comics that needed explaining each day. It was then that I really started to notice the level of cultural literacy it takes to get through the day, much less the funny pages.There are so many references in every day conversation and interactions to cultural events or entities, and so much input for those references from newspapers, television, movies, the Internet, books, music, and so on. It's really quite astounding how much we take in each day, and how much of that intake is required to understand later intake. Most of my early cultural education was from television and books, long before the Internet, and even before MTV. As Alfs started to ask questions about comics, I realized I needed to allow him a little more cultural exposure. While there is no way he's going to be allowed total freedom with the remote and unsupervised Web access, I tried to help him see and learn a little more. Perhaps I had sheltered him a bit too much, I thought, so I tried to guide him toward classics of old and new media. And on the new media side, just enough of media on screens for understanding.The strategy has mostly worked. Slowly, slowy as Alfs' understanding on this level has progressed (and Woody's, too), we've had to explain less and we share laughs more and more. Now when Alfs pulls out the old Far Side or Bloom County books, we explain less and less, and he laughs more and more. This Christmas, Alfs was given The Complete Calvin and Hobbes Treasury. While the gift technically was for Alfs, in some ways it was really for the whole family. There's nothing like shared understanding of humor and lots of laughter to ease the stresses of everyday life. And they didn't have to watch television all day long to get there.

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