Artificial intelligence

On nights when it’s my turn to read to the kids, we’ve been enjoying a short installment of the Mini Mysteries series published by the American Girl dynasty followed by a segment of a chapter book. I’ve read Glim the Glorious, Melisande, The Enchanted Forest, The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, and a few Chinese fairy tales from a book I loved as a child. Recently we discovered The Wild Robot, and we all fell in love with Roz, the story’s protagonist.

The first half of the book is truly brilliant. If I didn’t know it was written by Peter Brown, I’d guess that Isaac Asimov and Rudyard Kipling had collaborated to produce this middle-grade volume (Asimov would have been a teenager during Kipling’s final years, so this theory could hold up). Following Roz on her journey of learning as she’s introduced to her new world is delightful, and the discussions it prompts are fascinating (aside from the countless ones we’ve had in which Liam reminds me that my robot voice is a far cry from his teacher’s, who apparently has had professional training in Robot as a Second Language, a course of study that, until now, I’d thought was only an elective). I started to feel a personal connection with our robot around page 67 when, having witnessed an opossum playing dead to avoid being eaten by a badger, Roz has a minor epiphany expressed by the sentence “Performing could be a survival strategy!”. The opossum gives Roz her first acting lesson, explaining, “You can start by imagining the character you’d like to be. How do they move and speak? What are their hopes and fears? How do others react to them? Only when you truly understand a character can you become that character…” Go on, opossum, I thought. Roz and I are listening.

My connection with Roz deepened during Chapter 28 when she encounters Loudwing, an old goose who makes her realize that she is the unlikely adoptive mother to an orphaned gosling, the death of whose parents was precipitated by an accident that Roz had unwittingly caused. The old goose gives her some unsolicited parenting advice that, unlike almost all unsolicited parenting advice, both she and I really appreciated: “Well, you’ll have to act like his mother if you want him to survive.” This is the page that follows:

Even before I met Roz and Loudwing, I knew I wasn’t alone in the feeling that parenting requires quite the theatrical effort. Am I feeling patient? No. Am I acting patient? As best I can. Do I want to play this same game for the hundredth time? Certainly not. Am I acting like I’m having a grand old time? I’m trying. Do I enjoy personalizing dinner preparation just enough so that everyone will eat something even if it doesn’t taste like marshmallows? I really don’t. Am I acting like it’s my job? You bet I am!

My advice for other parents (only when solicited, under normal circumstances) is to try a method I adopted when my kids were much younger: when things get challenging, pretend that you’re being filmed. Pretend that whatever scenario in which you’re ensconced is being recorded and broadcast live on the big screen to a room filled with all of the people you respect most in the world. They are watching how you are going to handle this. Act like you’d want them to see you act. Put on the patience. Wear the forbearance. Summon the semblance of composure even if you privately feel like losing your cool completely. When your kids test you to the point that you feel at odds, act even.

No mother has a complete playbook in her pocket. We all have tools and coping mechanisms, and we all learn from outside sources (each other, science, specialists, news and media) to assemble our own assortment of mental and emotional equipment that will help us as we walk (and trudge through, traipse across, stagger down) these paths, some well tread and some we need to forge anew. Roz, my first robot friend, can attest to that. And she’s given me a new catch phrase that I’ve been conjuring during some tough parenting moments recently, a statement she makes to her hungry hatchling on page 82 that runs through my brain in the best robot voice I can manage: “I am trying to act like a good mother.” Same here, Roz. Same here.

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