Monthly Staff Pick: Susan Burton

One of the first episodes of This American Life I played for my children had the F-word in it. For better or worse, they were familiar with the word from our own home, but not with this particular usage. “Go [expletive] that doctor,” one woman says to another as they wait in the ER after a car accident. Now when I play the story for them —“Bus! Stop!” from “The Radio Drama Episode” — I fast-forward through that part. They request this story a lot — “Can we listen to ‘Go F that Doctor?’” — partly because they hope I’ll flub, and they’ll hear the word I don’t want them to, but also because the hilarious (and mostly wholesome) tale of a rogue airport shuttle driver makes them laugh.

What episodes of This American Life are good for kids? Well, it depends on the age of the kid, and what kind of stories the kid likes; and I want to offer some suggestions, but first I have a little soapboxing to do. When we ask what’s good for kids, we’re often really asking, what’s appropriate. It’s sort of a strange operating principle: Is this safe? As if a story were a small part that posed a choking hazard. But other factors are just as important. Like, is he ready to appreciate it? If he thinks it’s boring, I may risk putting him off of it forever; but if I wait two years he’ll be just the right age for it to spark something in him.

Of course it’s right to want to protect children from stories that might unsettle them, or those that they don’t have the capacity to comprehend. Yet what disturbs is unpredictable. Nick, at eleven, was rattled by “Do These Genes Make Me Look Fatless?,” a sports-section medical mystery I thought he’d love. This is a great piece for middle-school and older kids, but maybe not for those who worry about what might be wrong with their own bodies. We had to turn it off.

When I play the show for my children, I want them to like it. I want for them the same things I want — to feel something; to be deeply engaged, challenged, or inspired.
I saw this happen with Nick during the summer of 2015 — he was 10 then — when we listened to “The Problem We All Live With,” Chana Joffe-Walt’s and Nikole Hannah-Jones’s two-part episode about school desegregation. I’d heard the episodes myself first, and couldn’t wait to share them with Nick. At the time he was reading There Are No Children Here, This American Life contributor Alex Kotlowitz’s classic study of two boys in the Chicago projects. Nick was drawn to “real” stories — to narrative journalism, and, in particular, to stories about race and inequality in American childhood. We listened to the two episodes over a series of summer mornings as we drove on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to a sports camp, me at the wheel and Nick in the backseat. Sometimes we’d pause the show because he had a question, or I did, curious about his observations about race at his own school. But I have to be honest that I was self-conscious of these exchanges as “teachable moments,” and found myself just as interested in what was happening for Nick privately, there in the backseat, where he buckled himself in, listened hard, and wanted to continue right where we’d left off as soon as we got into the car the next morning. Part of my pleasure in sharing the episodes with him was in observing his own pleasure in them, and wondering if he would seek out more, similar stories, and how, in turn, that might shape the way he saw, and acted in, the world or the work he wanted to do.

If you ask my kids what TAL story they like best, they’ll say “the squirrel one” — meaning “Squirrel Cop,” the classic, perfectly told story of two cops, a young couple, and a flaming squirrel in a Connecticut living room. What do they like about it so much, I asked the other night at dinner, and the answer they gave applies to a lot of TAL stories: “It seems made up, but it’s actually true.” Why is that better, I wondered. “Because it’s like an extra thing.” Reality is bonus material.

Another favorite is “129 Cars,” the crazy-perfect all-star hour documenting a month at a Long Island car dealership. There’s not a single kid in this episode, yet they like it better than “Notes on Camp,” which seems like such an obvious pick. 

“Notes on Camp” was one of the episodes that made me want to work at the show when I heard it on the radio way back when. But the show opens with a story about a teenage counselor, not a camper, and perhaps that seems too far removed — they’ve never wanted to stick with the hour. Though I’ll queue it up again this summer, when Nick will be a teenager himself. He’s reaching the stage where he asks to put his headphones on in the backseat and listen to his own music. There aren’t a lot of years we have the chance to introduce our children to what we love, before they start deciding for themselves what’s good to listen to.