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Q&A: Changing What We Teach Kids About Love

Now that you’re an adult, possibly in a grown-up marriage, have you ever wondered why the Prince Charming narrative has such a lock-down on the children’s book genre? If stories are a powerful teaching tool (which they are), why are we sticking with the “Happily Ever After,” love-will-fix-all kind of storyline? Isn’t that a little short-sighted? Irresponsible, even? How many of us entered adult relationships and spent years untangling ourselves from our childhood expectations?

I’m not the only one who feels this way. There is, in fact, a children’s book series designed to present children with a positive, realistic relationship model—and it’s brilliant.

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“The Adventures of Kate and Nate” is a five-book series (check out the first two books here) about Kate and Nate, two “first mates” sailing their boat “The Happy Marriage” around the world. The seas can be choppy, the fog can throw them off course, but they continue to make healthy choices along the way.

The books "are designed to show children ... that with each new challenge and accomplishment in relationship experiences, first mates grow together,” author Conor Dubin told me. “One of the most rewarding moments in a relationship is not the forward looking promise of '…and they lived happily ever after' as the princess stories would have children believe, but the glance to our past when we realize we have been supported through our best and worst by someone all along.”

After reading the first two books with my 6-year-old boy and feeling incredibly grateful that something like this actually exists, I just had to ask Dubin a few more questions. Read on to hear his motivations behind the series and what the traditional fairytales are missing when they talk about love and marriage:

What inspired and motivated you to tackle this topic for kids?

The initial moment of inspiration for “Kate’s First Mate” came one night while I was talking with a friend on the phone. She was going through a breakup and I knew how much she wanted her relationship to work. It made me take a look at my own life and where I was in regards to relationships. I wasn’t particularly happy and took stock of my past. While grateful for the lessons I had learned, the idealist in me wished I had been given an instruction manual on relationships to save me from the heartache I had caused other people and the heartache I had received. I thought about how much time we could save the next generation if we could just present them with a practical relationship story.

I knew my story couldn’t have any of these old archetypes. I needed to challenge them all at once if I was going to try at all.

I couldn’t think of any stories we read to boys about relationships, and the only stories that are geared toward girls seem to be princess stories where the child is always an orphan, they are relegated to doing housework—implying that being self-sufficient is a form of punishment—and there is always an old woman trying to kill them. Finally, in the last pages of the book, they are saved by a prince who promises a lifetime of protection because of his station in life. It is assumed that because he is royalty and has money, the heroine will never have to worry again. ... I felt like there was an opportunity to try a new fairy tale. I knew my story couldn’t have any of these old archetypes. I needed to challenge them all at once if I was going to try at all.

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I was then motivated by a series of events: First I remember a professor saying, “Kids can’t mess up in this day and age. Their whole lives are chronicled on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and if they step out of line, it will go down on their permanent record. I am nervous for the next generation if we do not allow them to fail. We learn our greatest lessons from our biggest failures.” I knew that if I were to tackle this project, it would have to include a character that was OK with making mistakes. After all, who hasn’t made a mistake in a relationship?

The next event was an interview I saw with Warren Buffett and Bill Gates at Columbia University. They were having a Town Hall meeting and opened the floor up to students with questions.

One student asked, “You both knew early in your careers what you wanted to do in your life. What advice do you have for those of us who are a little bit unclear?”

Warren Buffet replied, “First of all, I'd say marry the right person. [LAUGHTER] And I'm serious about that. [APPLAUSE] It will make more difference in your life. It will change your aspiration, all kind of things. It's enormously important who you marry.”

Kate needed to make a lot of choices, some of them wrong, and learn from her missteps.

Here is one of the most successful people in our time and the first bit of advice he gives to an MBA student is, essentially, “Choose the right mate.” ... I was always led to believe I had no say in the matter. I assumed that if I was caught up in the whirlwind of love and emotions, then that must be the person I was meant to be with. But this exchange gave me a new perspective. What if we choose to be caught up in the whirlwind? What if it is a choice? I was motivated to make sure my books included moments where Kate needed to make choices about who was best suited to be in her life. In order to do that, she needed an identity outside of her search for a mate. She needed a passion or talent in life that she wanted to share, which made choosing the right first mate all the more important.

And finally, Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” was part of my motivation.

In his book, Gladwell explores the life experiences of “the best and the brightest, the most famous and the most successful” in many fields. He sets out to answer the question, “What makes high achievers different?” He discovers that it has less to do with what successful people are like and more to do with their culture, their family, their generation and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringing. He explains through his research that people typically become masters at certain skills after 10 years of experience. I wondered if you could teach children, early on, the importance of making strong choices. Then, in 10 years, they could become master choice makers.

The idea was thrilling. Imagine a teenager so confident in herself and her conviction that she knew almost instantly what was right for her and what wasn’t. What would this mean in her life? In her educational pursuits? In her career? In her relationships? How she raises her children?

Once I was confident that the story would resonate with enough people, I started writing. It was just filling in the blanks at that point. Kate sails on a ship because I knew I would have a lot of room with the “first mate” search. Her grandfather, the captain, symbolizes the gentle morality that the older generations teach us. And Kate needed to make a lot of choices, some of them wrong, and learn from her missteps.

I'm still understanding what marriage is as I make my way through it, but I've often wondered why I wasn't prepared more for the reality of relationships, considering it so deeply affects the quality of my life. (I know I'm not alone.) What do you think is wrong or missing in the typical relationship narratives we feed to kids?

I believe the world is changing so rapidly now and relationship narratives, or even fairy tales that aim to teach a lesson about life, need to catch up. I look around and I see people who are overwhelmed; I am overwhelmed. Between the television, cell phones and iPads, we have thousands of things competing for our attention. The end result of this seems to be an overall shrinking of our attention spans. To a certain extent, I think some books and television shows for children have capitalized on this. I constantly see disjointed and snarky content aimed at children that appeals to their shortened attention spans—attention spans that are shortened by the very same disjointed and snarky content. It becomes a feedback loop.

It is important that these narratives be bold and find creative ways of binging up hard and even uncomfortable issues.

If you spend time reading to your child and take the time to do all the voices and have fun with the story, I believe you will build a child’s attention span. I don’t think children want to have short attention spans any more than adults do. ... When we get overwhelmed, we stop listening to each other, we lose our compassion or ability to empathize with another person, and we get frustrated. I think any relationship narrative needs to stress the importance of being present and focused, and setting time aside for one’s own thoughts and feelings and the thoughts and feeling of their significant other. It is important that these narratives be bold and find creative ways of binging up hard and even uncomfortable issues. I believe the apprehension is that, because we don’t like to feel certain things, it is often hard to write about them or read about them. However, there are a lot of very powerful and beautiful children’s books being written now, and it will be exciting to see what each new author and illustrator contributes to the future of the industry.

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Do you have any general ideas for future Kate & Nate stories you'd be willing to share? Any directions for "The Happy Marriage" boat?

I see the first two books in the series as a training ground, like the part in “Karate Kid” when Ralph Macchio’s character is working at Mr. Miyagi’s house but he has no idea he is learning karate. I want children to know that they always have a choice to commit to something, and equally as important, to withdraw their commitment when they think it’s appropriate. It’s entirely up to them. I just want to present a story that shows the benefits of thoughtful choices and the lessons we can learn from bad ones, and what it looks like and how it feels when we exercise the skill of making choices.

With the constant barrage of choices people face today, it is very easy to become overwhelmed and make no choice at all. I’ve heard it called “paralysis by analysis.” My intention with “Journey Through Jellyfish Island” was to address that phenomenon. I think empowerment comes from our ability to make thoughtful choices based on our own personalities and experiences, choices that improve our lives. The rest of the series is designed to examine the world I think children are inheriting through the lens of being thoughtful choice-makers that have learned discernment, strength, empathy, compassion and gratitude along the way.

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