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Fun Factor

Natalie Portman, the Harvard-educated, politically active, award-nominated actress, is a great example of why kids should stop trying so hard and start having fun

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Natalie Portman in Black Swan. (Fox Searchlight)

Recently, Slate magazine ran a piece calling Natalie Portman “a movie star for a generation of overprogrammed children.” The writer, Nathan Heller, views Portman as a dilettante and a suck-up. Heller feels that Portman’s career—child actor, Harvardian, scientific researcher, vegan, international-microfinance-lecturer—has been characterized by “easy, hammy poses of artistic seriousness, proof of an organization kid’s needy drive for cultural credentials and good deeds.”

That, I think, is taking it a bit too far. Portman has her lighter side—I get a kick out of Portman’s demented giggle and adored her gangsta rap on Saturday Night Live. But it’s just that kind of goofiness that I wish Portman displayed more often. In many of her movies she seems blank (Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, anyone?), stilted (The Closer, in which she gave the grimmest, most awkward performance as an exotic dancer since Demi Moore in Striptease), or unreal (Garden State, in which she strenuously embodies the annoying male-fantasy archetype known as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl). The kind of free-range giddiness she showed at the Golden Globes and on SNL is a rarity for her. (Though then again, I’m not sure anyone could deliver the line, “Hold me, like you did by the lake on Naboo!” in a believable way.)

And this is exactly why she’s the perfect spokeswoman for her generation: Her opaque, inauthentic-feeling performances capture the spirit of the Millenials, that group of entitled, high-maintenance, short-attention-spanned, helicopter-parented, well-rounded-but-depthless weenies. The stereotype is borne out by my friends in academia, who talk about the way their students simply want to parrot back the “right” answers and expect straight A’s as their due. A professor friend tells the story of a student who got a B+ on a paper and insisted she deserved an A “because I’m an A student!”

Parents and schools share responsibility for students like these. When we parents fight our kids’ every battle, insist that their self-esteem is paramount and can’t survive honest criticism, and expect everyone else to see them as the flawless delicate flowers we’ve told them they are, we don’t prepare them for the real world. When schools teach kids only to excel at filling in the ovals on standardized tests and spitting out answers without synthesizing or contextualizing them, they don’t teach kids how to reason. Or how to be moral. Or how to cope with difference and nuance.

And you know what? I think the prescription for Natalie Portman’s career longevity and for our grade-obsessed kids is the same: large doses of fun.

A recent piece by George H. Wood, executive director of the Forum for Education and Democracy, co-author of Many Children Left Behind, and a high-school principal, points out the problems with our lack of fun. “I do think we have lost something in our unending quest of lofty standards, more rigor and higher test scores,” he says. “That something is the joyfulness of play, and the creativeness of curiosity. We have separated our children from the very world that sustains them. They will be poorer intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually for it.”

Most of us have kids who are buried under piles of homework, who have seen their recess time curtailed in favor of more literacy- and math-instruction time, and who have come to expect the stress of regular high-stakes standardized tests starting as early as kindergarten. The playtime kids get is often in the form of video games (designed by adults) and sports teams (run by adults). There’s simply no time for unstructured free play.

But play is essential. A review of research by Yale psychologists concludes that make-believe play improves vocabulary, creates strategies for problem-solving, and develops flexible thinking. Another study found that graduates of “play-based” kindergartens did better long-term in reading, math, social and emotional adjustment, creativity, oral expression, and “industry” than graduates of more academic kindergartens. And the American Academy of Pediatrics says that play helps children develop confidence, resiliency, cooperation, and conflict-resolution. Yet we parents worry, when our kids are playing, that they’re “not being productive” or that they’re wasting time that could be spent getting ahead of the Chinese. (No joke, when Josie was in pre-K I attended a school tour where the principal said ominously, “The kind of education we provide is the only way to prevent people overseas from taking all our jobs.”)

There’s plenty of research showing how “executive brain function”—the ability to self-regulate—is improved by play.

“Children who can control their impulse to be the center of the universe, and—relatedly—who can assume the perspective of another person, are better equipped to learn,” say Erika and Nicholas Christakis, she an early-childhood educator and he a professor of medicine and sociology at Harvard. They draw parallels between a preschooler destroying someone else’s block castle and a 20-year-old rudely monopolizing class discussion. Both lack empathy. Starting grade-schoolers off with a play-based curriculum instead of a “skills-based” curriculum, they argue, could help prevent the castle-toppler from becoming the entitled college junior. The skills-based curriculum emphasizes worksheets and equations; the play-based version is more multi-disciplinary and offers storytelling, problem-solving, cooperation. “The child filling out the worksheet is engaged in a more one-dimensional task,” they say, “but the child in the play-based program interacts meaningfully with peers, materials, and ideas.”

I’m reminded of Josie’s “trout curriculum” from first grade in her progressive, diverse public school. The kids worked together to clean the trout tank and measure and record the pH and ammonia levels in the aquarium. They sketched trout, learned the physiology of fry, read fish-centric fiction and non-fiction, went to see a musical about New York’s intricate waterways. Josie dressed as an alevin, a baby trout still attached to its yolk sac, for Halloween. (She wore a silver dress and silver swim cap and taped a big orange balloon to her stomach.) At the end of the year, the kids sang a song about trout (“I Believe I Can Swim,” to the tune of R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly”) and let the trout go in an upstate stream. (They had a permit.)

This is the antithesis of the “will this be on the test” school of learning, the kind that turns kids into Portman-esque nimrods. Kids learn not only the scientific method (you make guesses and predictions, and sometimes you’re wrong, and that’s OK) but also how to take turns, problem-solve creatively (why did the pH in the tank keep dropping?), share goals, and cope with disappointment. (Sometimes the trout die, no matter how hard you try. Sometimes you get a B+ on a paper.) And it helps kids connect to each other and to the wider world they live in, instead of making them think only about themselves. And they have fun.

Sorry to dump on Ms. Herschlag. I think she’s probably a mensch. And alas, I think women in particular are set up to be grinds: Our culture (and education system) tends to reward them for being chirping back the teacher’s ideas instead of being creative or paradigm-shattering. Women like Portman (or, hey, Hillary Clinton) are expected to work hard without letting the effort show, lest they be deemed too aggressive or ambitious. Boys can be class clowns, loud, disruptive, stoner-y Rogens, but girls have to be cute and “good.”

I hope Portman’s impending marriage (even if it’s to a goy) and baby will help her see the value of unstructured time, play, and joy. I hope it will help her get more in touch with her giggly and gangsta sides. And I hope more kids get the chance to have fun, and fish.

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“Even if it’s to a goy?” How would you feel if someone said “even it’s to a Jew?” Oy, Marjorie, I usually like your wit and insights.

Yeah, (upper) middle class kids are over-programmed and far too success oriented. Yeah, we could all use a little more fun in our lives. But Natalie Portman as poster child for the supposed faults of an entire generation and their parents? Really? That’s just over the top and more than a little rude.

Natalie Portman is a poster child for success. She has achieved a beautiful balance in her life, epitomized by her near simultaneous releases of Black Swan and No Strings Attached. She exhibits the balance of play and drive, fun and focus that leads to fulfilling lives. Your opinion on education is spot on. Unrestricted play is essential in the creative growth of a child, but Natalie Portman as the antithesis to that idea is dead wrong.


Pam Siegel Zarte says:

“Even to a goy” does not offend me Beth. It’s a reference to everyone but a Jew. It’s not the same as singling out 1 grp. I found the reference amusing especially because the gist of the article is that Natalie Portman tries to excel at everything. She doesn’t seem to be excelling at maintaining a Jewish home.

She was charming on Sesame Street. Clearly exhibiting a lighter side to her personality.

Agreed that the “even if it’s to a goy” comment is beyond inappropriate, a case of something in your head needing to be edited out. While opinions on this sentiment vary in our community, you alienate many, including non-Jews who are considering conversion. Delete!

Speaking for non-Jews considering conversion, I would guess that most of us are well aware of (a) this general sentiment and (b) Jewish humor. No offense taken.

Goyim aren’t a minority. Have some solidarity, people.

Why are you piggybacking on the bland Slate article? “I hope it will help her get more in touch with her giggly and gangsta sides.” Are you serious? When I think of over-programmed/success oriented children – I certainly don’t think of Portman and the reasons you and Heller from Slate state to make that connection are just poor. I agree with Sue, way over the top and unjustified.

“I hope Portman’s impending marriage and baby will help her see the value of unstructured time, play, and joy.” (arggggh!) The fact that Portman took time off from acting to attend college, live in a dorm, travel etc. is the very example of someone valuing unstructured time, play, and joy. She broke her regiment of being on a film set to doing what most people want to do when they’re finished with high school and that’s go to college and have fun. And she was able to accomplish that while also achieving success in her studies etc. I think she’s a great example of being successful in one medium and still pursuing other goals in life, both fun and academic.

kathy edmonston says:

Maybe “even if it’s to a goy” is only offensive if you are not born a Jew. Every Jew knows the term goy is used as a disparaging term for non-Jew…(no matter the “true” definition) Please don’t insult my intelligence. Funny how one can claim something is not offensive as long as it doesn’t affect them. Though, when you disparage one, it affects all…

Matana says:

This was truly beneath you, Marjorie. You are, of course, entitled to your opinion, but lacing it with words like “goy” or “goyim” instead of using the simple and inoffensive nomenclature “gentile” was more than rude. It put everyone who reads your work on alert that you see yourself superior to gentiles. Your rabbi will tell you that there are gentiles out there who are better “Jews” than some Jews by birth.

Then there’s the matter of picking on Portman as your epitome of the over-nurtured, over-programmed quintessence of what’s wrong with “this generation”. Obviously, your choice of her as your subject for what is wrong, says more about you than her. I find this extremely uncomfortable, and am embarrassed for you.

You’re a talented writer. There was no reason to attack someone whose life you seem under-informed about, unless there is antipathy about her politics or accomplishments on a visceral level that niggles at you. In which case, it was less than professional to bring it to light in this forum.

I’m embarrassed by your reckless remarks, and ashamed that others will judge all of us by the standards you set in this article. Come back up to the light, and write the way we all know you can.

Matana says it best. I too am flummoxed by this criticism of Ms. Portman and, implicitly, her parents. I hardly think there are any “Chinese mothers” out there who think that acting is a path to Harvard.

I am the mom who just let her 3rd grader daughter get away with not doing the 20 minutes of reading required each day so that right now she and her 5th grader sister are painting some beads on the dining room table. What the heck!

BH in Iowa says:

There’s no excuse for a Jew living in NY or LA to not marry within the faith.

She’s just another actress, nothing more/nothing less.

Sophia says:

With respect, this is a really silly and pointless article.

We should aspire to be more like Natalie Portman – intelligent, accomplished, educated.

Our culture is at risk from too little seriousness, not too much.

J Carpenter says:

Substitute for Portman with Seth Rogen—of which child would you be the parent, prouder of her/his accomplishments? And that’s just the film industry. I appreciate the concept of the article, yet agree with the unfair focus on one personality as the example. We don’t have to look much beyond our own families—or classrooms—to find such.

As a goy mere months from mikveh and Jewish peoplehood, I second Will’s comment above; I read the goy remark as a joke, no harm, no foul.

Some readers may feel that goyim who plan to convert don’t get have a say on this matter (because they’ll soon reject the pejorative). I disagree, my parents will remain goyim; I love them, and don’t regard them as lesser or separate (no matter what the Rambam argued about a convert being able to sleep with his birth mother after mikveh!). And what of my own identity after my conversion is official? Physiologically speaking, I’ll remain 7/8 goy (since it was my paternal great-grandfather who was Jewish). Psychologically, however, I’ll be Jewish through and through. Should I cover up or condemn my goyish provenance? Of course not! In fact, I believe that my own attachment to Judaism and to “doing Jewish” while acknowledging my “mixed” background will make my children that much more Jewish, active in the community and having a concrete Jewish identity!

Sure, jokes reveal truths, but I’m presuming that Ms. Ingall realizes that her parenthetical plays up Jewish chauvinism, both to celebrate and to critique. It’s unsteady ground, but if we all write with the PC police in mind, we’ll be turning out very bland prose, right?

Interesting article. Basing it on Portman makes little sense to me, however.

1) Heller’s article was, as I read it, positive. I believe he was saying it’s possible to read parts of her career as “easy, hammy poses,” etc., OR as serious art.

2) Portman is hardly a nimrod. Nor is she rigid, as this article seems to imply, allusions to SNL aside. Didn’t she say something recently about making a stoner comedy for women?

3) The fact that Portman made a movie like “Black Swan” strongly suggests that she’s as conscious and wary of over-parenting as anyone. Did you see the movie? Remember the mother character? The helicopter/soccer/tiger-mom moon is definitely on the wane in popular culture.

Rebecca says:

Personally it’s refreshing to see one female in Hollywood who is intelligent and ambitious and has not caved to the pressures to seem “fun” and “cutesy.” Aren’t there enough party girls in the styles pages? I’m happy to see a woman who displays a balance of integrity, humor and activism.

Ok, I’m going to go out on a limb, and say for people in my age group (which is the next one up from the Millenials you mention, those born in the late 80’s/very early 90’s) Portman absolutely should be the bellwether! Sadly, she is not. Most people my age find her too intellectual, too serious. I think it is ridiculous you criticize her, of all people, when you look at who else is popular in young adult media! I’m sorry she is too anal for you, would you rather I idolize Snooki from Jersey Shore? Or how about the mini Snookis on MTV’s Teen Mom? Or I hear Britney Spears is back from rehab again, she’s always popular.

Really, Marjorie, you are way off base here. At least Portman has some class.

Really? says:

I usually really like Marjorie Ingall’s writing. But this article is just silly. It’s all speculation, based on another silly article which is also just speculation.

“When schools teach kids only to excel at filling in the ovals on standardized tests and spitting out answers without synthesizing or contextualizing them, they don’t teach kids how to reason. Or how to be moral. Or how to cope with difference and nuance.”

I’ve got news for you. When I took classes in the Sixties, students refused to contribute answers or discussion in the classroom. They waited for somebody else to do that until the instructor imparted everything as a lecture. Of course, they were much younger than I was at the time because I was preparing for State Dept. exams; but, guess what? When I took them starting in 1980, they were standardized tests in which you did fill in the ovals! All you needed was two pencils and the ability to decide for your what to do with the 15 minute break in the 3 hour test: Go to the bathroom;go get some coffee to carry you through; or introduces yourself to fellow test-takers to discuss and compare impressions of the test thus far. No wonder we have problems relative to the reality of the rest of the world. I took the test three times, nothing different in the format. Although I passed,Reagan/Bush,sr.were not putting money into the budget to hire embassy employees and therefore did not notify (women that is) that we passed. Why,then, did they test us?

I think Natalie is being sold short in this “frame”. She has an intellectual academic career that is incredible compared to her age group.

Heather says:

Just another gentile here to say I wasn’t offended by the “goy” remark. Speaking in sweeping, stereotypical generalizations, I always thought one of the attractive and admirable traits of Jewish people was to cut through the crap and tell it like it is, even if it causes a few reckless remarks (a personality trait perhaps picked up from God Himself by Moses on the mountain, or by Abraham in his dealings with the Almighty, who supposedly even considered the guy a friend) . . .

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Fun Factor

Natalie Portman, the Harvard-educated, politically active, award-nominated actress, is a great example of why kids should stop trying so hard and start having fun

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