Going Deep with The Sponge—Can SpongeBob make us better parents?

October 7, 2009

Tom at Aroma

This summer marked the tenth anniversary of SpongeBob who, in his timeless decade, has kindly made his way to reigning Puer Aeternus (Latin for “Eternal Child,” i.e. Peter Pan).  The Sponge has cried and laughed his way to the top as the world around him, and us, has grown ever more bitterly Squidward.  Meanwhile, the little square-panted trickster has ridden a sort of porous authenticity, with his kind heart and open tear ducts, to an unprecedented level of global recognition.  Given that SpongeBob is beloved from the mansion to the hood, from Ivory Towers to the darkest prisons—a laughing Buddha soaking up the zeitgeist free of all judgment—perhaps SpongeBob is an archetypal unifier, a manifestation of something we all can love.  The Sponge is post-political (his country is the ocean), post-intellectual (smart enough to dispense with smart in favor of real), post-cultural (in mirroring our culture he has become our culture), post-developmental (no one really knows if he’s a grown-up or a child) and thus a perfect mirror of our own awakening kindness.

Given all this (and as you can tell from my writing as a quasi-intellectual, left-leaning, middle-aged, white male Beverly Hills shrink, I am not post-anything:  I’ve known SpongeBob and I’m no SpongeBob… I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas) I thought we should try to get a little closer to the Sponge in honor of better parenting.

Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob, was kind enough to sit down with me the other day to share his thoughts about what SpongeBob might bring to the endeavor of parenting. After years of being asked about why SpongeBob is so popular, Tom got tired of saying, “I don’t know,” and turned to giving it some thought.  Tom says, “Voice-over wise, I’ve always tended to play characters who are pretty sweet and not very smart.  I’m not sure what that says about me.”

Having known Tom for a couple of decades, I can attest to the fact that he’s subversively smart, however, he is pretty sweet (and this is an important clue in cultivating our own inner SpongeBobs and those of our children).  When creator/director (and former Marine Biologist) Steve Hillenburg approached Tom to be the voice of SpongeBob, Hillenburg told Tom, “You work your ass off, you try to be nice to people, I think you can channel this guy, this sponge.”

Tom says that unlike other kid shows at that time, “There were no educators in the room asking, ‘is this imitative behavior?’ or telling us, ‘there are no Spanish words…’ We were just trying to be funny.”  Yet, like Frank Capra, Charlie Chaplin and Preston Sturges before him, SpongeBob manages to connect across wide swaths of the socio-economic, cultural, educational and even the developmental landscape.  For example, Tom reports going into mostly Spanish-speaking schools and finding that the ESL kids watch the show in English (it’s like Billy Wilder learning English watching baseball), or when they do inner-city literacy in Compton and Inglewood Tom says, “You do the voice and they just love it.”

And as for spectrum kids, Tom says that, “A number of people come up to me and tell me that their autistic or Asperger’s kid responds to the show—and the character (SpongeBob) specifically.  I have no idea why, but the autism thing comes up all the time—SpongeBob is the only show they fixate on, they know every line to every episode…” Tom added, “Someone showed me that Jenny McCarthy was quoted in People Magazine saying that the breakthrough moment with her autistic son came when he laughed at a joke on SpongeBob.”

Now, this could be because SpongeBob is both highly sensitive and at the same time he’s a “thing”—autistic kids often prefer hard-edged objects, like toy cars or blocks, to softer toys (partly, perhaps, related to their own struggles to be clear about where they begin and end, physically and psychologically).  In this way a square-edged character who is also malleable and somewhat soft may have accidentally hit the perfect note with Autistic and Asperger’s kids… and as I’ve argued in previous posts, I often wonder if these kids aren’t tuned into some higher consciousness that the rest of us just miss (and perhaps we sometimes mistakenly rush in, trying to make them more like us, when maybe we need to be a little more like them).  Don’t get me wrong, I’m in favor of spectrum kids coming out of their shells and they absolutely benefit from early intervention, it’s just that SpongeBob tells us a lot about how to reach them, and also how to be—how to maybe get the message that those with “differences” bring to the party.  Maybe if we were all a little kinder and more real, spectrum kids would bother to relate to us, and our world.

As to why SpongeBob is so popular, Tom ventures, “SpongeBob is the antithesis of cruelty—letting his freak-flag fly, not being a conformist, being exactly who he is—not a normal person or mainstream, yet he still has friends, a job and a life.”

What better model for kids… and for us grown-ups as well?

Tom observes, “SpongeBob is about sweetness in times of cruelty.  He battles cynics—and Squidward is the ultimate cynic.  For example, when Patrick plays imaginatively it drives Squidward crazy because he has no imagination—he can’t imagine.”

When one is able to understand that others actually have minds, feelings and thoughts it marks a developmental step that has been called “theory of mind” by some psychologists; and it is something that experts notice to be delayed or missing in autism spectrum disorders.  Squidward’s lack of imagination, empathy and social relatedness suggest that it is he who may be Asperger’s… and thus he may serve as a reflection of how some spectrum kids may feel while SpongeBob models the very “theory of mind” we are hoping to cultivate (see previous post on autism and “floor time” http://tiny.cc/G5z2D).

Tom adds, “SpongeBob is nice, and his niceness is what drives the joke.  He throws himself into everything he does and gives a hundred and ten percent, irritating others—particularly Squidward.  The show is not naïve, but the character of SpongeBob is.”

SpongeBob pretty much insists on working and playing, and this is absolutely on track for healing the autistic inner-Squidward in all of us, and in getting our spectrum kids to join us in our so-called world.

I asked Tom if he thought it was hard not to absorb other people’s cruelty if one is a sponge?  Tom countered, “SpongeBob’s a guileless naïf of a character, he doesn’t even recognize cruelty as such—it’s not even on his radar.  He’s like the anti-sponge.”

Tom then takes us beyond the “spectrum” and into the realm of mood disorders to observe, “SpongeBob is completely bi-polar.  When I go into those recordings every week I know that I’m going to spend a lot of time laughing like a maniac or crying with inconsolable despair, not a lot of middle ground.  For me that’s probably as therapeutic as yoga or scream therapy… it’s pretty intense.”

SpongeBob is an archetypal figure in that he is perpetually torn up, and yet always maintains his essential self, his Spongeness.  In somehow managing to contain and reflect our own intense opposites of emotion, SpongeBob cackles and weeps so that perhaps we don’t have to—unifying our stormy polarities in the service of sanity and solidity.  What better mascot of ideal parenting than SpongeBob as we stretch to contain our children’s overflow emotions and strive to maintain a cheerful and optimistic attitude in the mix.

I commented that SpongeBob seems relentlessly positive, to which Tom pointed out, “He’s relentlessly positive until he falls deep into the abyss of despair, but he can hit the reset button pretty quickly.”  Ahh… resiliency—another key factor in both mental health and good parenting.

As a psychologist, I couldn’t help but inquire about SpongeBob’s early life, wondering if his kindness and optimism were the result of wonderful parenting—if that were his secret to success, but Tom would not let the Sponge be lured onto the couch:  “We don’t know too much about SpongeBob’s parents, they appear very sparingly in the show.  The execs were keen on this, ‘how old is he?  Who are his parents?’  He just is.  Is he a kid?  Yeah.  Is he a grownup?  Yeah.  The execs wanted to cross all the t’s and Steve Hillenburg resisted that.”

Tom Talmudically referenced the Seuss canon to underscore his point:  “You don’t want a two-hour back story on why the Grinch is the Grinch.  Dr. Seuss knows he just is the Grinch.”

Feeling a little concerned for Squidward, I observed that he seems to suffer from low self-esteem and wondered if there was anything others could do to help him feel better about himself?

Tom suggested, “Squidward is the most complex puzzle of a character on the show.  He’s really well thought out.  Obviously has low self-esteem, obviously he doesn’t think he’s as good as anyone else, yet he thinks that working, the rabble and everyone else are beneath him.  He’s arrogant; he fills life with bubble baths and sees himself as surrounded by philistines and idiots.  He tries to be artistic, plays clarinet, but lack of imagination dooms it all to failure…  He’s a nowhere man.”

Nowhere man (within us all) please listen.

Turning to the subject of friendship, I commented that Patrick is very kind, and asked if Tom, on behalf of SpongeBob, thought that kindness is more important than intelligence, looks or money when choosing friends?

Tom’s take:  “Oh, of course.  But Patrick isn’t always kind.  He’s interesting because he’s kind of a go-with-the-flow hedonist, an Id-driven guy.  As long as he has his creature comforts:  food, sleep, TV—he’s happy, almost beatnicky.  But if you cross him, he can turn into Incredible Hulk and go on destructive rages.”  Tom added, “Kindness is more important—good-looking, moneyed friends won’t drive you to the airport, but your kind friends will.”

Given that many children (and grow-ups too) have a hard time of things—feeling picked on, sad, not great at school or sports—I wondered what SpongeBob might offer to help them hang in there until times get better.  Tom pointed out that, “SpongeBob often feels those ways, such as in an early bully episode about Flat the Flounder” and added that many of the stories come from the lives of the writers and things that they did go through (like the episode about the box that Patrick keeps under his bed that no one is allowed to look inside of).

As afternoon made its way toward dusk, I asked Tom what it’s been like to be so intertwined with SpongeBob?  He pointed out that, “SpongeBob is one day a week.  The rest of week I’m doing other stuff—it lets me have a more functional relationship with my character.  Not just be Captain Kirk.”  Still, it’s pretty much where he’s been on Wednesday afternoons for the last ten years… “There’s a bit of him in me and me in him… there is a sort of Vulcan mind meld after the years.  When the show’s over it’s going to be a weird disengagement.”

Tom does feel that playing SpongeBob has, “made me more positive.  Representing this little guy is a nice responsibility to have.  When kids come up to you you want it to be a good experience for them.”  He’s been around the world and been amazed that there is such an enormous response to “this thing you do in a dank room filled with microphones.  We go to Children’s hospital and I get this feeling that, ‘hey, a dumb job can relieve people’s misery for a couple of minutes,’ that’s kind of cool.”

I asked Tom if being SpongeBob had influenced his parenting style.  He said, “I have guilt that my kids are sweating over algebra and I get to do stuff that would get them sent to the principal’s office (and got me sent to the principal’s office)… Maybe it’s made me less of an authority figure to them:  ‘Hey cartoon guy’s home… what are you going to do if we don’t brush our teeth, cartoon boy?’”

Yet Tom’s feelings seem to distill down to what many parents feel:  “All you can do is your best, as a parent you spend a lot of time fearing that your best isn’t good enough, that you’re coming up short or there’s stuff you don’t know or stuff you’re not doing.”

Finally, I asked if Tom thought SpongeBob’s popularity was a sign that the world was getting better or worse?  He observed that, “especially lately we’ve had all these examples of high-profile jerkiness, like standing up and shouting “You lie!” at the President.  That’s something SpongeBob would never do—it’s the epitome of non-SpongeBobness… it ain’t the SpongeBob way.”

So, many thanks to Tom for taking the time to illuminate us on some of the subtler points of SpongeBob in the service of better parenting and the greater good.  Let’s dedicate today to kindness, non-conformity and “flying our own freak-flags” in honor of all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous October 7, 2009 at 8:39 am

Wonderful post. Thank you and I will freely fly my freak-flag today and encourage son to do the same.

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Stephanie October 8, 2009 at 7:07 am

Please relay to Tom ( Tomcat) that I used to love hearing him as the lead singer of the TearJerkers every Tuesday night at the Lost Horizon.
Stephanie

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Jen October 8, 2009 at 2:12 pm

“It’s the best day ever, best day ever!!” My son and I love to sing that Spongebob song together, whether we’re feeling great or not so. Thanks, Bruce and Tom for the guidance as we float along our trying-to-be-kind, resilient and freaky paths!

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