The Force Will Be With You… When You’re Older

Eitan loves Star Wars.

He has masks of Darth Vader and Captain Phasma that he uses when playing dress-up. When Trudy bought him new pairs of pajamas to wear to school for pajama day he chose the Darth Vader set over the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles set.1 He has a pre-reader book of Star Wars stories and loves pointing out Chewbacca, Han “Sola” and the “Stormtrippers.” He starts laughing anytime he sees C-3PO and R2-D2 and, once in a while, I’ll catch him glancing at the Yoda toy sitting on his dresser that he got from my father. When he was a baby, I would throw him up in the air while singing the Star Wars theme song and I would take his echoing toy microphone and say in my deepest voice, “Eitan… I am your father.”2 We recently had to hide his “light-savers” so he wouldn’t use them in the house because things like this kept happening:

 

There’s one little problem with Eitan’s love of Star Wars, though:

He’s never actually seen it.

Eitan hasn’t watched any of the movies. He hasn’t seen any of the television shows. He knows most of the names and characters but I don’t think he would recognize Luke Skywalker if twenty-year-old Mark Hammill walked into the room. I’m actually not even sure he would recognize the name Luke Skywalker because characters like Darth Vader and Chewbacca are marketed so much more frequently.

In fact, now that I think about it, I don’t even think Eitan knows what the Force is.

Most of this is by design, of course. I could have put Star Wars on for Eitan so he could watch it during any number of rainy days. The biggest reason I haven’t done so yet is because I think it would scare him. Chewbacca is a giant teddy bear at heart, but there are a bunch of aliens in the cantina on Tatooine that are not nearly as cuddly. Emperor Palpatine’s eyes and voice are incredibly creepy and Darth Vader… well, Vader is just terrifying. He’s strong, he’s dressed in black, you never see the face behind his mask and he appears to be unstoppable.

Aside from the fear factor is my hesitation about pushing Eitan’s interests in the direction of conflicts that are sometimes quite violent. The light saber fights are exciting and the special effects of the various gun fights are incredible to watch, especially as a child seeing them for the first time. The problem is that weapons, in real life, are incredibly dangerous and are specifically designed to cause harm to others. Even though Eitan has (unfortunately) had some experience with death and is old enough to understand the concept, at least in a basic sense, I worry about the idea of encouraging his interest in a movie so replete with acts of violence.

I should add, for the record, that my unease isn’t limited to Star Wars. I have the same concerns about pushing Eitan to become more interested in super heroes for the same reason. Eitan “likes” Batman and Superman the same way he likes Star Wars; he has some toys, clothes and books, but he doesn’t know too much of the characters’ backgrounds. Even if Eitan is well acquainted with character deaths from Disney movies – Frozen, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, take your pick – the idea of him becoming desensitized to shootings and sword fights just doesn’t sit well with me.

I realize that the desensitization is probably inevitable. Kids act out what they see on television and in movies, whether it’s Daniel Tiger learning coping skills, Blaze the Monster Truck speeding past volcanoes to teach fair play or super heroes fighting off bad guys. I suppose my hope is primarily that I can delay Eitan’s interest in guns so that he stays more of an innocent young child in my mind for at least a little longer before the negative influences of the rest of the world really start to creep in.

Look, Eitan will see Star Wars. It’s one of my all time favorite movies and I can’t wait to introduce Eitan to the stories and characters that I’ve loved since I was a child. The movies teach about magic, teamwork and a sense of wonder that I believe are so much more important than any references to violence, which is exactly how I will present the movies to Eitan. He is also finally getting to the age where I can really start sharing my interests with him in ways he can understand. I can tell he is looking forward to it, if only based on his enthusiasm for a movie he’s never seen and doesn’t even really understand. But I would rather wait another year or so, partially so that I can be more confident that the movie won’t scare Eitan too much, but also so that he understands more about the consequences of physical violence and the differences between fact and fiction.

 


1. Eitan made his choice fairly easily, but five-year-old me would have really grappled with that decision. Seven-year-old me would have had an even harder time.

2. I don’t do this anymore now. I’m scared he’s going to have that plot point spoiled for him before I can show him the movie and there’s no way I’m going to be the one to do it.

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Turning Sadness Inside Out

A couple of weeks ago, on Father’s Day, in fact, Trudy and I took Eitan to the movies to see Inside Out. We had not made any significant plans for Father’s Day, aside from having dinner with my in-laws, partially due to the threat of inclement weather and partially due to the fact that the rest of June was so busy with other activities, like Eitan’s moving up ceremony from preschool, his birthday party and my brother’s wedding. A movie seemed like a nice relaxing way to spend some time together as a family.

First of all, the film was terrific. Most of the themes were probably a bit over Eitan’s head; after all, as smart as he is, he is only three years old and he is not quite ready to grasp concepts like moving to a different city or the emotional attachments that we have with certain memories. But he was able to recognize that Bing Bong’s tears were candy and that it was funny when the House of Cards got knocked over. He also enjoyed seeing Riley jumping on a trampoline and making goofy faces with her parents, two activities I’m sure he associates with his own parents.

funnyfaces

And, as is usually the case with Pixar films, there were plenty of comments interspersed through the dialogue that were designed to keep adults interested, such as Riley’s mother’s frustration with her husband during dinner and Fear’s running commentary of Riley’s dreams. Pixar has been inserting those types of nuggets since their first few movies (A Bug’s Life; Monsters, Inc.; Toy Story; etc.) and they usually do a masterful job.1

The other reason I continue to go back to Pixar movies, though, is because they tell meaningful stories. Sure, kids watch Finding Nemo and enjoy it because of fish with funny voices. The same could be said about any of the other movies; they all have colorful characters who do silly things and have silly voices. But the film makers are particularly adept at portraying complex and challenging situations through those characters. Finding Nemo is about finding the balance between keeping one’s children safe and letting them explore and become independent. The Toy Story movies are about loyalty and friendship. Cars illustrates the dangers of hubris and the importance of treating others with respect. Inside Out demonstrates the ways children develop emotional intelligence and gives insight into the ways that parents encourage – and sometimes discourage – that development.

One of the things that I’ve seen parents do is try to shield their children from having to experience difficult situations. This is not necessarily a bad thing; certainly, our world is filled with enough negativity that our children will realize quickly enough that life is hard and that bad things happen. It’s why we monitor the shows and movies that our kids are watching and, in a perfect world, why we watch those programs with our kids; we want to be there to explain why bad things are happening to certain characters. But I think there is a danger in being overly zealous about “protecting” children from adversity, fictional or otherwise.2 If children never experience challenges, they will never learn to overcome them. The whole point of resiliency is that people are able to experience difficulties and use their problem solving skills to move past them.

In the movie, Joy believes that Riley should be protected from Sadness because she does not want Riley to feel any sort of suffering. The lesson that Joy learns – and that we have to teach our children – is that negative feelings may be uncomfortable, but that does not mean they are “bad.” Feelings like sadness, embarrassment, fear and anger may not be the most enjoyable experiences, but they also present opportunities for growth. The fact that we are capable of experiencing different combinations of feelings is what allows us to cheer each other on when things are going well and to comfort each other when tragedy strikes. We need to be able experience different feelings in order to understand what other people are going through. Completely ignoring a feeling not only prevents us from having a realistic view of the world, it prevents us from being able to feel empathy.

It makes us less human.

Our kids need to realize that they have the ability to develop coping skills to respond to negative circumstances, rather than just trying to avoid them. They need to know that it okay to feel sad or angry or afraid, just like it is okay to feel excited or happy. They need to learn that feelings are not “good” or “bad,” but that they are the ways in which we experience the world around us and the ways we share those experiences with others. They need to understand that empathy helps us become better people.

And it is up to us to teach them.

 


1. If you haven’t seen these movies, or it’s just been a while, I can’t recommend them strongly enough. The Toy Story trilogy, in particular, continues to be a set of my favorite movies.

2. Remember what happened to Phoebe?