Star Wars and Kids

R2D2 OK, how to approach this… A few weeks ago Miles brought home an R2D2 toy and a “Learning to Read” Star Wars book. Started talking Star Wars characters and planets (you know, “light savers” and “Dark Tater”… the whole bit). Started making his own light sabers out of cardboard tubes, talking about the next characters he wanted to get. Turns out there’s a sizable cadre of kindergartners who are way into the Star Wars thing, and had even been watching the movies. The school is suddenly swimming with Star wars. Boy-hood had started for real.

Soon after, we went to a Star Wars-themed birthday party. Foam-core cut-out Tie Fighters to bomb with water balloons from the back deck, Stormtroopers tacked to the fence and a rack of Nerf guns to shoot them with, figurines all over the house, the whole nine yards. Great fun, but now Miles wanted to watch the real SW movies.

I never in a million years would have that the actual SW movies were age-appropriate for a five-year-old — we’re still on Backyardigans and Curious George fer cripes sake. Seemed like a quantum leap to go from kid shows to one of the great epics of the 20th century overnight. As of last week, his idea of grown-up TV was carefully selected and filtered episodes of Mythbusters and Man vs. Wild (my own personal TV obsessions), which he watched with me.

Started to doubt myself after learning that a lot of kindersquirts were already watching Star Wars. I was concerned about two things: Amount of violence and plot complexity. Could they even begin to grok it? And what effect would that much violence have on them? Talking to a lot of other dads about this recently, and starting to feel alone. Was I artificially holding him back? Was he more ready than I was giving him credit for? And if movie violence is in the context of an epic struggle between good and evil, and you know good is going to win, and that most of the killing is abstracted to ‘droids, is it really so bad? Especially if you watch with them and explain everything?

And doesn’t every parent who grew up with eps IV-VI dream of eventually watching the whole series in order, with their kids? I did. Just didn’t think we’d be doing this until age 10 or so.

Darthmaul Finally relented and borrowed episodes I-III from another dad. Granted, we were hitting the pause button every few minutes to explain things, but I was blown away, both by his ability to understand the story arc and by the fact that he wasn’t scared. Not one bit. I kept asking, and he kept reassuring me. I started to feel like I really had been holding him back, perhaps babying him unnecessarily in terms of what he could handle. His questions and impressions were so innocent, yet so wise. The death of Qui Gon Jinn seemed to affect him profoundly, but only, as it turned out, because he thought Qui Gon was Anakin’s daddy. Then Obi Wan’s vengeance on Darth Maul gave rise to a discussion about concepts of justice and revenge. The scene of Yoda teaching the ways of The Force to five-year-olds from across the galaxy had him ecstatic. He was getting it all, lapping it up. We were having an awesome time.

Got halfway through episode II tonight, then off to bed. 20 minutes later he starts crying out in terror from his bedroom. Went in to see what was up, and he was barely able to blubber out “DARTH MAUL IS STARING AT ME IN THE HALLWAY!!!”

Lord, what have I done? I’ve traumatized my child, subjected him to things no kindergartner should see. Feeling terrible about this. Held him for a long time, till he drifted off in peace.

Turns out that what he saw was the silhouette of a cute, puffy red dinosaur attached to his backpack, hanging from the door, amplified in the dim light to the standing incarnation of evil itself. Interesting that entire space stations full of souls being blown to fragments seem to have no effect, while the face of the dark side linger in his mind.

What to do next? He’s obsessed with a story, and we’re having a great time, but maybe I should have trusted my instincts and waited a few years. Should we turn off the Star Wars valve tomorrow? Maybe it’s a passing thing. But then what happens when he has to witness Luke doing battle with his own father? The politics of it all are complicated enough – how would I explain that one? We’ll leave this one up to him. If he’s willing to risk another bad dream in exchange for the waking fun, then so be it (but Amy sez: “One more nightmare, and we’re done.”)

Moving out of toddler-hood into genuine childhood, and all of its complexities. Everything becomes less clear-cut. You have to make up some of the rules as you go. But you also have to be solid, and consistent. You have to articulate things to yourself that have been dormant, bubbling in the back of your mind. “If I’m ever a parent, I’ll…” Time’s up. No more abstractions. Decision time.

Music: Pere Ubu :: Surfer Girl

23 Replies to “Star Wars and Kids”

  1. I was wondering what made you decide to show them to Miles in the “proper” chronological order?

    I’ve been planning on showing them to my (future) children in the following manner:

    4 5 1 2 3 6

    I feel this has several advantages. The first of which is that it will allow the viewer to experience the “Luke, I am your father” moment as a surprise, just as we did. It also frames the prequels as a flashback before the final redemption of Darth Vader.

  2. I Like PJ’s idea. And I think episode 4 is both the “least scary” and easiest to understand of the bunch (tho’ I’d fast-forward through that brief scene of the charred bodies of Luke’s aunt & uncle lying outside their home on Tatooine).

  3. I agree that where you went wrong here was going for chron order rather than the proper order ;)

    Star Wars has saturated the culture so much that the kids at my kid’s school would play Star Wars obsessively – despite the fact that none of them had seen any of the movies.

    I first started telling the Star Wars stories a year or so ago to Zoe orally, usually on car rides. I make up a lot of stories but when I am tired it is easier to just re-tell ones you know.

    A few months ago we watched Star Wars proper, and she loved it. She is 6.5 – I first saw the movie when I was 7, my wife saw it when she was 5. She loved it, and was not scared. We then watched Empire Strikes Back a few weeks later. There was a bit more pause/explain with that one, and she says she still likes the first one better. I am guessing when we watch Return of the Jedi she might be swayed by the Ewoks.

    I considered spacing them at least a year apart to better emulate how I saw them, but I couldn’t really come up with a valid reason for that.

    The violence factor is something to think about. But has Miles already seen The Incredibles? There is actually a fair amount of violence/guns in that movie.

    My biggest mistake was renting “James and the Giant Peach” when Zoe was 3 and not previewing it myself. That led to quite a few nightmares.

  4. The One True Order: 4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3

    Nathan (turning five in March) has been jazzed on Star Wars for over a year – we were playing Lego Star Wars together even though Jenni and I had decided that he wasn’t ready for the movies.

    It wasn’t until this summer that we relented, and slowly began watching the movies in True Order. Moreover, I have DVDs made from the LaserDisc release – it’s the true Original Trilogy, without the CGI of the Special Edition. Han still shoots first.

    IV is, IMHO, the most child-friendly of all the movies. The violence is rarely explicit, Good and Bad are very clear, and there’s a lighter feeling. III seems to me to be the least friendly – we waited longest to show this to Nathan.

    It helped, though, that Nathan already “knew” most of the movies from the excellent adaptation of the Star Wars Lego video games – which, while true to the movies, is much lighter in all aspects.

  5. PJ – You’re way ahead of me. I don’t have the kind of familiarity with the story to know what happens in what episodes, let alone to make sense your bizarre ordering scheme! I do like the idea of saving the Luke/father thing for a surprise, but always assumed it was meant to be watched in order and that Lucas would have created them in order if he’d had the foresight.

    Watching it this time through, I’m realizing now that I’ve never really understood the storyline as a whole. Spacing the movies out by so many years, everything felt disconnected, and I wasn’t able to remember what had happened in other episodes. Now it finally feels coherent, which is really cool.

    @mikepop – Funny you mention The Incredibles. That was his first theater movie, but he was only a baby at the time and slept through most of it. He was just tagging along because we took his cousins to see it. But to the point of your question, we’ve vigorously filtered all violent inputs from his media diet until now. This is a really big step as far as that goes.

    @Jim – I had seen Star Wars Legos in stores, but there’s a movie that goes with them? Or just a SW Lego video game?

  6. I actually have pretty strong feelings about this stuff myself, and wondering how I’d handle it with my child.

    I, like Miles, was a really sensitive kid. My first “adult” movie experience was Superman, when I was four. The first scene where Krypton is destroyed totally freaked me out —– I started screaming, running up the aisle and had a full blown panic attack in the lobby, screaming at my dad “Don’t you EVER, EVER, EVER take me to see a movie like this again!!!!!!”

    Other movies had similar results: in particular, the scene in Star Trek 2 (The Wrath of Kahn) where Ricardo Mantalban unveils this weird aquarium with those horseshoe-crab type thingies in there and then, using a speculum-like tool, pries apart its exoskeleton to take out these wriggling worms and puts them in Chekov’s helmet to slide into his ear canal to turn him into a zombie spy turncoat. I had nightmares for months.

    Most vivid though, in my memory, was my reaction to Han Solo getting frozen in The Empire Strikes Back. Totally, totally, terrifying. I think it tapped into this primordial fear of non-death limbo (“CAN HE BREATHE IN THERE?????!!!!!!!”).

    I laugh a bit now at this stuff, especially when I see the scenes again —- some are so cheesy that it’s hard as an adult to see the scariness.

    This just reminded me of another now infamous Glengary family anecdote: my mom rented us John Boorman’s “Excalibur” when I was seven and my sister was five. She had it confused with Disney’s “The Sword and the Stone.” The first scene opens and it’s a battle scene —- some guy gets his arm chopped off and there are crows pecking the eyes out of gallows corpses. I think my mom might have even said something like “Aaaaany minute now, girls, there’s going to be a wonderful wizard and MAGIC!” And then she inexplicably let us watch the whole thing. I saw it again as an adult and it’s totally violent with this steamy scene with Helen Mirren as Morgana that’s near soft-core porn. So, Scot, I wouldn’t beat yourself up too badly about your parental “irresponsibility.” :-)

  7. Sammy’s 28 months, and while he has seen a full-length movie (Cars), I’m not planning on showing him any movies in the near future or any non-G-rated films until 6 or 7.

    I’m one hundred percent biased by my own experience, but I have to think the right age for Star Wars (even Episode IV) is the age I was when I saw it: 12. But I’d probably show it to Sammy at 8 or so.

    In the meantime, I like mikepop’s approach — story first, movie later. There are dozens of children’s adaptations of the different SW movies in book form, and some of them even seem to be worth something.

    Sorry to hear about Miles’ nightmare. I’ve been surprised by Sammy and how many times stuff that he seemed ok with at one point bubbles up days or weeks later as something he doesn’t like or expresses concern about.

  8. Funny that you should post this just now. Just this weekend I finally caved and showed IV, V, and VI to my six year old, who has been obsessed with Star Wars for nearly three years.

    As with other posters here, his age-mates at the hippy private school he attends right now all (ALL) are completely whacko about Star Wars, although almost none of them ever have seen the movies.

    Through very subtle but persistent interrogation of everyone they meet, they had figured out every character, every plot event — in sequence and calibrated to the proper episode — and knew the precise history of … well … all of it.

    Without any of them ever watching the actual movies, I hasten to say again.

    So finally I decided that witholding the movies until the planned 8 or 9 years of age simply was generating a fetish about the whole thing, that I was making the violence and aggressiveness of the whole thing more, not less desirable.

    In actual fact, my six year old watched the movies with some excitement, then walked away from them. Apparently, they were not quite so exciting as the drama he had built up over the last three years in his imagination.

    I do still have grave reservations about I, II, and III, especially III with its scenes of Jawa genocide and Anakin’s flagrant murders of the Jedi children. This is brutally dark stuff that does not seem to be part of the shared, swashbuckling kid obsession, and shouldn’t be.

    Same reservations about the later Harry Potter films — they get darker and darker as the main characters age.

    Really, the earlier trilogy (IV, V, VI) essentially is just a comic book…the plot is quite simple. And IV, especially, goes very light on the gratiuitous violence (as opposed to the BOOM, BANG, POW comic book violence). Exceptions noted for Luke’s adoptive family seen charred and smoking after the Empire attack, and also the bloody severed arm in the famous Mos Eisley bar scene.

    So now the boy seems to have had his fill of Star Wars for the moment. He’s already catching some buzz in the air about a new Indiana Jones movie about which I am only dimly aware.

    James Atkinson
    Asheville, NC

  9. @Amy: The Shining? You’re evil.


    But I’d probably show it to Sammy at 8 or so.

    You say that now… :) Wait till the peer pressure kicks in. No, that sounds like I’m saying parents are powerless against peer pressure – that’s not what I mean at all. Only that it kicks in strong, and, as we’ve just learned, long before we expected it to. We’ve had to adjust our expectations about when things would unfold, and so far, no real regrets. However, we’ve finished ep II now and are gearing up for ep III, which is supposed to the most intense one. Hope we don’t end up eating crow on this.

    @James: That’s just incredible (that all the kids had memorized so much of the movie without having seen it).

    Crap. After reading your notes in ep III, I’m wondering whether we shouldn’t just skip it altogether. Miles will have a cow if I say that, but maybe it would be for the best. Urgh.

  10. yes, for Ep.III you might want to do some front-work and use the scene/chapter approach from the DVD. Watch up to a certain point, say you need to take a break, come back and conveniently jump a scene via the menu.

    And the one true order is:


  11. Well, based on the comments here, we’ve decided to tell a little white lie tonight and say the ep III disc is scratched and not watchable. We’re going to try and borrow IV-VI and jump back to comic book land.

  12. Scot,

    you obviously didn’t watch the accompanying Youtube clip. That was the “joke” part of citing “The Shining.”

    And I warn you again —– you can jump back to the latter (former?) episodes and “comic book land” (those ewoks, the bane of adult Star Wars fans, are pretty darn cute to five year olds), but I reiterate that the Han Solo carbon freezing sequence in Empire Strikes Back is problematic.

    For fans of “Cloud City” in Empire Strikes Back, this is for you:

    I recently saw a painting that skewers hermetic, minimalist art museum/gallery settings, merging it with Star Wars. Scott Listfield’s “Chewbacca In Cloud City with Art” is one of the funniest paintings I’ve ever seen.

    I love the way that the jaded, uber-cool museumgoer’s messenger bag mimics the way Chewbacca is carrying C3PO. And, absolutely, you have to know the artwork in order to fully appreciate how hilarious the painting is. I see so much work that tries to be sardonic in this fashion that falls spectacularly flat or is just too earnest or derivative. His painting style, color choices and approach to the humor is fantastic. It’s especially funny in this painting, I think, because Judd is really the artist that defines detatched minimalism for so many people (both his fans and detractors.) Especially since he also fabricates high-end “furniture” featured at MoMA and is part of the Design As Art movement. I’m a big Judd fan. I think the reason I connected with Scott’s piece so much is that the first piece of art I really fell in love with as a child was a similar Judd (with green acrylic) at the DIA. But it’s not the piece he’s referencing, it doesn’t have the brass exoskeleton. There is a piece at the Hirschorn that is this same piece but with fluorescent pink acrylic. Dreamy!

    Please let us know how the rest of the viewings turn out!

  13. Zeigen- g’luck holding off on the non-G fare until 6 or 7! We tried the same approach with our eldest (now 11) and while I still believe that in principal it was the right thing to do, in reality we basically practiced being overprotective on the poor kid and he resents it. Oops, my bad. Don’t we all hate our parents for something like this, around which we experience an epiphany shortly after having children, and shortly before making similar mistakes? Ah, but I diverge…

    Scot, all- not to knock the idea but showing any serial story to young kids in any sort of rational order amuses me. Of course all our kids are plenty smart, and yours is a great idea, and they might even appreciate it with wide-eyed wonder the first time around… but I’ve noticed that my 2 younger kids tend to watch whatever is in the DVD player for however long they can, with any number of long or short interruptions – including minutes, hours or days of other vids, school, Wii, some actual outdoor physical activity, whatever- with no regard or complaint about the order or disorder of the narrative. It blows my mind! Star Wars in random chunks? No problem. With a couple of Harry Potters thrown in randomly? Bring it on. How about Spidey 1, 2 or 3? Fine, but better yet 3, 1, _then_ 2. Don’t forget to mix in some Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Elf for good measure!

    Incidentally my 11yr old got into Star Wars at about the same age as you’re describing for Miles, we enjoyed sharing something magical from our youth with him, and he still loves to play light sabers in the back yard. He is very into baseball too and has this great spinning the bat over his head figure-8 habit/ritual/flourish thing that he does when he gets to the plate. Someone watching him bat last year was impressed and asked if he practices a martial art? “Nope” I told him, “light sabers”.

  14. Update: Y’all were right – ep III would have been way out of M’s league. Watched it without him the other night and it’s by far the most gruesome and complexly political of the episodes. He grumbled a bit but forgot all about it when ep IV came on.

    What a jarring segue to go from III to IV. The effects seem so primitive, so underfunded. Which was actually the case – Lucas didn’t have the resources at the start of the project that he had later, and it shows. But it’s charming. Hadn’t seen it since it came out in, what, ’78? Made me feel like a kid. Only I had so little comprehension of it back then. The whole storyline making so much more sense now than it ever has.

    Miles is mostly concerned with what color light sabers various characters have, and gets very confused when they change. I told him sabers were like umbrellas – you have one for a while, it breaks, you get a new one. Or you borrow one from someone, etc. He’s also wanting me to tell him the model # of all the non-prime R2 units. Some little ‘droid will trundle by in the background and he’ll be talking right right over the dialog. “That must be R2D1, because look, it has blue shoulders.” He’s getting something very different out of this than I am.

    Anyway, I’m starting to get what you guys mean by “The one true order.” I always assumed that watching them in numerical order was always the plan, but now I realize how/why it makes sense to watch them the same way we saw them as kids, with IV-VI first, as unintuitive as it seems.

  15. @ Amy – I did watch the Shining clip the first time, but didn’t get the joke. Assumed it was the original trailer for the movie, which felt weird because I remembered it as psychological thriller so why would they whitewash it as a feelgood? Didn’t occur to me that it was a re-cut faked trailer! (finally got that from one of the comments on YT).

    Re: The freezing sequence – we stand on notice. I think I know the fear you’re talking about – in some other movie (The Abyss?) a character has to breathe liquid oxygen. Watching it turned me inside out.

    Thanks for the Listfield link. I’m still digesting.

  16. @Steve: I can totally relate. Even moving from movie time to bed time, and back to the 5-yr-fare. It’s like, we think he’s just been catapulted into this grown-up mindset, but he’s still 5, still just as happy as ever to read little kid stuff. And the next morning it’s back to Backyardigans. This makes us happy. And his comments on the movie as it’s happening remind us that he’s not seeing it through our eyes at all.

  17. Wow, and I thought this was a big dilemma just for me. My son is turning 5 in April and I wanted to show Episode IV to him that night. My wife says “no way” but I was 5 when I saw it….. boys will be boys and everyone is different. I think you need to trust your gut about your own child. Personally I think my son is ready for it. The second part of my problem is how do I keep my soon to be 3yo daughter from watching it too? She watches everything he does and she is sharp as a tack mentally…..

  18. The second part of my problem is how do I keep my soon to be 3yo daughter from watching it too?

    Interesting dilemma – I’d say… now is the time to make it clear that “it’s not yet her time for Star Wars, but that time will come.” Maybe she can play outside or do a puzzle while big brother watches SW?

  19. I had been contemplating getting the OT dvd’s, for my son for his 4th birthday – I have fond fond memories of listening to it on record at about that age (born in 1975). But maybe thats pushing it too much.

    The problem is that I’m really really really really looking forward to watching it with him – it was such an exciting part of my childhood – to the extent that my favorite color changed from blue to green in 1983 when luke skywalker got his new lightsaber in rotj. haha.

    don’t get me wrong, I’m far from one of the fans who go to conventions, but it was just an important part of my growing up, that I absolutely can’t wait to share it.

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