Saturday, March 10, 2012

Lying to My Kid

Irreverent parent that I am, I have been letting my four year old daughter, Charlie, watch the Star Wars trilogy. (The real movies.) We watched A New Hope on a night when my wife was gone late to a conference. She, my daughter, had seen bits and pieces of that one at my parent's house, and she was very curious, and was always talking about Darth Vader, despite only having seen the first 20 minutes or so.

Thus, figuring that she had already been exposed to the highest body count part of the movie, the initial boarding scene, I thought it would probably be best for her to actually see the rest of the movie, and appreciate the characters and the triumph of good over evil, rather than just obsessing about Vader choke-lifting a rebel officer off of his feet, or Obi-Wan sabering the arm off some cantina scum.

And so, we sat and we watched. And thinking the most traumatic parts of the movie were already behind us, I thought nothing off letting her watch all the way to the end. And she did fine, seeming to have no problem with the rest of the movie, beyond asking a million and a half questions, and insisting Leia can't be a super-hero because she's a girl (thank youuuu, Disney)... 

...until Vader cut down Obi-Wan. And then all hell broke lose. Faceless Stormtroopers getting blasted with brightly colored beams of light and falling down is one thing. A friendly old man who has been helping Luke all along was another thing entirely. Where did he go? Is he dead? Sniffling and tears. He's dead, but he comes back, right? 

Well, it's Star Wars, and Obi-Wan Kenobi is a Jedi, so in this case, fortunately, the answer is yes. Yes, honey, just watch. He isn't gone forever. He comes back to help Luke in just a few minutes. Watch.

And so we hyper-drived our way through the rest of the series over the next couple of nights. We had some issues with The Empire Strikes Back, with Han getting frozen in carbonite, but of course, he survives that, even if you have to wait till the next one, and she absolutely would not accept that Vader was Luke's father- "He's too mean."

At this point, she has to see Return of the Jedi, because the whole brilliant arc of the six films is only leading up to one moment, the moment of Anakin's redemption, or "Darth Vader learning how to be nice again," as Charlie would say, and I'd been promising her all along that this would happen- he's mean now, but he does learn how to be nice again. (Thanks to the awesome Despicable Me, this is a story arc she is familiar with.)

But then he dies, and Luke burns his body, though fortunately, it is with the mask on, so she insists it is just Darth Vader's "costume." And then, there they are! The ghosts of all the nice Jedis who have perished over the course of the three films, Obi-Wan, Yoda and Anakin (the DVDs we have are new, so its the young Anakin- sigh.) Not gone, not dead, just friendly ghosts, there to watch over Luke forever and ever.

At this point, Jen and I figure, why not take her to see A Phantom Menace in 3D on the big screen? She'll get to see Anakin as a cute little kid, it'll help her understand that he was once nice, and those movie are so ridiculously cartoonish, she'll probably like them even more. And she did enjoy it quite a bit...

... until Qui-Gon Jinn dies, and he gets burned on the funeral pyre, but this time there is no mask. And this is when the real, uncontrollable tears start. (This is also where we feel like the worst parents in the world. I only ever saw the movie once, I didn't remember much except hating Jar-Jar.) 

This is also when we start lying to her.

No, no, he's not gone. He's a ghost now, like Obi-Wan and Yoda. 

How easy it is, when your child, your precious, your heart now external to you, is sobbing uncontrollably at being confronted with death, how easy it is to just start lying through your friggin' teeth.


I grew up a huge Star Wars fan, like most kids my age. I will always consider those movies among my all-time favorites. But I hadn't watched them much since I was a kid, so it has been curious to view them again with her, through a more critical eye. 

Like almost every other film that comes out of Hollywood, they play into some very familiar tropes. Good and Evil are very clear-cut. Bad guy deaths don't count. Good girls go for scoundrels. But the one that really irks me is this: skeptics are always just small-minded- faith is what counts. 

One masters the Force through faith, through believing in it. Until Luke learns to trust his instincts, to feel the Force, he can't become a Jedi. 

Solo doesn't believe in all that nonsense and hocus-pocus, and hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster by your side, kid. Look, he's been from one end of this galaxy to the other, and he's seen a lot of strange things, but he's never seen anything that would lead him to believe there's some all-powerful force shaping his destiny. 

Solo continues doubting the Force and Luke's potential, pretty much right up until Luke rescues him from Jabba the Hutt. And even then, he never admits that he was wrong, though of course we all know he was.

Twice in A New Hope are the Force and the ways of the Jedi referred to as a "religion." Listing "Jedi" on government census forms has become a world-wide joke, with tens of thousands of people in the English-speaking world getting in on it.  

As an adult, I have a much greater appreciation for why I was so drawn to those movies, especially to the idea of becoming a Jedi. I always played Luke. My much more skeptical (and it turns out, wiser) brother, always played Han. I left for college intending to become a priest. My brother has been agnostic pretty much since he was old enough to have an opinion. 

I so desperately wanted to believe in something bigger than myself, to be part of the cosmic battle between good and evil, to give myself over, entirely and selflessly, to the eventual triumph of good over evil. I would have much, much preferred to be Jedi over Christian, there was so much more action, and who doesn't want a light-saber?, but I'd make do.


Back to lying to your kid.

Children are so, so fragile. We yell at them a dozen times a day because they've put their tiny bodies in some imminent danger, something you wouldn't even notice your spouse doing- walking past an open oven, jumping down two steps, waving their fork in their eye. 

But it is their minds that we work the hardest to protect. I can swallow my instincts, if I have a moment to suppress the gut-reaction, and let Charlie try ice-skating on her own, or riding a bike, knowing that falling and scraped elbows and banged heads are part of growing up. But what I can't do is see her terrified. 

So when your kid is sobbing over the death of even a character on a movie screen, repeatedly asking you, "Why? Why are they burning his body? Why is he dead?" the temptation to tell them anything, any crazy old thing, that will comfort them, is very, very powerful. Even telling them the patently absurd notion that death isn't death. It's just, well, something else. A transition. 

At her age, in the context of those movies, I am fine with her thinking that Jedis become ghosts. (Another similarity to religion here- only Jedis seem to see the afterlife. Sorry, Han.) 

But someday, that answer won't suffice, and I'll have to tell her the truth: I don't know what happens when we die. It seems like we just... die. And that's it.


There have been numerous theories over the years as to why the propensity to believe in something as irrational and unlikely as life after death is fairly universal in human cultures, and many of those explanations are much more thorough, and legitimate, than my brief foray here. 

But it is a well-established fact that children acquire their beliefs about religion, more than anything else, from their parents. Most of the rest of the ideas we hold about the world can find some referent; they can be cross-checked with reality in some way. Religion is immune to this, and so most people just take other people's word for it. And it is always easiest to swallow the words of those we trust the most already. And there is no greater trust than that which a child places in his or her parents.

So it is not inconceivable to me that the notion of life after death grew out of the pity a parent had for their child, when that child wanted to know where their dead brother or sister had gone. The instinct to protect them from the dangers and fears of the world is so strong, so universal, that it isn't even inconceivable that the same idea occurred over and over again, all over the world. 

And with no checks in the real world, there is no reason to stop believing it. And since good deception begins with self-deception, it isn't hard to see how even those who began perpetuating this idea, slowly began to actually believe it themselves.

No parent wants to see their child in fear. But we also want them to grow. Learning to ride a bike involves taking some falls. Learning to live involves facing some fears. If we want our children to face the world, and their fears, with courage and resolution, we can't give in to our own cowardice. We can't be afraid to speak the truth, to say those words that we dread will undermine our entire relationship with them, dissolve all of their trust-

"You know, honey, I just don't know. I don't think anybody really does."

Don't worry- they'll still love you. And you'll still be their entire world.

But more importantly, you'll have taught them something more valuable than anything they could ever learn from any lie.


  1. I spent some time yesterday talking to a friend and his son (who's about Charlie's age) in a coffee shop. Also like Charlie, at least from what I gather, he's very smart, very articulate little thing. He started telling me about a game he likes to play on his dad's phone in which you shoot arrows at a castle and if you shoot it enough times, it falls down. If you shoot a person, he told me, they fall down and go to sleep. Same with the horses, they fall down and go to sleep. "I love being a father," my friend said.

    Little kids think really metaphorically about concepts that are otherwise too big to wrap their heads around (think of Charlie and the "turning around" in chess). The concepts of death as absence of being and even "forever" are so big that some people never wrap their heads around it. So it's maybe a little hard on yourself to think of it as "lying" to your child when you're essentially just allowing her to understand a pretty dark, expansive subject in the best, least traumatic way she can, even if her understanding is deeply flawed.

    Another friend's child told his pregnant mother that he knew where babies came from: Daddy put a seed in the garden and when mommy went out there, the seed crawled up into her tummy. It sounds like he probably come across some factual information about conception, but since the anatomical reality was pretty far outside anything he could reasonably imagine, he distilled it into the much more manageable garden story. Their response was simply to say, "Well, that's not quite it, but yes, Daddy put a seed in Mommy's tummy," and left the particulars for later. Kids are smart and they're pretty good at letting you know when they're ready for the next level of information.

    Of course I'll judge you more harshly if you let Charlie go through life using the reasoning and coping skills of a four year old, but I think you're in the ethical clear for now and I feel reasonably sure you guys will guide her well on this (and all) subject(s) as the opportunities arise.

    P.S. It was the freezing in carbonite that made me dissolve into a hysterical mess when I was about seven. Because he wasn't even *dead* he was just trapped, like being buried alive, which seemed a million times more terrifying.

  2. Thanks for the absolution, Meghan, but I wasn't feeling terribly guilty about the who "lying" thing... not right now. I felt a hundred times worse about making her cry.

    Which, upon reflection, was the whole point. But yes, I think you are exactly right. It is about the enormity of things, and I think you are even more right when you say that some people (I would probably say most) don't ever get around to really wrestling those concepts to the ground. I certainly don't deal with them on a daily basis.

    Yeah, carbonite is freaky. :)