We took a big step together the other day, my five-year-old son and I: we sat down and watched the original Star Wars. This had long been foretold – the hype for The Force Awakens, the latest instalment in the franchise which opens this weekend, had built up over the course of this year to the point where the film’s launch had practically replaced Christmas as the most important thing in the world ever.
Some other children at his school had seen the originals already, Star Wars T-shirts had begun to infiltrate the playground and Star Wars Lego was already the toast of the toy shop. He knew that a Millennium Falcon was not a term from the young ornithologist’s club. Now my son wanted to go back to the ancient texts, which meant the 1977 film, Episode IV, A New Hope. My wife and I had decided that once he was five he would be allowed to sit down and watch the film (in the way that as a parent you make arbitrary rules which you then declare utterly inviolable.) I freely admit I did everything I could to emboss the whole thing as a rite of passage. Last weekend, with the new film hoving in to view like a Star Destroyer and the old films coming round on the TV once again, it was decreed that my boy was ready.
So we watched all three films together, and then we discussed them at some length. It occurs to me that the whole series can be a useful parenting tool. Perhaps not the best parenting bible available – when you are a father with a young son all that stuff about the young son having to kill his evil father can cause complications – but then again I have read all kinds of baloney purporting to offer a watertight parenting credo over the last five years. I would say that Star Wars is as good a place as any to start.
What is the force? An obvious question and one that Star Wars, when you actually watch it again, skirts around like a politician justifying duff legislation on the Today programme. This does at least allow for interpretation, and so in our house the interpretation of the meaning of The Force is that it is a source of self-belief and determination. When the odds seem insurmountable use the Force. This is as applicable at piano practice as it is when trying to destroy the Death Star.
Political Science: a primer
Star Wars offers a (very) rough guide to democracy and dictatorship, with the evil, glowering Emperor Palpatine the tyrant who wants to rule the world and the rebel alliance an example of the ultimate triumph of collective endeavour. For a young child, it’s never quite that simple – the concept that being a rebel is a good thing, for example, can be problematic when it comes discipline at school. But explaining the rise of fascism and the origins of the Second World War is far easier when you can say Hitler was basically the Emperor without the cloak.
A complicated one this. My son didn’t bat an eyelid as Stormtroopers and other expendable bad guys were blasted to kingdom come by Luke and Han but he was upset at the death of the legendary Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) at the hands of Darth Vader. In particular, the fact that Obi-Wan appears to let Vader kill him, when things seemed to be going Obi-Wan’s way in their light sabre fight, caused some consternation. My son was shouting ‘Come on Obi-Wan!’ at precisely the point Obi Wan dropped his hands, looked at Luke and then let Vader slay him. Seconds later he was welling up, and worse, trying to explain it away manfully by saying that his tummy hurt. The questions were: ‘Is Obi-Wan dead?’ which I fudged shamelessly by saying, ‘His spirit lives on,’ and ‘Does he come back?’ But of course Obi Wan does come back, as a voice and a hologram, which turns out to be a useful way of showing how the dead and their deeds live on in our memories. I further told my son that Obi-Wan’s self-sacrifice was the best thing he could do, given that his legacy will drive Luke to greater things. My son’s answer was, as usual, succinct and irrefutable: ‘No, it was the worst thing he could do, because now he’s dead.’
My son was asking ‘What will happen?’ from practically the first scene. I told him it was a long film and he’d have to wait and see. This was an obvious echo of the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment from the 1960s in which children were given the choice of a small reward now or a larger one later. The older, smarter kids, the study showed, were able to hold off longer. It is, of course, a staple of all storytelling that things get worse before they get better, and you need to see a narrative through: in the age of YouTube clips and Vines this is more important than ever. By the end of the film, as Luke fired off the one last shot that blew up the Death Star, my son had his fists clenched with excitement.
The Dark Side
Or, ‘Whatever it was that took hold of you when we wouldn’t let you play on the iPad this morning.’ The question of why Anakin Skywalker would start out a darling little boy and turn in to the second most evil man in the galaxy, Darth Vader, is of course a morality play that is particularly relevant to parents with darling little boys. Now that my son and I had properly encountered Darth Vader in all his breathy loathsomeness I tried to parlay this whole thing in to a discussion of choices and consequences. Like Luke, everyone has powers that they may choose to use for good or bad ends. Being one of the good guys (and a five year old’s moral world is dualistic: you’re a good guy or a bad guy) is about recognising when you’re being faced with one of those choices, and making the right one. The slight problem is that in Star Wars the really good guy, Luke, is a vapid ninny whereas the bad guys, from Vader down, are all cool as hell. I have determined that we’ll leave the discussion of why the devil gets all the best tunes until we get on to Milton.
How I wish that Star Wars was Star Constructive Negotiations and there was no need for all that fighting, but as John Stuart Mill said, “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” My son hears a lot of talk about war on the radio and regularly picks up on it. Who is at war at the moment? Who started it? Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? Where is Syria? Star Wars shows that wars sometimes need to be fought – bullying can never be tolerated – but that they are never without terrible consequences.
Never giving up
Much recent psychology suggests that rather than praising your kids for being clever you should praise them for their effort and persistence. Happily, Star Wars fits right in to this narrative: Luke and the rebels face unimaginable odds, get repeatedly struck down (literally and metaphorically) but they never give up. Result – one vanquished Death Star. Second result – Daddy standing by the fence at tennis practice going, ‘Great shot kid, that was one in a million,’ to a woefully embarrassed five year old son.
The entire Star Wars saga is being shown on Sky Movies Star Wars, every weekend over Christmas