Star Wars is kind of my thing. I have been a fan for forty-one years now. It was my thing since I first saw the film on a rainy afternoon on Cape Cod in June, 1977. Our family was camping (for the first time ever), and it rained for three days straight. By the third day, with three wet, crazy kids under ten, my folks decided we were going to a movie to get out of the rain, whatever was playing. What was playing was a thing called Star Wars, and 121 minutes later, I had found my new religion. I saw it seven more times that year. It was the first film I saw more than once. (VCRs weren’t a thing yet.) I saw all of the prequels multiple times in the cinema, even Phantom Menace. My siblings saw the movies, but it was never their thing. They’d seen the film when it came out and said, “It was all right,” and moved on with their lives. I obsessed.
I admit, I never was much for the fan community; I just enjoyed it all on my own or with one or two childhood friends. I collected the toys when I was younger (still have them, thank you, though maybe not in mint condition), and even more so, the books and magazines. I would play with my friends, each taking a turn at being Han. (Nobody really wanted to be Luke. Sorry, Mark Hamill.) We imagined whiffle bats were lightsabers and practiced fighting with them. We had action figures, imagination, and, ultimately, a great time.
As I got older, I stopped playing with the toys, and they instead became décor. Flash forward a couple of decades and a couple of degrees and I have written a book, several articles, and some book chapters analyzing the place of Star Wars in world culture. As a result, I get interviewed by journalists writing about Star Wars. I appeared on the thirtieth anniversary special on the History Channel: Star Wars: The Legacy Revealed. I share this all not to brag, but in order to demonstrate just how much “my thing” has continued to shape my professional career. I am a Star Wars academic. So, now people ask my serious opinion on all-things Star Wars.
For example, lately, I have been doing legacy panels on Star Wars at cons for Fanbase Press. [Tangentially, I originally typed “Fambase” which also seems accurate; it’s family owned and operated since 2010 (Barbra and Bryant, behind the counter as always, serving up the best in fan culture analysis and information. Next time you’re on Route 66 or at a con, stop by!)]
Anywhoo, I have been speaking at cons and to journalists about the legacy of Star Wars, but it was not until I had children that I learned what the real legacy is.
Earlier this month, my wife and I took our kids to Disneyland for the first time ever. Not a fan of the place, myself. I have no issue with those of you who are, it just makes me despair of humanity for so many reasons. But this time I went with a two-year-old and a four-year-old. We spent a lot of time in Tomorrowland. A lot. They wanted to live, eat, and breath Star Wars (and, if I am honest, everything else Disney – we also spent a lot of time in places dedicated to Cars and A Bug’s Life). We met Chewbacca. “CHEWIE!” screamed the two-year-old with an unbelievable level of excitement but declined a hug from him. (He’s still very big, after all.) She agreed to do Darth Vader’s bidding. (We already knew she was Sith; a week before she had picked up a plastic red golf club and yelled, “I fight Jedi! I fight Jedi!”) The boy, at 4, could do Jedi training, and so he did. He fought Darth Maul and won. He and I went on Star Tours. His whole face was a firework show of delight and joy. I know because I watched him the whole time, not the ride/show.
Not gonna lie, several times over the weekend, I had tears in my eyes. (Shut up! No – YOU’RE crying!) This thing that meant so much to me meant a lot to them, too. They found meaning in it. But it was also fun. It was delightful in the true sense of the word; they found delight in something that long before I became a Star Wars academic I had also taken delight in. Their delight became my delight. Star Wars has always been my thing. Now, it is an “our thing” – something our family does together. For me, Star Wars Day is a family holiday now, and this Star Wars Day has special meaning, as my children play with me. I gotta tell ya – I fight Jedi!
In a related note, back in 2011, a columnist for Wired shared with me a letter he received from a father whose sons were 4 and 6 and who were not interested in Star Wars. He had shown them a film he referred to as Star Wars (I assumed he meant the film we now call A New Hope.), and they got bored after a few minutes and walked away. He wanted to know how to get young children to “recognize the genius of Star Wars.” Although I was not a parent at the time, I sent back a lengthy response, of which the columnist used but a single line in his answer to the father. Now that I am almost half a decade into the parenting thing, I went back and reviewed what I had said. I am fortunate that I did not need to follow my own advice, but it seems useful.
Want your younglings to like Star Wars as much as you do? My first instinct is to say that you do not need a Star Wars expert (if that is, indeed, what I am) so much as a parenting expert or child psychologist. Take out the words “Star Wars” from this inquiry and replace it with NASCAR, knitting, fishing, or the Pittsburgh Steelers, and you’ll see what I mean – at its heart the question is “How can I get my kids to like this thing that means so much to me?” and that is not Star Wars-specific.
Having said that, here are some thoughts that are:
1. RECOGNIZE THAT STAR WARS IS AN OLDER, NARRATIVE FILM. I assume you are talking about A New Hope, the original, the first, the golden, glorious film that defined so many childhoods and teenage years and gave them meaning. It’s 34 years old and, compared to today’s films, it is slow to develop and dull (blasphemy, I know, but it’s true). So, show the tykes exciting snippets – the battle of the Death Star, the lightsaber fights, Mos Eisley. They might enjoy the exciting moments now and when they are older come to appreciate the narrative itself.
2. AGE APPROPRIATE. Speaking of which, these kids are 4 and 6. There is a reason most narratives aimed at this age group are ten to fifteen minutes long and thirty at most. Kids this age have the attention span of gnats. With all due respect, SW:ANH is not exactly age-appropriate. At six, my career goal was to be a dinosaur and at four my culinary taste was to avoid whatever my parents wanted me to eat and have what the dog was scarfing down. These kids can get behind SpongeBob, but expecting them to care about intergalactic civil war is akin to hoping they take interest in the history of the Cold War and the fall of the “Iron Curtain.” Not gonna happen. Let us remember that 4 and 6-year-olds don’t “recognize genius” in anything except for perhaps saying dirty words. You cannot argue with that age group in a rational manner to convince them to enjoy something. They enjoy it or they don’t. Telling them The Force was inspired by Buddhist and Taoist concepts combined with the teachings of Carlos Castaneda will not get them to like it any more. The critical facility of a six-year-old falls into two camps: “I like it” and “I don’t like it.” End of argument. No evidence is going to change that. The key words here are “age appropriate.” I was eight when Star Wars came out, and I was just about ready for it then. Tell the father to wait three years and then see how the kids feel then, because at 4 and 6 he may as well be trying to get them interested in the music of Rush or They Might Be Giants, the writings of Shakespeare, or the paintings of Francis Bacon. Not gonna happen until they’re older.
3. START SLOWLY. Like all Star Wars fans, I think The Phantom Menace is the worst of the lot. Having said that, it was the favorite of my nephew, who is now 20, and finally appreciating the original trilogy. Why The Phantom Menace? Anakin is a kid; there is a reason why kids’ films almost always feature characters of their own age as the protagonist. Jar Jar is SpongeBob with floppy ears. Kids ignore the politics, technobabble, and mysticism and enjoy the pod race and the space battle in which only robots, no people, die. A 6-year-old might enjoy TPM more than ANH. So, start with that. Recognize the second trilogy is closer to the films of today and lead with those.
4. EPIPHENOMENA IS COOL. Part of the fun of Star Wars is the relentless consumerism that has attached itself to it, which is a very cynical way to say toys are cool! Toys, video games, comic books, The Clone Wars (UPDATE: My 2 and 4-year olds adore The Clone Wars and watch the episodes over and over again.) are all ways to bring the kids into the Star Wars universe. While I don’t recommend embracing the dark side of capitalism, things like LEGO Star Wars sets do generate interest from 4-6-year-olds in a way that Sir Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing explaining the history of the Jedi does not.
5. MUCH PARENTING IS ALSO THE JUDICIAL USE OF REVERSE PSYCHOLOGY. Kids between the ages of 2 and 10 instinctively know when you want them to like something then they will instinctively not like it. Dad needs to remember he is also the guy who makes them eat food they don’t like, tells them when to go to bed, and tells them to stop playing and come do this other thing. So, he is suspect. On the other hand, they are also instinctively curious about him as a person. If Star Wars is “his” thing that they can only share in when they are ready, it becomes more interesting. To quote Chief Wiggum of The Simpsons: “What is your fascination with my forbidden closet of mystery?” As a kid, I started doing martial arts because my father was interested in them, but never encouraged me to be interested in them. That was “his” thing, and I wanted to be a part of it. Tell the kids that you’re watching Star Wars after they go to bed and that they’re not old enough to watch it and they will INSIST that they be allowed to watch it. Jedi mind tricks sometimes goes a long way with that age group.
6. REALIZE NOT EVERYONE LIKES STAR WARS. Hard to believe, I know, but it is true. And I know you know it, but it is disappointing to hear when something means so much to you and you want to share it with people you love, like your children, spouses, significant others, etc., and they simply are not interested. We all know that all intelligent, fun people are Star Wars fans, but some folks just aren’t, and that’s okay. Growing up, I was the only fan in my house. That’s okay – you find other things to bond over. Here’s the bottom line: Your children’s rejection of Star Wars is not a rejection of you as a parent any more than their refusing to eat this dinner is a rejection of you as a cook. They are contrary creatures who will either grow to like Star Wars or they won’t. And that’s okay. If you need them to love Star Wars as much as you do, get ready for a life of disappointment and misery. If you love it if they love Star Wars as much as you do, but are okay if they don’t, then yours will be a life lived at peace with the Force strong within you. Recognize, as well, that as they get older, they will take interest in things that you might then also find interest in, which may lead to additional, later opportunities to get them to appreciate the saga, if not love it. Likewise, they will become fascinated with things which hold no interest for you. (My four-year-old has started dragging me to Monster Truck rallies. If you had told me a decade ago I’d be sitting there cheering on monster trucks, I’d say never in a million years, but when you love your kids…) I’m betting YOUR parents are not necessarily fans, but that doesn’t mean that since you are there is something wrong with YOU. Your kids will find their own passions and, if you’re lucky, you all will be able to share them on some level. And, at the very least, at least all three of you can share in hating Battlefield Earth.
Happy Star Wars Day. May the Fourth be with you, always.