For a moment on Thanksgiving Day, my wife and I were those parents. You know the kind that I’m talking about. The kind of parents that you hear about on the news, or read about on your friend’s blog, and make you shake your head and wonder “What in the world were they thinking?” The kind of parents who… bring their child to a movie that he was too young for.
That’s right: On Thanksgiving Day, my wife and I took our four-year-old to see Wreck-It Ralph, Disney’s acclaimed animated movie about a video game villain who wants to be a good guy. (For what it’s worth, my Christ and Pop Culture colleague Nick Olson was less than impressed by the movie.) We thought it’d be a slam dunk. After all, we’ve watched numerous Pixar movies, and while on paper, those were a bit beyond his age, he enjoyed them well enough. We even made it through Toy Story 3‘s “incinerator hell” scene with nary a scratch. And just to be safe, we’d even had a talk before entering the theatre about how movies might be a little scary at times, but they aren’t real and they can’t hurt you.
But the movie had barely started before he was complaining about how loud it was and covering his ears. And once Ralph made it to Hero’s Duty — the movie’s riff/parody/homage to first person shooters like Halo and Gears of War — my son was actually cowering in his seat: he had turned away from the screen and covered his eyes, and was asking us to take him back to his grandparents’ house. I did everything I could to encourage him. I offered to let him sit in my lap. I told him the scary part would be over soon. However, nothing worked and my wife and I realized that forcing him to sit through the movie any longer would just be cruel. So, after about 45 minutes, we got up and left, all the while wondering what awful things the other parents in the theater — most of the attendees were families — were thinking about us.
Put simply, we messed up, and not only did we waste $20, we gave our son an awful time. (Thankfully, I think all was forgiven once we returned to the grandparents and had some more Thanksgiving goodies. Pumpkin pie with whipped cream covers a multitude of parenting sins).
As I reflect back on this experience, I realize that it was driven by so many false expectations on my part. As we were waiting for the movie to start, I had a “moment” that actually got me a little choked up. I had suddenly realized that I was watching a movie with my boy, and not just any movie, but a movie with a fairly high geek quotient. It made my heart swell with pride, not just as a movie lover, but also as a “geek dad”. What then emerged was this idealized vision of how my kid would react to the movie, and it was false.
We’ve all heard about “sports parents” who put their kids under incredible pressure to perform well in athletics, who berate them when they fail to live up to some idealized standard, and who even put their kids in sports, not because it benefits the kids, but because it lets the parents relive some past athletic glory. Now, I didn’t berate my son because he couldn’t make it through a PG movie with some admittedly pretty intense scenes, but I confess, I was hoping he’d “tough it out” because of that aforementioned “moment”. I had pushed him harder than I should have, and it did not end well, end of story.
Some dads want to share their love of football or baseball with their kids. I want to share my love of (geeky) pop culture. I can’t wait for the day when we sit down and watch The Simpsons, Doctor Who, or Firefly together, head down to the local comic book store, play a couple of death matches on the ol’ Xbox 1440 (or whatever system is around at the time), discuss The Silmarillion, or watch any number of movies.
But after “The Thanksgiving Incident”, I’m forced to consider how many of my child rearing plans might just be me projecting my own nerdiness on to my children in a curious form of objectification. To be sure, my kids have shown some early aptitude for such things: for example, MythBusters is currently the most popular TV show in our household. For the longest time, I’ve been planning a special “guys’ day” with my oldest when he turns five in a few months. My wife and the other kids will leave for the night, and he and I will order some pizza, grab a couple of ice cold root beers, and watch Star Wars together for the first time. I’m now rethinking that plan, not because I don’t want him to watch Star Wars (and hopefully have his mind blown by its awesomeness), but rather, because I want to be more responsible about it. I want it to be an an enjoyable, even formative experience for him, and not simply something that I’ve done so that I can cross it off the “geek dad” to-do list.
To do otherwise would be to diminish my son — to turn him into a project that I need to perfect and complete, rather than my flesh and blood whom I’m called to teach, discipline, and above all else, love.