How lightsabers, ninjas, and excitement over a new film led one mom to rethink her stance on toy weapons and on-screen violence.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens movie poster
Like millions of fans, I watched the Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer, cried a little, then dug into the internet scrum over why the hell Luke Skywalker wasn’t there—or was he? God, that music, John Williams, you’re cracking open my soul.
Yes, I whisper back at the trailer, the Force is calling to me.
“We can’t take the kids to this,” my husband says as a stream of firepower rains across our television.
It ends. It’s everything I hoped for. I pound between open tabs for MovieTickets.com and a busted-out Fandango, not even knowing how to dignify his absurdity—we can’t take the kids to Star Wars? The internet momentarily catches its breath long enough to accept my credit card information. Four tickets. Mine. Ours, I guess.
It’s madness to consider not taking our kids to the opening. But it’s an old, awkward fight. I’m the mom who started teaching life lessons by Gandhi when our first was in diapers. I read him Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience when I was pregnant. I’ve led the charge to banish violence from our kids’ lives—TV, books, toys—because it solves nothing, and I want our kids to grow up to resolve conflict thoughtfully, with courage, but without bloodshed. But I’ve got a Bantha-size blind spot when it comes to Star Wars.
My ideals run thin when brought up against this epic battle of good and evil, spanning distances between stars, representing the best and worst of our moral natures. And yet, I would never let my kids play war. They’d get lectures on real child soldiers and global strife. But Star Wars? Absolutely. It’s a cognitive dissonance I’d be happy to simply ignore, if my husband weren’t so irritatingly set on making me play by my own rules. But my kids have to see this movie.
Our daughter, fine, she’s 3. She won’t remember being there for opening weekend, but someday she’ll know she was part of history. Our son, though—he’s 6. I mutter to myself as my ticket confirmation comes through, “He is going to remember this for the rest of his life.”
“Seriously, you saw that, right?” Mr. Naysayer again. “The explosions? The weapons?”
I know what he’s getting at.
We have been uniformly anti-weapon with our kids’ toys because we live in a country that is dangerous, where guns are ubiquitous, and I want these kids miles away from anything that even pretends to be a gun. No swords, ninja stars, handcuffs, pirate blades, bow and arrow, nunchucks—seriously, why is it so easy to arm a kid with a plastic simulacrum? This has meant tossing out more Lego dudes’ plastic weapons than I can count and starting a mommy gun buy-back program where I trade cash for the Super Soakers and Nerf guns my son gets at birthdays.
Meanwhile, my older kid is desperate to be a ninja for Halloween. I won’t let him have any weapons for his costume and I give him my worst disapproving glower if he even mimes hitting anyone (even invisible anyones). He’s allowed to intimidate people with his eyes, that’s it.
Angry Bird Ham Solo
But Star Wars? We’ve been wrangling with this for a while. Thanks to Star Wars baby books and Angry Birds Star Wars books (the latter, snuck into the house from the school library), our son was learning Star Wars all wrong. He knew character names but had zero respect for the Force. He found my wookie impersonation hilarious, but lacked any formal referent for comparison. He knew Ham Solo before Han. I was a parenting failure. I insisted he had to watch the movies. (After a lengthy debate with my husband, who pointed out my nonviolent hypocrisy. I promised I’d fast-forward through blaster fights.) The kid hasn’t even seen all of Return of the Jedi because my husband insisted we turn it off when it made our daughter cry.
I’m supposed to be celebrating the dawn of a new trilogy here. Building some sort of elaborate countdown mechanism. Instead I’m spending my days attempting to demonstrate how Star Wars—but no other violent media—will help our kids live more virtuous lives.
“You’re being a hypocrite,” I hear as I brush my teeth and prep for bed.
I spit out a load of foam, hand on hip, “You know, if we were religious and read the Bible to the kids, they’d have been exposed to sooo many stories about murder and killing. This is just a different mythology.” Not my best moment, throwing the Bible under the bus. I receive the look I deserve.
“Right. I know. I know.”
I say, “I’ll think about it,” which is an answer I give the kids when I’ve made up my mind that I’m done talking.
Before bed, our son asks to show us a video he made of himself. He concocted his own ninja outfit because I’ve been lagging. It’s two and a half minutes of him whooshing around with Tinkertoys made into a crisscrossing figure eight with a long handle. He does a few defensive ninja dodges, pulls out a roughly four-inch, flexible Tinker stick.
He mumbles, “My pickax.”
“Huh.” I get a set of meaningful eyes from my husband. I received a crafty homemade lightsaber from our son for my birthday a week ago that has become a totem on my desk. I didn’t cry “weapon” when I got that, so I let the Tinker ax go for a minute.
“What’s that?” I point to the blur he’s slicing around the screen.
“Uh, my katana.” I don’t even know what that is and have to look it up later.
Cute ninja with katana. Image via Pixabay user ClkerFreeVectorImages
We’ve been on parallel tracks, this kid and I. Somehow he’s become a secret expert in ninja armament. I’ve been shoveling Star Wars at him, despite my moral toil over its suitability—light versus dark, blasters and lightsabers—and he’s grown his own obsession. My ego is bruised, like a manic football dad whose kid only wants to swim. Except this is more important. Football might offer lessons in teamwork (I wouldn’t really know; I only watched Monday Night Football for the Star Wars trailer), but Star Wars? Star Wars was about sacrifice, the power of a calm mind, relinquishing control to gain control, fighting for the higher good.
His video ends. He’s delighted with himself and searches my face for disapproval.
I hate weapons. I hate that people get hurt and that kids are exposed at home to guns that do in fact result in their death. (Yes, some people take every precaution. Good. Not everyone does, and children do die. To deny that is bullshit.) But there’s a vast chasm between leaving a loaded gun in the house and my kid shadowboxing pretend ninja villains. I’ve conflated all of it. At its roots, my weapons ban was a sort of Aristotelian mommy ethics—one in which I presumed that play violence would be habituated and negatively define my kids’ characters for life.
But for our son, at least, the lines have hardened clearly enough between reality and pretend that he knows one can play at war but should never hurt a person in real life. And there is also space enough in his imagination that he can still easily try on and feel himself become fictional characters. He plays good guys versus bad guys—shark versus prey, ninja versus their various natural enemies. I’ve attempted to create structures for him through which to understand conflict, but he’s got his own clear sense of old-school heroes and villains. And he wants them to battle so that virtue—as he variably defines it—can triumph. I’m beginning to believe this is something he might even need.
Yes, we’re meant to protect our kids. Maybe not to overprotect them—hey, we’re all just doing our best here. But we’re also meant to share our stories. Anyone not into Star Wars will consider me a lunatic for thinking this, but I’m starting to feel like we’re approaching a generational moment, a passing on of a heritage, in sharing this story. Those of us who’ve loved Star Wars for decades have a particular home there because we’ve resided with its characters for so long that they exist solidly in our imaginations. Vader, Leia, Luke, Han, they matter on a visceral, unshakable level because they helped us, as kids or young adults, establish archetypes for moral struggle and bravery.
These are the same mental categories my kid is starting to define now, and that makes me feel like Star Wars could be his for a lifetime. Is pushing him toward Star Wars the opposite of everything I’ve preached? Maybe. Or maybe it’s the beginning of allowing nuance in our discussions of conflict. In my years of knee-jerk weapons banning, “no” became my default, and I quit giving much reflection to why I started prohibiting these toys in the first place.
It took Star Wars, a make-believe universe I take a little too seriously, to show me how afraid I was of his pretend play becoming real, of faux conflict becoming lived violence. But kids do know how to play, and how to leave it at that. My sanitization of his toys has been ineffective anyway. The ninja got in. His weapons (if hand-built) got through. Good and evil are powerful concepts that live in both my kids’ minds, and for my son, he’s old enough that I feel like Star Wars could teach a bit about the moral ambiguity in between.
Certainly, it’s shown me what an absolutist I’ve been.
Even if I protest, I can’t control his imagination, where he’s a warrior. I’m beginning to wonder if instead of fighting it, I should at least put into his hands something with the moral weight of a lightsaber? Talking about what a lightsaber means to a Jedi—or hell, a katana to a ninja—is better than a blanket no and a kid who is over time forced to hide his interests.
Today I asked if he knows that the Star Wars movie is coming out soon.
He said, “Uh, yeah. You told me five times.” He’s hauling Lincoln Logs, prepping to build a cabin for his Ninjago (Lego ninjas).
“Aren’t you excited?”
“I mean, I’ll go to the movie with you,” he sighs, reading my face, softening his tone. “I’ll be excited then.”