Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Why Pan scared my son so much

As parents, we make certain assumptions about our children that sometimes prove to be faulty.

One recent assumption I made about my five-year-old was that he knew the difference between a movie and reality.

Not so much.

Other than Pan, the movie that has been of most interest in my son's life lately is Everest. This is because my son has early aspirations of becoming a mountain climber. These aspirations express themselves in a little routine he does every day when I pick him up from school. He has to run down this raised dirt area next to the walkway, climb out on a few feet of railing at the end, climb back, then reverse his steps back around the bend. He then walks as though on a balance beam on a brick wall next to the walkway. For the second, inclined portion of this wall, he gets down on his hands and knees and inches up that way. The fall on the outside is only about a foot or two, but on the inside, it's more than six feet. He's done it so many times and he's so careful that I don't really worry about him falling -- but I hover in the area below just in case.

I recently pointed out that his climbing -- not only here, but also on structures at parks -- indicated to me that he might one day want to become a mountain climber. He latched on to that idea right quick. I guess that's probably about the dumbest thing that a parent could suggest to their child, short of recommending they become a shark trainer, motorcycle daredevil or chainsaw juggler. But I want my son to follow his bliss. I'll cross that bridge of him falling off Everest if we come to it.

At another, unrelated time, he saw me looking at the review I'd written of Everest online. Yes, that's me, spending countless hours just sitting there, adoring my own writing. Anyway, this particular instance gave me the opportunity to tell him a little bit about what I do. I told him that I'd seen this movie and that I'd written these words to tell people what I thought about it. It seems that he thought that was pretty cool.

Then Sunday, when we were at Pan, we saw the trailer for Everest playing in the lobby, and he saw some of the things that actually happen in it. A sanitized version of those things, of course -- fortunately, kids are a bit less susceptible to a sustained sense of dread than they are to the physical violence/gore. Anyway, he saw people scrambling around on the snow-covered slopes and fighting for their lives. Although he didn't say anything more about it at the time, those images nestled themselves in his little brain. (Little only compared to an adult brain, of course.)

Then yesterday, when he was involved in his usual routine along the daycare center walkway wall, he asked me, "Daddy, is that movie you saw about the mountain climbers--"

"Everest," I offered.

"Evist. Is that movie real?"

I suddenly understood something about my son that I hadn't understood before.

If he had had the language to express himself this way, what he would have said was, "Daddy, is Everest a documentary or a fiction film?"

Suddenly I found myself in a discussion of terms I was sure he understood, like "actors" and "entertainment." I had always just assumed he knew what an actor was, but it turns out he does not. Or did not. Or may still not.

I tried to explain it in terms that I thought he would understand. I decided he was hung up on the idea that real people might be, you know, real people. It was part of my faulty explanation of the difference between Pan and an animated movie. You know, Pan featured real people. As in, people who were walking around in the daily world, like him.

So what I tried to tell him about was when we went to see The Wizard of Oz performed by the year six through year 12 students at the school next door to our house. "You know that those were just girls at the school playing those parts, right?" He doesn't know what a "part" is. "Playing those characters?" Did he even know what a character was?

"I don't know that," he said. Which sounded a bit like a lawyer using his oratory skills to parse semantics, I noted with a little mental chuckle.

So I guess my son thought he was actually watching a lion, a tin man and a bunch of flying monkeys. In a gymnasium at a school next door to our house.

Hey, stranger things have happ -- no they haven't.

To extend that logic to Pan, when I told him the movie contained "real people," he thought he was about to watch a snuff film in which a murderous pirate would start killing everyone on screen. I would be scared to watch that, too.

The part I can't reconcile is that he thinks we live in a world where this is okay. Where a parent would willingly -- nay, eagerly -- take his child to watch a pirate actually shooting and actually stabbing people. That this would pass for entertainment -- a concept with which he was not familiar, as such, anyway.

So I ended up explaining that Everest featured "actors" who were "reenacting" (yeah, that word was too big) a story (he got that one) for our "entertainment" (think we got that one squared away). I explained it was their job and that they went home to their families each night, just like his mummy and daddy did. I explained that the "actors" were not in any danger as they were filming the movie -- that although the mountain-climbing was "real," in a certain sense, the "actors" couldn't get hurt while doing it. I didn't explain that it was not really Mt. Everest or get into any kind of technical details like that -- I already felt a bit like I was telling him there was no Easter Bunny.

Then I tried to explain that although the stuff that happens in that movie was not anything that was actually happening to those people, it was based on things that had happened to other people at a different time. I don't know if he completely grasped that one, but he didn't ask any follow-up questions.

I told him that almost all movies are this way, but then I said that there were some movies where the people were real, but they were boring grown up movies that he wouldn't watch for a long, long time.

Fifteen minutes after arriving home, he developed a fever and promptly went to sleep. I discovered this only after going to his bedroom to notify him that his fish sticks and carrots were ready. Maybe these revelations were all too much for him after all.


Hannah K said...

I am kind of fascinated by this post. I feel like as a five-year-old I might've had a pretty solid handle on movie vs. reality, but I also had a VERY active imagination and played "pretend" all the time concocting elaborate stories, so at some point I must have drawn the connection between the pretend stories I acted out with my siblings and the pretend stories other people acted out on screen. But I couldn't tell you when I made that connection or if my parents had to sit down and explain it to me.

Derek Armstrong said...

Same here, Hannah. My earliest moviegoing experience was Star Wars when I was either three or four, and apparently, I loved it unambiguously. I must have not been worried that people were really getting killed in it, or if I thought they were, I must have not cared.