Posted tagged ‘ET’

The Second Time I Traumatized My Kid – “E.T.”

March 31, 2010

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial/ Rated PG/ Running Time: 115 mins

My name is Dave and I am a good father.  I know I am.  My lovely wife assures me that it’s true.  I hug and kiss my children many times a day.  I read to them, play with them, and try to give them as much attention as I can.  I am confident that I am a good Dad.  However, we all have our bad days.

On our first family trip to Disneyland I wanted to introduce my son to all of my favorite rides.  I didn’t care how old he was.  If he expressed interest in riding Space Mountain, then we were going to get in line.  He wanted no part of the big roller coasters, but he did love “Toy Story”, so I convinced him to try the Buzz Lightyear ride.  Once we got on, he seemed to be enjoying himself, despite the sensory overload.  Then the Evil Emperor Zurg, Buzz Lightyear’s nemesis, appeared, spewing variations of “I’ll get you, Buzz Lightyear!”  The usually not-so-cuddly two-year old clung to me for protection.  I smiled, because a little fear is cute in a child.  Then the ride broke down, a seven foot Zurg towered over us and my son lay in my lap in a catatonic state.  My attempt to initiate him in the joys of the “Happiest Place on Earth” came close to ending with a visit from Child Protective Services.

Since my son’s birth I anticipated the day when I could share my favorite movies with him.  While I would wait to show him “Star Wars”, I came up with justifications to show him other movies as early as possible.  When he was five, my wife and I agreed that it was time for “E.T.”  It was a classic and we had vivid memories of seeing it in the theater when it was such a phenomenon.  Besides, there was nothing “bad” in it.  

Once again, my son appeared to enjoy himself.  He laughed when E.T. dressed up for Halloween.  He worried when E.T.’s friends left him at the beginning and he rejoiced when they returned in the end.  To him, the only confusing element of the movie was the fact that Elliot didn’t wear a helmet when he rode his bike (I explained that the world was a much safer place back then, roads were made out of rubber and it was impossible to crack your skull). 

I wasn’t prepared for his reaction after the movie.  I asked him, “What did you think of it?”  His response was silence, then uncontrollable sobbing.  I had never seen him cry like that before and I have not seen it since.  I can only think of one time in my life when I witnessed a similar reaction, when I was 15 and my mother broke down at my grandmother’s wake.  Did I really force my child into an experience that equaled the emotional response you have after the death of a parent?  I asked him why he was crying, but he couldn’t answer.  This was raw emotion that could not be articulated, particularly by a five year old.    

Maybe I had found an opportunity for a good teaching moment.  However, I didn’t know what to teach, because it was impossible to know what set him off.  Was it the terror of the scientists chasing E.T.?  Was it finding a sick E.T. down by the river?  Or was it the basic fear of being left behind, like E.T. was?  Maybe it was one of those issues or maybe all of them.  One thing was definite.  It was Steven Spielberg’s fault.

Spielberg is the master of emotional manipulation.  He combines all the elements of filmmaking to evoke a true emotional response better than anyone else.   Watching my little buddy bawling, I thought of my own experience with E.T.  I recalled that, surprisingly, this was only my second viewing of the movie since its release.  I saw E.T. in the theater in 1982, and liked it.  But I never wanted to see it again.  When it was rereleased in theaters a few years later, my brother and mother went to see it again.  I refused.  I realize now that I had the same reaction as my son, the only difference is that he was five and I was ten and could suppress my emotions a little bit more.  I didn’t cry when I was ten, but I didn’t want to feel that way again.

I learned something about my son that day.  I was happy to know that he had the capacity to really feel his emotions.  It was a fully human moment and, even if I traumatized him to a point that he had a year long fear of words that ended with the letters “e” and “t”, it was worth it.

I find that it can be hard to determine the appropriate age to show my favorite movies to my kids.  Primarily because I can only guess what their reaction will be.  Should I have waited until my son was older to expose him to E.T.?  Perhaps, but then he wouldn’t have had that experience and it’s the culmination of experiences like that which make up a childhood.  I feel my job as a parent is to expose my children to as wide a range of opportunities and activities as I can, and let them figure out what they like or dislike.  Hopefully, most of the time the reactions will be smiles of joy, but sometimes there will be tears of pain.  Whatever the reaction, I know that it is all part of being fully human.  When I see that, it makes me proud.

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