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Life lessons we learned at the movies
02:05 - Source: CNN

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"It's like they're introducing the child to a tribe," Carrie Fisher said of parents screening "Star Wars"

You know your own kid and when they're old enough to begin the training, but it's probably not before age 5

CNN  — 

Assuming you already know why “Star Wars” is so important (which I detailed in a previous genuflecting column), I’ll make the jump to light speed and get to a parenting question to which I have given a disproportionate share of thought: How to properly introduce my children to the greatest never-ending mythic space opera.

I grew up seeing the original trilogy on big screens and then ad nauseam on VHS and the early days of cable. I feel lucky to have been born in the early 1970s so I could get the full impact of their unfolding, including Kenner toys, pop culture ubiquity and influence, and even scholarly review. And to the degree that I can share my devotion to this ancient religion with my own children, I want to get it just right.

Princess Leia understood. In her final book, “The Princess Diarist,” actress and writer Carrie Fisher explained the significance of parents showing their kids “Star Wars” for the first time.

“It’s like they’re introducing the child to a tribe,” she wrote. “There’s a ritual – you … place them down as an offering, and say, ‘Watch this.’ Then you watch him watching ‘Star Wars,’ trying to find out how much you have in common with your kid. It’s as if (parents) know they have this great gift to bestow, and they want to bestow it as perfectly as possible – the perfect time, the perfect place, the perfect situation for passing on this life-defining experience. And the kids will always remember for their entire lives how they first felt when they first saw their now favorite movie. And they were given this gift from their parents, and now can share it together. Truly a family affair.”

It’s important to me that I be there when my daughters see the films for the first time, and I won’t cede it to friends, parties or sleepovers. And not only do I want to curate the experience, but it’s risky to show them too early, lest their introduction to the Jedi, the Sith and the Force leaves them scared, confused or – worst of all – bored.

This requires patience. You know your own kid and when they’re old enough to begin the training, but it’s probably not before age 5 that they’ll really get it.

With my older daughter, I had to do something to ease my urge before she was ready to see the first movie. Luckily, when she was 3, she had an insatiable appetite for bedtime storytelling. So after exhausting the limits of my own imagination, I turned to what I can only describe as the “Star Wars” Oral Traditional, told by me, as if these were legends handed down by storytellers over the centuries.

It took months. I did sound effects. She was riveted.

(When I tried this years later with my younger daughter, age 4 at the time, she shut it down because my Vader impression was giving her nightmares. We tried again with more success a year later.)

Of course, my oral tradition version occasionally required ridiculous explanations such as “remember the Abominable Snowman from ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer?’ Well, a creature like that, on the ice planet Hoth, attacked Luke Skywalker while he was riding his smelly snow kangaroo.”

Finally, just after I described to my older daughter Ewoks dancing around Darth Vader’s funeral pyre, she begged for more. Instead of fan fiction, I said, “well, there are some more stories about how young Anakin became Vader in the first place. Would you like to hear those?” And so we did the prequels.

That took only days. Not because I was reluctant – I’m actually something of a prequel apologist and feel they contain some scenes, humor and myth that are on par with the originals – but because the details just were not seared into my brain; I’d seen them only a couple of times each instead of dozens.

After that, I found the old picture book adaptations of each movie and read them to her. Finally, we listened to the public radio teleplay version of the first film. It’s longer than the movie with added scenes, plus it has the film’s sound effects and John Williams’ score and made for compelling listening on long car rides (though my wife may disagree).

When I finally screened the original “Star Wars,” it was perfect. We were on vacation on a favorite island off the East Coast. My daughter had a big bowl of popcorn on her lap. There were no distractions, and she absorbed every frame in full attention. My good friend Jesse joined the two of us to partake in, and be witness to, the great ritual.

When it was over, I asked her what she thought, nervous she might say something like “It’s OK.” But her answer was a two-word review: “googolplex fantastic!”

A googolplex is the number 1 followed by 100 zeroes. That is how great “Star Wars” is. And how great she is. And I was enormously happy to have curated this double googolplex experience.

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    As for showing rest of the canon, you must do what you think is right, of course. But for me, the perfect unfolding for my older daughter went like this: Episode IV, the original “Star Wars” (when she was nearly 6); then two years later IV again; then Episode V: “The Empire Strikes Back”; then “E.T.” (on Halloween, with a bowl of Reese’s Pieces in her lap, for the payoff of a single joke in which the alien is out on Halloween and turns, arms outstretched, to a kid dressed in a Yoda costume while longingly saying “Home!”); and then Episode VI, “Return of the Jedi.”

    This original trilogy screening was perfectly timed just before the theatrical release of Episode VII, “The Force Awakens.” Then we watched Episodes I and II, the titles of which I forget.

    Then I waited another year for Episode III because it’s extra violent and so we’d time it perfectly to see it in this succession: III, “Rogue One,” IV and VII again, just before Episode VIII: “The Last Jedi” in the theater. And on and on it will go.

    I may have overthought it, but then again, how could I have not? And may the Force be with you.

    David G. Allan is the editorial director of CNN Health, Wellness and Parenting. He also writes “The Wisdom Project” about applying philosophy to our daily lives. You can subscribe to it here.