When my daughter was 2 1/2, my husband took her to see The Lion King, which was back in theaters for a special two-week run. Apparently, upon the death of Mufasa -- the father lion in the movie -- my husband and daughter had a conversation that went something like this:
Daughter: Is the daddy lion OK?
Dad: No, the lion's dead.
Daughter: What's "dead"?
Dad: The lion is gone and isn't coming back.
Daughter: But he's going to be OK, right?
Dad: No, the lion's dead.
I found out about this conversation a few days later, when cleaning the bathroom. As I was zealously scrubbing the toilet, my daughter said to me, matter-of-factly, "We're going to die." Needless to say, I was a bit taken aback. "What do you mean?" I asked. "We're all going to die," she said again. "Who told you that?" I demanded. "Daddy. Daddy says we're all going to die." At that point she left the room and, under my breath, I muttered, "Well, Daddy may die, because Mommy is going to kill him."
And so began a long-standing pattern of our daughter learning the ways of the world through the cinema. For example, being a multi-faith household, over the years we had carefully avoided the subject of religion. Unsure how to broach the concept of God or faith, we focused on fun, childish things: hunting for matzo at Passover, writing letters to Santa at Christmas, painting eggs at Easter. Enter Disney's The Prince of Egypt, which my daughter watched no less than 30 times in a two-week period. Suddenly, we were scrambling to answer questions like: What's a slave? What's God? Why is God killing children? Is God a bad guy?
I suppose this cinema-driven loss of innocence has been going on for generations. My mom still recounts my tears upon seeing Bambi's mother get shot, or my grief over the strained friendship between Tod and Copper in The Fox and the Hound. I suppose children's films need tension and villains just like adult movies do. Nevertheless, it's been difficult for me to explain war when watching Pocahontas, or Nazis when watching Bedknobs and Broomsticks, or the complexities of mother-daughter relationships -- not to mention terrible hairdos -- when watching Tangled. And forget about explaining what happened to Nemo's mother. Coral went on a business trip -- period. Some things just don't need to be explained over popcorn and apple juice.
And yet, despite these dreaded conversations, I have to admit that movies have provided entry to some difficult concepts in our house. As much as I hated the Mufasa conversation, whenever my daughter has subsequently encountered death -- vwhether in real life or in fiction -- I've explained that the deceased is "in the stars with Mufasa." Somehow this has allowed my daughter to vaguely grasp a concept that otherwise would have been explained by Mommy as "umm." And I guess that's what these movies do. They make difficult situations a little less scary, gradually introducing kids to ideas that might otherwise overwhelm them. Of course, given that my daughter recently ran out of a room in tears over an episode of Care Bears, I suppose she still has a way to go in her emotional education. But, hey, that's nothing a few more movies and a bucket of popcorn can't fix.
This post is excerpted from the author's book, Mommy A to Z: An Encyclopedia of the Joys, Wonders, and Absurdities of Motherhood. Follow Mommy A to Z on Facebook and Twitter.