Our eight year old, Charlotte, is a sensitive soul, easily stressed. She's a high achiever who is constantly turned-on and ready to go whole-hog. She is the kind of gal who creates her own homework and delights in spending hours at it, but also becomes agitated if she doesn't get it done before bedtime. Who's going to be disappointed in her? No one but herself. Emily? Not so much. She is never disappointed in herself and has the soul of a tigress.
Charlotte also has very little stamina for movies or stories that have any dramatic tension. As much as we tell her that something isn't real, it is still completely and utterly real in that head of hers. This is, of course, the same for all of us. It doesn't matter if something is empirically real or not, does it? If you think your boss is going to fire you and he's perfectly happy with your performance, you're still going to be stressed by what you think, not what is actually true. Apparently, we emit the same fight-or-flight hormones that we do when we are watching something stressful in a movie as we do when we are actually experiencing it for real. (I am not an actual scientist so please do not quote me on this. I also only really know about the puberty-type hormones because I am required to teach about that in school. Which I love.)
A few months ago we made the parental mistake of watching that old classic ET as part of our Sunday evening "let's watch a movie and have a sushi picnic in bed" tradition. Don and I remembered it as a sweet little movie from our childhoods about that lovable creature who flew through the air in the bicycle basket with the moon as a backdrop, that adorable voice rasping "ET phone home," and, of course, the drop-dead cuteness of Drew Barrymore who is still equally cute 30 years later. (How does she do it?)
What we didn't remember were the scenes that struck terror in the hearts of both daughters: the crew of burly men in the forest at night sweeping through with searchlights looking for ET, his pale, sickly (sorry) ugly body as he withered away, the whole suburban house enclosed in a bubble as doctors performed surgery on ET: I could go on. It was alarming, even for me.
And did we think we'd be having hours discussing what divorce was, how we didn't think extra terrestrials actually existed, and that it's not really okay to swear like those kids did in the movie? No, we did not. We just thought we'd be having a sweet little movie night with the gals that would bring back fond memories of our childhoods.
We were just a few minutes into ET when we realized the error of our parenting ways and that we probably should have waited a few more years for this one. We both knew, however, that to stop in the midst of all the unresolved stress of ET withering away and Elliot running away to look for ET was a recipe for a lifetime of bad dreams.
So we hunkered down with the girls and made them watch to the bitter, happy end, our arms firmly clasped around their trembling bodies.
"See?" we said when it finally finished. (It's a very long movie.) "It's a happy ending! Everything is okay. Happily ever after. It's time for bed. Brush your teeth."
That was not to be. It was a night of up and down and Charlotte asserting again and again, "I can't think any happy thoughts, Mama. ET is a bad movie. Why did you make us watch it?"
Which brings me to tonight: another family picnic-on-the-bed-movie-night in our Chinese New Year holiday. Thinking I could not bear to sit through another animated anything, I dug up a copy of Night at the Museum, thinking most un-sagely, "It'll be fun. They'll learn about historical characters when they come alive at night. And that Ben Stiller. He sure is funny. Everyone will enjoy themselves." Silly, selfish mama.
Emily immediately took to the idea of inanimate people and animals coming alive. After the movie, she kept making us give her pretend pills so she could come unfrozen. Charlotte, on the other hand, was completely traumatized. She squeezed herself next to me for the duration of the movie, her thumping heart and sweaty body bathing my own in heat and stress. She moaned constantly, like a dog who had her leg caught in a trap. All we had to do was open the trap and let her out, but we knew, like ET, she had to finish watching. We had made her bed and now she had to lie in it.
Honestly, most of the movie was just downright fun and the ending was happy, happy. (Admittedly, I looked at the movie afterward (not beforeward) to see that it did have a PG warning. What is the matter with me?) In spite of the fun and happy ending, there was no joy in Whoville tonight for our gal, Charlotte. "I'm going to have bad dreams forever now," she said, weeping into the pillow and snotting all over my sweater.
Meantime, Emily comforted her as Charlotte dragged her into the bathroom so she wouldn't have to go pee alone. "Let me tell you about how it works, Charlotte," little sister expounded to big sister. "I can protect you so you don't need to worry."
What was a mother to do but to suggest (before it was begged) that the two sisters share a bed tonight? We all need someone to snuggle up to at least some of the time, especially when the parents have made an error in judgment and they know it.
Even so, exposing our kids to things that are a bit scary and letting them know that we're there to help them out and help them go through it, though we're not going to take them out of it? I think that's good.
I'm happy to take those two sweet girls through whatever valleys they go through in life, but they're still going to have to go through them.
Even so, my considerations after tonight:
Next time they ask me to watch Winnie the Pooh, let them.
Make sure to give Charlotte the heads-up on the Muppet Movie we are going to see tomorrow in the theatre. Hopefully, Kermit and Miss Piggy will prove to be enjoyable, not stressful. I'll read the synopsis tonight so I can fill her in.
Stay away from museums for the next few months.
Make sure I honor the fear of others. Fear is real, whether what is causing the fear is real or not. Meantime, practice helping (them AND me) by gently leading the focus away from fear and toward what is hopeful, and fun and good about any given situation.
Keep exposing my kids to new (and appropriate) risks, making sure we're along to help them through.
Go back to sushi on the bed, not pizza, like tonight. It's too messy and it stinks like pepperoni in here now.