All I need to know in life I learned from Star Wars.
Well, okay, not everything, but a lot of stuff, most of which I didn’t consciously realize had penetrated my cortex until the hubs and I launched Operation: Engeekify Spawn.
Now at the ages of nearly six and three, they’re experiencing a great many things for the first time, some geeky, some just life-related. Many of them good, some of them less positive, and all parts of the human experience: friendship, independence, moral ambiguity, conscious motivation, exclusion, uncertainty, and even death. Hubs’ grandmother, with whom the boy was very close, passed a couple years ago. And the son really did love (absolutely no sarcasm intended) his first fish, George Bluefin.
I wish I could protect both of them from the difficult bits, but I can’t. That breaks my heart but it doesn’t change the reality of the thing and, reaching the ripe old age of thirty-seven, I can see how those bits, both the positive and painful (you’ll note I’m not using the terms negative or bad, though it certainly does feel that way sometimes) shaped me. Though it took thirty-six of those thirty-seven years, I’m generally pretty happy with who I am.
I’d like that to happen for both of my children a little earlier in their lifespan. But these are huge, complicated topics and are difficult for many adults to verbalize to themselves and one another.
How do I explain them to beings who have, in the grand scheme, barely been evicted from the womb?
Star Wars helps.
I needed a concrete analogue because words are just words; they’re amorphous, variable, and they float away. I needed something the younglings could physically hold on to when needed.
Preferably, a relatable fiction in which they were already immersed, with which they and I had a connection, beloved but a little bit removed from reality. While I try very hard not to helicopter to the extent of blocking the sun, I don’t want to overwhelm, frighten, provoke anxiety; that happens more than enough in the course of daily existence. This is especially applicable to my son who, like his mother, has a certain tendency to worry. As the sage once said: Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to shutting down of discussion.
I found a variety of such analogues in the current run of Star Wars comics being released jointly by Disney and Marvel: Kanan, The Last Padawan; Darth Vader; Star Wars; Princess Leia; Chewbacca. I’m hoping for more from the forthcoming Obi-Wan and Anakin. (I haven’t been reading Lando and so, can’t rightly speak to it and Shattered Empire is rated R for boobs and consensual adult funtimes.)
Each of the comics has something a little different to offer and each deserves its due in turn.
I’ll start with Kanan, The Last Padawan, since it’s the most kid-friendly of the lot.
Don’t mistake “kid-friendly” for “simple” or “easy.” Kanan deals with some serious stuff from a very young age, things I am very grateful my children haven’t yet had to experience in quite so intense a manner. The emotions invoked, however, are familiar even to the littles.
Moral Ambiguity and Shades of Gray: Kanan is padawan to Deepa Bilaba and, at the ripe age of maybe thirteen or fourteen (possibly younger), he is sent with her to the front lines in the Clone Wars.
Yes, that’s right: The Jedi enlist child soldiers.
Putting that aside for a moment as super problematic…
War is a sad reality of the times in which we live. While we’d like to think that there’s always a good guy and a bad guy, most of us know that isn’t the case. Every man is the hero of his own story (see Matthew Stover’s brilliant Count Dooku POV chapter in the novelization of Revenge of the Sith).
Life is shades of gray.
Palpatine is a big, Nazi-analogue jerk face, but there are people who follow him by choice and some of them have reasonable motivation for doing so. Do I like those motivations? Not really. But I can’t deny their existence and I don’t have to agree with everyone, do I?
Neither do my kids. Nor does everyone need agree with them.
Children, especially young children, as well as older children and adults with Autism/Asperger’s, tend toward a black and white view of the world. They have a strong sense of justice and fairness and it’s hard for them to accept that not everyone is going to agree with their point of view. Not everyone is going to be treated the same way.
As difficult as it is to accept, it’s every person’s right as a sentient being to hold her own beliefs. Even if those beliefs are so against the core of what is important to you it makes you want to scream.
Gray is something many of us begin to understand instinctively as we experience life. How many of us, for example, cheer for the Empire? Which, if you’ll recall, is technically, technically, the legitimate government of that galaxy far, far away.
Yeah, that’s what I thought. We’re all about the rogues and scoundrels, aren’t we (I’m going to go into this more when I explore the straight up Star Wars comic)? That shadow realm is where they stop being criminals and start being heroes because motivation is more important that resultant action.
The kids already know Kanan as a hero from Rebels. The comic allows them to see how he arrived at that place and how his path was strange and convoluted and yes, gray. He does some things that aren’t so great because he needs to survive but he doesn’t let necessity damage who he is at his core, or darken his huge heart. He has taken lives and had moments of paralysis and indecision, but has only let those moments define him to the extent of building on them to become the person he hopes to be.
Not everything is neat and pretty.
To paraphrase a cliché, “Crap happens.” We can let it turn us to the dark side or we can roll with it. We can be a rogue when the need arises but maintain a more than basic goodness and kindness. We can salute the differences, even if, sometimes, they’re confusing or even anger-making. There are limits, of course. Hate and exclusion are never cool. Ever.
We can stand up for others without falling prey to the trap of hating those who create that necessity. We can fight and be peacemakers both.
We can live in the gloaming and still be okay.
I give my kids as much autonomy as I’m able and is safe. This has resulted in some extraordinary outfits over the years, as well my discovering the best way get paint and clay out of hair without causing a riot.
For the most part, however, children have to live with being told what to do: when to get up, when to go to bed, when to go to school, when to do homework, when and what to eat, etcetera, ad nauseum. Such is the result of being in possession of a brain which, by virtue of biological programming, isn’t fully formed yet and needs the answers to questions such as: “Will that fit into a light socket?” or “What happens if I throw this at the moving ceiling fan?”
(Though, if I’m honest, my kids often make better choices than many of the adults I speak to on a daily basis.)
Still, I love it when my kids challenge me. I love it when the ask me why. I mean, okay, sometimes it gets a little tedious and, “Because I said so,” pops out of my mouth, but, for the most part, I glory in it. Kids who ask questions become adults who ask questions and adults who ask questions are the one who become the change they want to see.
Kids also need rules. They find comfort and safety in dependability and routine. So how to explain the balance? How to set and demonstrate the parameters, AKA: What will keep them safe and keep me sane-ish without quashing that natural propensity for “why?”
We turn, once more, to Kanan.
Kanan is established from the first panels of The Last Padawan as the Temple’s resident asker of “why?” He’s the padawan who isn’t satisfied with obeying orders just because Yoda or Mace or Obi-Wan gives them. In the comic, this makes Kanan special.
Deepa Bilaba chooses Kanan as her padawan because he asks questions, challenges authority, refuses to simply accept. She does set limits. He is expected to practice certain skills when she asks it of him and he will follow her orders in combat and other situations of mortal danger. Beyond that? He is not only free to ask, but encouraged to do so.
Is there any doubt this trait, and Deepa’s fostering of it, is what led Kanan to question the Empire’s tactics? Allowed him to stand before something huge and intimidating and say, “No. I will not allow this?” Led him to his role as rebel and a flippin’ world-changer?
And even as young as they are, my kids understand both concepts because of examples like Kanan. They have that very solid, substantial example of a young person who does what they do, if on a larger scale, and who also understands that structure is support and some rules come from a place of love. This is a concrete example far better than any wordsplaination I could give them.
My son, for example, has already expressed disgust of bullying and exclusion. My daughter can befriend literally anyone and does so regardless of appearance or creed or any other category.
They feel safe to do these things, even if no one else is, and to question those who think exclusion is acceptable because they know without question hubs and I are standing behind them. Ready even, to go in for the save if necessary.
I am so proud of them.
Oh, the synapses that Jedi is helping form…
Family and Loss:
Kanan’s parents aren’t mentioned in the comic because, as is the case with most Jedi, he was removed from his birth family as an infant and raised by the Jedi at one of the Temples. In his case, I believe it is the main temple on Coruscant. The Jedi are the first family he remembers.
The Clones beside whom he fights in the war are a second family. Older brothers to whom Kanan can look up and from whom he learns about war and life, and all manner of other things.
He loses both families in the same instant.
Kanan and Deepa are in camp with two of Kanan’s close friends, Clone Troopers Gray and Styles, when Order Sixty-Six is issued. These two men, men with whom he has trusted his life, turn on him and on Deepa with the intention of executing the two Jedi. The rest of the squadron follows suit. Deepa is murdered covering Kanan’s escape and Kanan finds himself alone and a fugitive on a strange world. Returning to Coruscant to check for survivors, he receives a message from Obi-Wan explaining what has happened and ordering any surviving Jedi to go into hiding.
Alone but for his former friends, Gray and Styles, who are compelled to complete their part in Order Sixty-Six and have no intention of letting Kanan escape.
Some time later, Kanan meets Jarrus Kasmir who takes a grudging pity on Kanan and accepts him as an apprentice smuggler and wingman. That relationship evolves with Kanan becoming Jarrus’ surrogate son. Kanan is just recovering from the loss of his old life and accepting his new family when Gray and Stiles find him, endangering not only Kanan, but also Jarrus, for whom Kanan has come to care a great deal.
After defeating their pursuers, Kanan, remembering how much it hurt to lose the Jedi, leaves Jarrus before Jarrus can leave him or be taken from him, thus suffering the collapse of a third family.
We know Kanan eventually bonds with the crew of the Ghost. This is a fourth family for him, one in which he takes on the role of caregiver rather than being cared for, though the others certainly do their share of that. It is a family Kanan chooses, made up of all different sorts of beings with all different points of view and personalities. He eventually becomes Master to Ezra, though grudgingly, this bit likely due to his fear of losing someone else to whom he has become close.
What topics has this raised for the kids? We talk a lot about how all families are different and how cool that is. How people look different and have different interests and traditions but they can still be a family.
In a world, where there’s a lot of naysaying, I can point to Kanan, The Last Padawan and say, “See, guys? This is what I’m talking about.” Human, Twi’lek, Mandalorian, droid, big green dude with face tentacles, walking carpet, it doesn’t matter. When you care about someone, when you make that person family, none of it matters.
It has also allowed an opportunity to assuage some of my son’s fears regarding death and abandonment. As I mentioned above, he’s been a little anxious about both since his great-grandmother’s death. We do all we can to reassure him, to always be around when he needs us, to explain how there will always be someone to take care of him, but the terrible, anxiety-provoking fact of the matter is something terrible could happen.
Explaining we’ve made legal provision for custody to be transferred in the event of… that’s an abstract concept and abstract is hard at six. What he understands, however, what comforts him, is me pointing to Jarrus Kasmir and saying, “See? Kanan went through a hard time, but look who he found!” and being able to do the same with the crew of the Ghost. When I do that, the boy looks at me, and he says, “Oh, I get it.”
And he gives me a hug and he’s okay.
Survivor’s Guilt: Horrible things happen. Do we want our children to anticipate them to the point of anxiety? Absolutely not. A little caution is self-preservatory. Fear leads to a withdrawal from the world which isn’t healthy, even for an introvert like me let alone my children who still have their whole lives ahead to experience and experiment and live.
Kanan, for many years following Deepa’s death, berates himself for cowardice because he did exactly as she intended; he survived. Though he will always carry that pain, he eventually finds a reason to persevere and to live in the Rebellion. Through the Rebellion, he finds Hera, Sabine, Zeb, Chopper, and Ezra. Plagued by the specter of loss, his gut reaction is to isolate but needs must win out and he finds a new mission and a new family.
First, it’s base survival. Then, he heals. Changed. Scarred. But whole.
I wish my kids could flow through that life with only beauty and love and light, but as anyone who’s survived to adulthood knows, that simply isn’t possible. Bad things will happen, sad things, perhaps even tragic things and one of the most important gifts we can give them is resilience. Trust. Hope.
Powerful stuff I’m not sure I’d have been able to help ether I or Z understand with any amount of words or actions on my own. Kanan, though, is an example they can hold in their hands (literally), whose story they can relive anytime, anywhere, in perpetuity as needed.
Kanan can be there for them when I can’t (because life), an image they can carry to school, to the playground, into sports, art classes, life. Something I can call upon when one of these subjects arises. “Remember when Kanan…”
They can remember.
I hope they always will.