Laurel has always been a sensitive soul. She feels things very deeply, has always been firmly attached to me and Jon (resulting in a tendency towards prolonged and painful separation), and loves our little family trio with all her heart. And while she enjoys movies, she’s not one of those kids who can watch explosions and heartbreak and meanness (in cartoon form or otherwise) and let it roll off her back. Her earliest favorite movie was Cinderella, and she burrowed into me whenever the nasty stepmother entered the room. Her later favorite movie was Enchanted, and any scene including the wicked stepmother (not to mention the scene in which the homeless dude steals Giselle’s tiara) needed to be fast forwarded. It took months and months before she could watch these movies all the way through.
All of this said, Laurel has evolved a lot since she started kindergarten. She's braver and more adventurous. She's still sensitive, but definitely different.
So when Up arrived in the mail yesterday I was perplexed. We’re pretty bad at maintaining our Netflix queue and I vaguely remember tossing Up on the queue many months ago for me and Jon to watch since I had heard rave reviews. However, Laurel was excited when she saw the DVD (“I’ve seen that house with the balloons before!”) and we were planning movie night anyway so I figured, “Hey, this is animated. Maybe this will work.” So I turned to Twitter and asked:
And received this series of super thoughtful responses:
I didn’t get all of these responses by the time we decided to take the plunge and go for it, but I felt sufficiently warned and aware of the potential variability in reaction. I told Laurel that some people told me that there’s a sad scene because someone dies and later on there are some nasty dogs we could fast forward through. I told her it would be fine to not watch it and go for something tried and true from her collection. She was insistent. She said her friend Sawyer loved the movie and that she wanted to watch it.
So we all hunkered into the L-couch: me in the corner nook, Laurel cuddled on top me, Jon next to us -- all of us cozy under a pile of Tibetan yak blankets. It seemed perfect.
And then, as I found myself getting teary during the scene about which I had received warning, I felt Laurel’s body tense. I couldn’t see her face but Jon could. He asked her if she wanted to keep going. She said yes. Later on, she laughed at a couple of places in the movie. She liked the big colorful bird. I think those were the things that kept her going as she said, “Yes, keep going” as we fast forwarded through the scary dog scene, and the scenes where Muntz (ironically, voiced by Christopher Plummer; The Sound of Music is Laurel’s current favorite movie…and yes, she cried the first time she realized the army was trying to take Von Trapp away from the family) is mean. And then we just had to stop.
And it wasn’t at a scary scene. We stopped during the scene in which Mr. Fredricksen discovers what his late wife Ellie added beyond the pages of the “Stuff I’m Going to Do” page in her adventure book. It was a scene that would probably be over the heads of, totally innocuous for, or even boring for many kids, but Laurel couldn’t bear it. We stopped. She sobbed. She buried her face in Jon’s neck and clutched us both. She couldn’t verbalize what was bothering her but we knew.
For Laurel, the gravity and scariness of the nasty dogs and mean Muntz paled in comparison to the idea of Fredricksen being alone and missing his wife. Laurel literally was heartbroken for this animated character.
I will fully admit that after an exhausting week, I was really looking forward to Laurel’s proposed movie night. I just wanted to hunker in and veg out and I was actually really enjoying the movie. Obviously, part of me felt sad for Laurel and moved to comfort her, but part of me also wanted to say, “Come on, buck up Laurel. It’s not real!” I don’t know if Jon sensed the duality of my emotions in that moment, but he offered to scoop Laurel up and put her to bed and suggested that I finish the last bit of the movie on my own.
Later on, Jon and I discussed all of this and it occurred to me that the descriptor “sensitive” tends to have negative connotations. Certainly, I felt a little inconvenienced by her response and admittedly wished she could just be OK with the fact that it was a movie and not get upset. (This is actually why we never see kids movies when they come out in the theaters. It just seems like too much of a hassle when there's a pretty decent chance that we won't make it through the whole thing.)
However, even though yes, this was just a movie, death is also something that happens in life every day and Laurel sees the consequences of split spouses play out in real time; for example, seeing my mother move through life’s adventures without my father.
And then I realized that Laurel's sensitive soul is not a burden, it is a gift.
Laurel may not be the optimal target for the increasing wham bam overstimulation of children’s media (a good thing, in my opinion), but how could I be anything but immensely grateful that my daughter embodies a deep sense of empathy -- a sensitivity for other people’s emotions and a desire for happiness and cohesion in living? If that sensitivity helps her be more mindful as she navigates the world, more appreciative of the people in it, and more attuned to the struggles people face, she will lead a rich life. She might even end up working to do some good in the human services domain.
It took me a long time to figure this out, but I'm glad I finally did. And suffice to say, it matters not if we never make it through another kid movie.