Watching Disney movies with your kindergartner

Just recently we had a Shabbat guest who kindly offered to help me set the table for lunch. I gave her the silverware, and as she laid it out she worriedly asked if she should put a knife on the table within my daughter’s reach – not for my daughter’s own use, but for the place setting next to hers. My daughter is a 5½-year-old. Amused, I laughingly responded, “She’s not stupid.”

Immediately, I realized that I wasn’t being fair to our guest, who is unmarried and has had minimal experience with small children. Quickly, I clarified earnestly, “I never truly appreciated the developmental differences between young children of different ages until I had a child of my own, so I understand where you are coming from. Now I know that at five-and-a-half, a child should understand that sharp objects are dangerous and be conscientious about carrying scissors with the blades down.”

Since becoming a father, I have noticed myself misjudging my daughter’s abilities and stages of development. Usually, it’s an underestimation on my part, and then I’m pleasantly surprised by her level of understanding. The older she’s gotten, the more true this has become.

* * *

Based upon my experience as a father, a general piece of advice of mine to other parents would be that we should always be nudging our children to play with puzzles, read books, create art pieces, etc., that are just slightly more difficult than what we may think that our children can succeed at.

The keyword here is ‘nudging’ because children are quite likely to get frustrated and give up on activities that are beyond their skill sets. If they don’t feel too put upon, they are more likely to return to those same activities on their own. We as parents may suggest games to play and books to read, and we may even engage in those activities ourselves to spark our children’s interest… but we should be careful not to turn them off to such endeavors.

* * *

So, what does any of this have to do with Disney movies?

Well, when COVID-19 broke out, our daughter’s preschool was shut down for two months, and my wife and I became her full-time caregivers. She no longer had to wake up early in the mornings during this period so we were slightly more flexible about her bedtime and evening activities. What to do with one’s exhausted child after a day full of various activities?

One of my daughter’s favorite books is a compilation of Disney stories, many of which she knows by heart, and many of which she has come to enjoy reading on her own. At some point, the subject of Disney movies was raised by my wife, and the two of them watched the old Sleeping Beauty movie and then the much more recent Maleficent, eventually roping me into watching them too. For a time, my daughter was particularly obsessed with Maleficent, asking us to watch it with her over and over again, until finally I’d had enough.

Abba’chka, can we watch Maleficent this evening?
Sweetie, I can’t watch the same movie so many times because that’s boring for me. If you want to watch it by yourself that’s totally fine.
But… I want to watch it with you!
If you want to watch a movie with me, that’s great, but we’ll have to watch a different movie. Why don’t you pick one of the stories from your Disney book?
The Disney book?
Yes, the one with the pink cover. Every story in that book is based upon a Disney movie – I promise that I’ll watch any movie that you want, other than Maleficent and Sleeping Beauty.

That’s how it began, more or less. I went online to find a full list of Disney movies and told her which movies I’d seen in my childhood, as well as which films I had not yet seen. Our daughter would pick a new movie, once every week or so, and one or both of her parents would watch it with her. I’d forgotten much of those that I’d seen in my early childhood and truly enjoyed our movie dates.

The thing is- we’ve raised to her to be inquisitive, and at five-and-a-half she wasn’t understanding all the nuances of the plots. Watching Disney films quickly became an educational experience for her because we’d have to pause the videos intermittently to answer all of her questions.

Every Thursday evening or Friday afternoon, we continue to watch Disney movies of her choosing together. I estimate that we pause “new” movies once every fifteen minutes or so to discuss the plots and various turns of phrase used by the characters.

It has been amazing for me to watch how her understanding of human interactions and motivations has exploded in these last few months, particularly thanks to Disney.

For example, I remember how she had difficulty understanding why Kristoff was having so much difficulty proposing to Anna in Frozen II. We discussed it and had a follow-up conversation about the ideals and responsibilities of marriage, and she seemed to grasp the concept but continued asking for clarification. Some weeks later, we watched The Rescuers Down Under, wherein Bernard was nervous about proposing to his coagent Miss Bianca, and I could see the glimmer of understanding brightening in our child’s eyes as we talked about it. By the time we watched Mulan II, she was laughing over Shang’s anxiety at proposing to Mulan. “It’s just like Kristoff and Bernard!” she exclaimed with excitement.

And so it goes. Her familiarity with and comprehension of various human behavioral dynamics continues to mature before our eyes. She also has a true eye for details. After watching a movie once or twice with her parents, our daughter will watch snippets of that same movie by herself before bedtime, continuously asking further questions about what particular gestures and words mean in certain contexts. Of course, all of this input feeds directly into her endless games of fancy; the plots she constructs in her mind, wherein all of the Disney characters play supporting roles, are becoming oh so increasingly complicated.

* * *

I’m sure that our five-year-old would derive enjoyment from Disney movies even if she were watching them entirely on her own (although she would probably run away from the screen during the scary bits), but that is not the only point for me.

We have discussed with her so many different concepts that I cannot list them all, but suffice it to say that our Disney movie project has been fulfilling for all of us. We have discussed the relative depths of movie characters (are their motivations simply black-white or nuanced?), the specifics of various villains’ motivations (are they greedy, selfish, shallow, power-hungry, vengeful, etc.), and gender dynamics throughout many cultures and different eras, among other topics.

No so many months ago, our daughter did not have much understanding of these and other concepts, and it’s taken the many hours we’ve invested in answering her questions and holding meaningful discussions to broaden her understanding of the world to such an extent. For myself, I have come to appreciate that it was never the case that she couldn’t understand these nuances – it was simply that she’d never been exposed to them.

Disney and her parents have been succeeding at unveiling a whole new world.

Ethical will: Be true to yourself

There is nothing new under the sun, including in this ethical will, but I feel it necessary to plant some flags. Also, in embarking upon this endeavor, I am taking my own advice by being true to myself. As this feels important to me, I shall respect that drive.

To start:

There are many voices around you, but you must listen to your own voice.

– Pocahontas to King James, Disney’s Pocahontas II (1998)

The obvious and necessary first step towards being true to yourself is listening to yourself, as noted by Disney’s Pocahontas. From birth, we are shaped by multiple, external voices, and while these ought not be disregarded, be mindful that nobody else can journey with you from womb to tomb. So – are you comfortable living with and as yourself?

Listening to one’s self does not come easily to everybody, particularly not to children, for they rely upon their parents’ guidance to develop their understandings of the world. Parents need strike a balance between encouraging their children to draw their own conclusions about their life experiences and explaining everything to them. As children develop, the balance should naturally shift.

Famously, God said to Abram (Gen. 12):

א וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ. 1 Now the LORD said unto Abram: ‘Go to yourself, from thy land, and from thy homeland, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee.

This verse continues to fascinate scholars today, and I deliberately chose this translation over others that are also broadly accepted. (I believe this to be the most literal translation)

Essentially, in order to “go to himself” (to become himself?) Abram (who would later receive the name Abraham) had to leave the land where he was living, the land he had been born in, and his family. One could nitpick over what other influences shape us during our formative years, but I believe the Torah, in its literary way, was suggesting that Abram had to distance himself from every influence in his life in order to truly realize himself. Only by doing so could Abram eventually become the father of the Jewish nation.

Metaphorically, we all need, at some point, to step back from the major influences in our lives in order to most deeply understand ourselves at our cores. What remains of “you” when you change your circumstances? Of course, there are sundry influences upon each of us, and it may be nigh impossible to distance ourselves from all of them simultaneously… but that misses the point, which is: we must attempt to identify the external forces acting upon us in order to best understand ourselves.

We can always step back towards them later, with awareness, and some may, in fact, be very positive and even dear to us. (NB: I am in no way repudiating the tremendous potential value of any of our formative influences)

* * *

There is at least one other angle to this idea that I would like to touch upon, which is: I believe that those who respect themselves most will remain true to themselves, regardless of outside expectations.

Later in Genesis, Joseph introduces his brothers to Pharaoh, and advises them as follows in chapter 46:

לג וְהָיָה, כִּי-יִקְרָא לָכֶם פַּרְעֹה; וְאָמַר, מַה-מַּעֲשֵׂיכֶם. 33 And it shall come to pass, when Pharaoh shall call you, and shall say: What is your occupation?
לד וַאֲמַרְתֶּם, אַנְשֵׁי מִקְנֶה הָיוּ עֲבָדֶיךָ מִנְּעוּרֵינוּ וְעַד-עַתָּה–גַּם-אֲנַחְנוּ, גַּם-אֲבֹתֵינוּ: בַּעֲבוּר, תֵּשְׁבוּ בְּאֶרֶץ גֹּשֶׁן, כִּי-תוֹעֲבַת מִצְרַיִם, כָּל-רֹעֵה צֹאן. 34 that ye shall say: Thy servants have been keepers of cattle from our youth even until now, both we, and our fathers; that ye may dwell in the land of Goshen; for every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians.’

However, it turns out that Joseph’s brothers have a strong sense of confidence in their identities. In chapter 47, they introduce themselves to Pharaoh as follows:

ג וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אֶל-אֶחָיו, מַה-מַּעֲשֵׂיכֶם; וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, רֹעֵה צֹאן עֲבָדֶיךָ–גַּם-אֲנַחְנוּ, גַּם-אֲבוֹתֵינוּ. 3 And Pharaoh said unto his brethren: ‘What is your occupation?’ And they said unto Pharaoh: ‘Thy servants are shepherds, both we, and our fathers.’
ד וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, לָגוּר בָּאָרֶץ בָּאנוּ, כִּי-אֵין מִרְעֶה לַצֹּאן אֲשֶׁר לַעֲבָדֶיךָ, כִּי-כָבֵד הָרָעָב בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן; וְעַתָּה יֵשְׁבוּ-נָא עֲבָדֶיךָ, בְּאֶרֶץ גֹּשֶׁן. 4 And they said unto Pharaoh: ‘To sojourn in the land are we come; for there is no pasture for thy servants’ flocks; for the famine is sore in the land of Canaan. Now therefore, we pray thee, let thy servants dwell in the land of Goshen.’

And… then… even though “every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians”, Pharaoh responds by putting Joseph’s brothers in charge of the royal livestock. Hardly a rejection, is it?

Certainly, I would be among the last to suggest that any reading of a religious text is correct to the exclusion of others, but this understanding of these verses reads particularly true to me: Pharaoh gave Joseph’s brothers respect for staying true to themselves, in the face of external pressure to hide their true identities.

As I wrote above:

… be mindful that nobody else can journey with you from womb to tomb. So – are you comfortable living with and as yourself?

* * *

I’d like to bring this home with a classic Hasidic tale about Reb Zusha of Hanipol, a student of the Maggid of Mezritch, who, in turn, was a student of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism. It goes as follows:

Reb Zusha was laying  on his deathbed surrounded by his disciples. He was crying and no one could comfort him.

One student asked his Rebbe, “Why do you cry? In your life, you have been as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham.” 

Reb Zusha answered, “When I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly Tribunal, they won’t ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham,’ rather, they will ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you Zusha?'”

Walking on God

On a recent morning walk to preschool, my five-year-old was musing to herself and came to a logical conclusion:

If I’m God, and the sidewalk is God, then God is walking on God. That’s funny, right?

Despite our family’s committedly traditional Jewish lifestyle, my daughter is hardly receiving any theological indoctrination from home. My wife and I both believe in a Higher Power, but neither of us is the sort to suggest that anybody else should agree with us. We’re pluralists.

Mostly, my daughter’s understanding of God is based upon what she learns at her Israeli State-Secular preschool.

* * *

A quick digression:
Jewish schools in Israel

  • In Israel there are more than a few different categories of Jewish schools, which include:
    • State-Secular;
    • State-Orthodox;
    • State-ultra-Orthodox;
    • State-approved-but-unofficial;
      • These receive 75% of their funding from the state and are required to teach 75% of the core curriculum. They are not run by the state.
    • State-approved-but-exempt;
      • These receive 55% funding and are required to teach 55% of the core curriculum. Not run by the state.
    • Not-approved (i.e. illegal);
      • Operated by certain ultra-Orthodox sects (mostly affiliated with Satmar).
    • There are also two state-approved-unofficial-but-fully-funded-ultra-Orthodox school networks (each of which is affiliated with one of the two ultra-Orthodox political parties – Shas and UTJ);
      • These two networks are required to teach 100% of the core curriculum.
  • Ultra-Orthodox schools for boys in Israel, by and large, hardly teach core curricular studies at all, and the Ministry of Education does next to nothing to hold any of them accountable.

* * *

Back to: Walking on God

My child’s new conception soon led to further conclusions. She reasoned, for example, that if air is God, it follows that God breathes God; and if food is God, God eats God; and if clothing is God…

The examples are endless, and the ensuing conversations still fascinate her. Almost daily, she continues to come up with questions about God, most of which I respond to with, “Some people believe that.”

“Some people believe that.”
“What do you believe?”
“Personally, I believe that God created everything, but I’m not sure of anything beyond that.”
“Well, I believe that God makes everything happen.”
“Ok – that’s fine.”
“Because you can believe whatever you want to believe.”
“I believe God controls everything!”

Although discussing God renders me uncomfortable, I try to engage my daughter at such moments, encourage her reflections, and answer her as thoroughly and honestly as I am able. Will these profound contemplations at such a fledgling age serve her in developing a personal theology and worldview that she can find comfort and security in? I don’t recall having a concept of God during my preschool years, and I certainly don’t recall giving the notion any serious thought until well into my teens.

Still, despite my relative open-mindedness, there is one particular religious notion that my daughter picked up from preschool, which grates on me. It relates to the death (c. 166 BCE) of Mattathias, father of Judah Maccabee, which my child was told stories of in the context of Ḥanukah. It’s not clear how Mattathias died, but the preschool teacher was quite clear about what happened to him afterwards: he “ascended” to the “Garden of Eden”. 😒

    To be clear:
    I have no difficulty whatsoever in understanding why our preschool teacher would describe death like this to the little tykes.
    • But: The trope of dying and arriving at the Garden of Eden has its roots in Christian theology – not in Jewish thought.
      • So… Why bring up Mattathias’ death in the first place, given that it’s not central to the story of the Seleucid Greeks’ defeat at the hands of the Maccabees?

* * *

I am very sensitive to questions surrounding death, particularly in the context of my daughter’s growing understanding of what it means to have lost her grandfather. She was only three-and-a-half when he died, and she had never encountered death before:

… death was still beyond her imagination… The euphemism of “moving to a faraway place” came to us fairly quickly. We were dazed, stunned, unsteady; our overriding instinct was to protect our [not a] baby.

The Skeptic’s Kaddish for the Atheist #49, Jul. 16, 2019

By the time she was four-and-a-half-years-old, her understanding of death had matured:

Our conversations today, one year after Papa died, are incomparably more substantive than they once were… she… [has even] tested her developing understanding with me: “Is it right that my grandfather died?”

– ibid.

Today, our [not a] baby is nearly five-and-a-half (going on sixty), and in the last half year she has taken a great liking to Disney movies, wherein the characters sometimes die. She watches these movies over and over again, teasing out the tiniest nuances in dialogue and action, and repeatedly asking us for clarifications, including:

It’s less painful, of course, to answer questions such as these than to answer her questions regarding Papa’s death, but one train of thought often leads to the other; our conversations often turn to Saturday, July 7, 2018 and the year that followed. Many, many times she has asked me, “Are you sad that Dedushka Shurik (or: your father) is dead?”

“Are you sad that your father died?”
“Yes, I am.”
“I am also sad because my grandfather died.”
“I understand; he loved you very, very much, but that is the natural course of life. Everything that is living will die. Animals, plants…”
“When will you die?”
“Nobody knows when they will die.”
“Only God knows.”
“Right. Only God knows. Don’t worry – I’m not old or sick so I’m not going to die soon.”

I know, I know… I’m lying to her somewhat. The truth is, I could die today for any number of unexpected reasons. Nobody, but nobody, expected my friend Zvi z”l to die last month. How does a health-conscious, vegetarian marathon runner suddenly expire one evening? The reality is: he just fucking does.

* * *

So I’ve been struggling.

I don’t know what’s existentially true.
I don’t know what metaphysically true. Fundamentally,
I don’t know the Truth.

The experience has been acutely uncomfortable, sometimes even hurtful, but as a father I attempt to navigate a path between the caliginous crags of possibility and truth without shattering myself against either.
thus far…

It’s been working(?)