This is an essay I wrote 5 years ago about my son. The parenting magazine that bought it, called Wonder Time, folded and closed its doors one issue before this was set to appear.
Crazy bad luck, but I still like the piece. Hope you do, too.
THE BIRTH OF THE LIGHTSABER
I recently introduced my six-year-old twins, Max and Sophie, to the original Star Wars trilogy. The experience has been a big hit, prompting imaginative play, complementary reading, elaborate artwork and countless conversations on story, character, science and even filmmaking. After watching The Empire Strikes Back, I had this memorable exchange with my son:
Me: Because he wanted to do what was right and good.
Max: Yeah, but he’s his father. I mean, if you were evil, obviously I’d be evil, too.
Aside from being downright proud of his loyalty (Note to self: stay good.), I was reminded about how much my inquisitive son struggles with his identity. He knows how to have fun as much as any kid, but he also worries, stresses and takes things on. From geology (“How hot is the lava in the middle of the earth?”) to traffic (“Why doesn’t the person in the front just go?”) he’s always looking for answers. All that thinking and figuring notwithstanding, his toughest challenge so far has been an emotional one: dealing with traditional gender roles.
I sometimes joke about my kids being true boy/girl twins in that she came out pink, and he came out blue. Max spent his first few days as the 6-pound champ of the NICU, and I remember telling him to enjoy it. It would most likely be the only time in his life when he’d be the biggest kid in the room.
As the parenting adventure began I figured an arrangement like this would make me some sort of expert on nature vs. nurture with regards to gender. My delusion was reinforced during their first year when I gave each of them a cracker. Sophie inspected hers, sniffed it, touched it to her tongue, and finally took a bite. Max put his flat on his tray and smashed it with his fist, causing me to think: What’s the big mystery? If science would only focus on the difficult stuff, maybe we’d all have those flying cars by now.
During the next few years, Sophie’s strong personality kept Max in touch with his feminine
side. He abandoned cracker smashing and established a comfort zone socializing with girls and doing “girl” things. During the toddler/preschool years, play continued to be relatively easy because at that age, there are no real gender lines. The best example was dress-up, a popular activity in our house. I’m sure we saved a few dollars not having to buy many boy costumes, because Max always opted for princesses and fairies and the like.
Shortly before Kindergarten, however, marked the first time he chose not to play dress up. It was clear he wanted to put on the ball gown and tiara, but felt he wasn’t supposed to. Of course, I guy-joked with my wife about my relief with a cartoon, “Phew!” wipe across my forehead. But my true reaction was primarily sad. He was, for the first time, acting on an internal question that would stay with him – as it does with all of us – for the rest of his life:
“What will other people think?”
Despite the encouragement to play however he wants, he has methodically moved away from things too “girl.” Once he started Kindergarten, there was a noticeable, social gap. While playing mostly with girls, the lure of things “boy” was definitely there. And it’s my theory that his reluctance to engage right away was because he knew he was lacking in Boy Play experience. (Daddy rough-and-tumble play, of which there has been plenty over the years, doesn’t count. It’s not social interaction, so it’s apples and oranges.)
A large part of Boy Play is Fight Play, and as a weapon-free house, we needed some sort of bridge, an acceptable introduction to defeating pretend bad guys.
Enter the lightsaber. As part of the mythology with which Max was already so enamored,
the eye-candy tech-sword seemed the perfect fit. When Obi Wan Kenobi first shows Luke (and us) the lightsaber, he calls it “an elegant weapon … for a more civilized time.” I concluded that was just as good as any rationalization I could come up with.
And so . . . not that long ago, in this galaxy right here, Max got a toy lightsaber. With it he is not only exploring, but (dare I say?) “mastering” new territory. The old rules of violence have been amended, but the adjustment was merely a passing note. He just seems to get it, and we’re proud of him for that. (Of course Sophie got a lightsaber, too. She has developed a gothlike affinity for Darth Vader, but that’s another essay.)
One of the bonus features on the Star Wars DVD set is called “The Birth of the Lightsaber.” In this mini-documentary George Lucas explains the story origins and technological creation of the iconic weapon. Much to my own amusement, the twins often ask for it as if it were a movie itself: “Can we watch ‘Birth of the Lightsaber’?” And watch it they do – over and over – fueling that aspect of their play as they pretend to be the famous characters, flying spaceships and saving the galaxy from Darth Sophie’s Evil Empire.
Lightsaber play has helped Max come a long way in a short time, figuring out who he is and who he wants to be. I believe it has helped make schoolyard play easier, and friendships with boys have taken on a more stable, balanced dynamic. A while back he told me that “girls were more interesting.” I assured him that would remain true his entire life, but he still needed to have friends who were boys, too. And now he has them, friends he made on his schedule and on his terms. Of course, a thousand different things helped him across that threshold, but strange as it may seem, I know that a battery-operated tube of colored plastic was one of them.
Needless to say, it’s difficult as a parent to guide, influence, encourage, permit, protect and police all at the same time. But doing all of those things (plus so many others) when we don’t consciously realize we’re doing them is what parenting is all about. Standing at the dress-up cabinet that day and witnessing part of Max’s innocence disappear forever was indeed sad. But it will happen countless other times before he finishes elementary school, and we were lucky in that Max filled the void and continues to figure out what, for him, is just the right balance.
Max chimed in enthusiastically: “I’m Princess Leia!”