Like many of you, I took my kids to see “Moana” over winter break. First, I loved this movie. But this isn’t a movie review. One thing that I was struck by during the movie is that, while it is an animated Disney film, it is certainly dark, suspenseful, and scary. Moana spends a tremendous amount of time on the open water and you don’t know exactly what is going to happen to her. There are lava monsters and shape shifters and battle scenes, but even in the moments when she doesn’t seem to be in immediate danger, there is a sense that danger is lurking, an idea I haven’t seen in many Disney movies up to this point.
My 4.5-year-old was terrified by this movie. He spent most of the middle of the film burying his face in my arm and asking when it would be over. He spent the second half on my lap (thank goodness the theater has the large, reclining seats) alternatively looking away and transfixed by the screen. My sister, who had seen the movie already, offered to take him outside, which would have been easier and probably more comfortable for both of us.
But I also knew that if he walked out of the movie before it was over, then “Moana” would forever be a scary movie, a movie he couldn’t finish. But it wasn’t just about “Moana.” What happens the next time he is sitting in a movie and he is scared? Should he leave every time? And beyond movies, what happens the next time he wants to do something but he is scared?
“Moana” was a safe environment. To my son it may not have felt exactly like one, but there was very little risk in asking him to stay until the end of the movie. He was safe and I was fairly certain that everything was going to turn out all right and that he would come to understand that, even when something feels scary, it is important not to run away.
Let’s be clear. I would never knowingly put my child in a dangerous situation just to see what he would do. But this movie was a protected risk that allowed him to conquer his fears and grow. We can shelter our kids, prevent them from ever being scared or upset, or we can give them the tools to figure out what to do when they are scared and want to run away. In this case, he held my hands, hid his face, and asked me lots of questions about what was going to happen so that he could prepare himself.
The words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, which have been turned into a popular song, teach, “The whole world is a narrow bridge, the most important thing is not to be afraid.” To me, this song doesn’t teach us to be reckless and do everything without fear. Instead, it teaches that there are obstacles and challenges around every corner, that our lives are a narrow bridge, and the most important thing is that we do not allow fear to stop us from crossing the bridge, from facing the challenge, from getting to the end of the movie. Fear is OK—as long as it doesn’t block the bridge.
By the end of the movie, my child was no longer scared and had declared that he loved the movie and that it was very funny. He learned that being scared wasn’t a permanent condition, that things can change, and that, even when he is scared, he can find ways to move through it. Now that’s a good movie.