The other night I watched West Side Story with my kids. I love the movie and haven't seen it in years (over a decade, at least). My kids really enjoy movies with good music, especially when there's singing and dancing involved. Especially Spencer. He's also getting tired of watching and re-watching his usual flicks. So I saw it as a win-win: Spencer got to see something new, and I got to watch something that wasn't made by Pixar.
Now, let me describe for you what it's like to watch a movie with Spencer. My son is apparently unable to process a thought silently--he verbalizes his stream of consciousness. And there's a lot to process when watching a movie (even after he's seen it three dozen times, he still processes it as though he's never seen it before). He's constantly asking, "What just happened? Why did he do that? Why are they walking? Where are they going? What's going to happen next?" And so on. I usually respond with a steady stream of, "You were watching, you saw what happened. Just wait, and you'll see. Watch and you'll find out." Until I finally resort to, "Just be quiet and watch the movie, Spencer!"
West Side Story started off with the expected questions: "Is that a playground?" Yes, Spencer, it's a playground. "Why are those boys in a playground?" Because they want to be there. "Why are they dancing?" They just are.
And then the questions began to get a little harder. "What are they doing to that other boy?" They're letting him know they don't want him there. "Why not?" Because they don't like him. "Why don't they like him?" And then, before I could come up with a four-year-old appropriate answer to that question, "Who are those boys?" They're that other boy's friends. "Are they fighting? Why are they fighting?" Because those two groups of boys are enemies. "Who are the good boys and who are the bad boys?" Uh, they're all pretty good boys. "Then why are they fighting?" Because they don't like people who are different from them. "Why not?" Because they just don't. "Because they're mean?" They're mean to the people they don't like, and they're nice to the people they do like. "But why aren't they nice to everybody if they're good boys?" Umm, some people are like that. And then, "Why don't they want that girl around?" Because girls aren't allowed. "Why not?"
And this was the first ten minutes of a two and a half hour movie.
As exasperated as I was trying to answer these questions, I loved the fact that they proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that my son doesn't understand prejudice. He doesn't understand how people can decide to be mean or nice to someone based on their skin color or accent. He doesn't understand why someone's gender would make them ineligible to join a certain group. And when I tried to explain it to him, he gave me a look that clearly said, "Mom, that's got to be the stupidest thing I've ever heard you say, and that's saying something!"
And he's absolutely right. It is stupid. It's pointless. It makes no sense. And it's not a natural part of who we are. Spencer didn't understand prejudice because he's never been taught prejudice. He's never been taught to exclude others for arbitrary reasons, and he's never been excluded for arbitrary reasons himself (though I'm sure that day will come). Children don't hate others until they've been told that they should, and taught how. It may not be done intentionally, but they are very observant, and they will act the way they see the adults around them acting. Too many adults don't think about what they're teaching the children who idolize them.
I wanted to introduce my son to one of my favorite musicals. In doing so, I also began to teach him about the darker side of some human interactions. He liked the music, even when I sang along. He liked the dancing. He thought the girls were pretty (both the Caucasians and the Puerto Ricans). He didn't like that he had to hug me and pat my arm reassuringly at the end and say, "It's OK; everything's going to be all right" when I was crying hysterically because some people died for some really stupid reasons. Why couldn't they all just get along?
I think we'll watch Fiddler on the Roof next. Then I'll get to explain religious persecution to him, as well. And sing along with more of my favorite showtunes.