Parenting Padawans: How Should Today’s Kids Experience “I Am Your Father?”

Answering one of the big questions for those raising the next generation of fans.

Are you a parent with children who love the galaxy far, far away? Parenting Padawans is an exclusive column that discusses the various questions and factors that come into play when introducing your younglings to Star Wars

Imagine, if you will, a darkened theater in May of 1980. You’re packed in with about a hundred other people for the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back, not really sure what to expect. You haven’t seen much footage from the movie — just a trailer and a few commercials. Still, the media blitz has been impressive. It’s been all over the news, and there’s merchandise in almost every store. Your local Toys R Us, Kiddie City, and Kay-Bee Toys are stocked with all manner of new, bizarrely unfamiliar action figures and toys.

But by and large, this sequel to the massively successful Star Wars is a mystery. You don’t know much about the story or what will happen. You sit back as those blue words light up the screen before the music kicks in: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…and over the next two hours, your mind is completely blown.

Darth Vader Reveal

Now let’s imagine you’re a kid in about 1986. The Star Wars trilogy is a few years old, and you know of it, but there’s not much stuff in the stores anymore. Maybe you still play with an older sibling’s beat-up toys or have flipped through an old Star Wars Storybook, looking at the cool pictures. But you’ve never seen the movies.

One day, that changes. Maybe a parent, maybe that older sibling, but someone pops in a VHS copy of A New Hope, and you watch. You’re hooked. You love everything about it. You can’t wait to watch the second one. And eventually you do. You slide in the videocassette for The Empire Strikes Back and cuddle up on the couch with a bowl of popcorn.

And over the next two hours, your mind is completely blown.

In both of these scenarios, you went into The Empire Strikes Back almost totally blind. You had no idea what to expect. And in both of these scenarios, the moment of Darth Vader’s stunning reveal took your breath away. It came out of left field and hit you like a ton of bricks. Everything you thought you knew was suddenly turned upside down and inside out.

So, now, whether you’re Kid A in the theater on opening weekend or Kid B watching at home on a Sunday afternoon, you had an experience that could never be duplicated. You were in on the ground floor of a shared cultural moment. Never again would you not know that Darth Vader is Luke’s father.

The Empire Strikes Back - Luke on Cloud City

Let’s fast forward to today.

You’re still a Star Wars fan, obviously. But now you’re also a new parent. Congratulations on both! It doesn’t take long — really, it probably happened within the first week — for you to stare lovingly at your baby and wonder how you managed to make something so perfect…and then start thinking about when you can sit the little bugger in front of the TV for his or her first Star Wars viewing.

However, this is where it gets difficult. What’s the best way to expose your kids to Star Wars? Let’s leave aside the thorny issue of viewing order and focus instead on that one moment in The Empire Strikes Back. Darth Vader is beckoning to Luke Skywalker, who is hanging precariously from a maintenance catwalk in the heart of Cloud City. And then it comes: “Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.”

That moment — and what comes next — has become part of our shared cultural consciousness. Even people who have never seen the movies are aware of it. So is it possible to keep your kids spoiler-free until they’re ready to watch (and understand) the film for themselves? Is it even a good idea to try?

Here’s the thing. Kids with parents who are Star Wars fans will likely grow up on a steady diet of Star Wars board books, storybooks, and picture books. They’ll have Star Wars toys, lunchboxes, and games. And they’ll probably have all of these things before they even see the movies.

As fans and parents, we don’t have the patience to wait five or six years to share these characters and stories with our little ones. Plus, there are just some really killer kids’ books that are all kinds of awesome, and many of those books casually spoil the Skywalker family lineage. Or, in the case of Jeffrey Brown’s brilliant Vader and Son and Vader’s Little Princess (which are hugely popular in my house), the spoilers are a bit more blatant and purposeful. The entire premise of those books is that you already know how the characters are related.

By the time kids are ready to sit down and comprehend the movie, they’re already intimately aware of the story and all of the characters’ connections.

That emotional moment in Empire between Vader and Luke doesn’t blow their mind or rock their world. It’s just a moment. A completely awesome moment, but still just one moment among many.

Despite the fact that it’s nearly impossible, trying to keep the Vader reveal a “secret” and preserve the power of that plot twist for our kids isn’t entirely fair. Really keeping that secret would require a herculean effort (not to mention multiple levels of mild deception and subterfuge). And in the end, what you’re doing is purposefully keeping them in the dark for your own satisfaction.

Let’s face it: if we’re really meant to watch the films in episode order, this whole point is moot. There’s no big reveal in The Empire Strikes Back since the family connection is made explicit at the end of Revenge of the Sith. We also have to face the truth that, realistically, kids today are going to watch Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels before watching the films. And both of those shows definitely spoil the reveal.

Ultimately, if we try to artificially create a situation where that twist genuinely surprises our kids, we’re unfairly controlling their experiences, molding them in an effort to mirror our own. If we go down that road, we become gatekeepers who dictate how our kids are “supposed” to watch, relate to, and respond to Star Wars.

That’s not cool.

My daughter was six when she finally saw the films for the first time. Nevertheless, she was still a huge Star Wars fan and could narrate the entire original trilogy, beat for beat. She played with my original Kenner toys, and she had her own newer action figures. We read countless picture book versions of the saga. She listened to the NPR dramatization on endless loop. We dug through the original Marvel comics run together. She dueled Darth Vader at Walt Disney World.

She knew Vader was Luke and Leia’s father long before she saw the movies, and it took away absolutely none of her enjoyment. Kids today are savvy, sophisticated moviegoers — possibly even more so than adults were in the ’70s and ’80s. They may not be blindsided by the same events that made such an indelible impression on us, but that doesn’t mean their love of the saga is any less than our own.

Being a parent is a constant balancing act. When it comes to Star Wars (or other things we love), we need to ask ourselves what’s more important: that our kids experience it exactly the way we did or that they come to the story in their own way, on their own terms, and through their own eyes?

My daughter loves Star Wars because of her own experiences with it. Her exposure to the saga and how she came to it bears no resemblance to my own. She has her own reasons for loving her favorite characters, she has her own favorite scenes, and there are stories that speak directly to her. And that’s more than okay; that’s how it should be.

Jamie is a publishing/book nerd who makes a living by wrangling words together into some sense of coherence. He’s also a contributor to GeekDad and runs The Roarbots, where he focuses on awesome geeky stuff that happens to be kid-friendly. On top of that, he cohosts The Great Big Beautiful Podcast, which celebrates geek culture by talking to people who create it. With two little ones and a vast Star Wars collection at home, he’s done the unthinkable: allowed them full access to most of his treasure from the past 30 years, opening and playing with whatever they want (pre-1983 items excluded).