Children and the Apocalypse

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Last week, I took my nine-year-old nephew to see the movie Paranorman, a film describing the adventures of young kid, often picked on by the school bullies, who is called to save the town from both zombies and a witch—actually a young girl, also an outcast, who was mistakenly burned as a witch hundreds of years earlier.

The film was good enough, but what I found more fascinating was a trailer prior to the main feature for a new film entitled Rise of the Guardians . While this movie is not scheduled to arrive in theaters for several more months, the trailer has stuck with me far longer than the feature did.

Rise of the Guardians, according to the trailer, is the story of the legendary figure Jack Frost who turns everything he touches to ice—“Jack Frost nipping at your nose,” go the lyrics to the famous Christmas carol. But apparently, Jack Frost’s unique talent is the necessary ingredient to save the world, so say the movie’s Gang of Four—Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Sandman, and the Tooth Fairy—because an evil spirit named Pitch is attempting to destroy everything that children believe in. According the film’s website, each of these legendary figures in children’s mythology possesses special powers but must recruit Jack’s icy touch in order to save children everywhere from experiencing the apocalypse.

Ever since I saw the trailer, I have been trying to figure how old I was when I first conceived of an apocalypse, or even knew the word. Growing up in the 60s and 70s, I knew about the Cold War, and was probably among the last groups of elementary school students required to participate in regular Shelter Drills, during which we either hid under our desks, or in the cement-block school corridors, crouched with our heads covered, tucked between our knees, in case of nuclear fallout. I also remember seeing signs for Fallout Shelters all around the neighborhood in which I grew up.

But I had no sense of total nuclear annihilation when I was six or seven years old. And while it would have been sad for all of us if the Grinch really had stolen Christmas, I don’t think I or any of my friends would have feared for our homes, our families, or our way of life—featuring Wacky Packages trading cards and Pop Rocks exploding candy.

But from what I gathered from the trailer of Rise of the Guardians, children really have reason to fear for their lives and existence from the evil Patch, and must root with all their might for good to triumph over Patch.

My real question about all of this is: at what age is it “appropriate” to start educating children about finitude? At what point are most children “mature enough” to handle the idea that life ends?

Some children learn this lesson way too early, when tragedy strikes family or close friends—e.g., the child who loses a sibling or parent, or a childhood friend or classmate, to illness or accident or even murder. And at the tender ages of three to eleven, developmental psychologists tell us that children are not capable of abstract thought, so conceiving of the eventuality of their own death as an abstraction is theoretically not possible.

But children sense loss, absence, and change. When they experience death of a loved one first hand, they may not get the idea that death is a part of life, but they know something is different. Their loved ones often change the ways they relate to others, through mood or action.

So why should children go to a movie “for entertainment” when the subject is the apocalypse—the end of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Sandman, the Tooth Fairy, and other beliefs they have come to hold dear in their young lives? Do we need to teach children so early that the world is a hard, cold place that always ends in loss and death? Or can we allow them to stay childlike for a little while longer, believing in fairy stories and coloring the skies green and grass blue? Can we allow them their creativity and imagination without cutting off the oxygen?

I don’t feel like I lost out anything by knowing about apocalypses possibly until the movie Apocalypse Now came out…when I was entering my teens. I don’t think the idea of young children grappling with existential angst is the healthiest of ideas, but maybe I am being naïve.

Or maybe not.

— Sarah Kass

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