What's the right age to introduce kids to Star Wars?
It's packed with kid-friendly action, but Star Wars has its darker moments, too.
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Given the near-total saturation of Star Wars into popular culture, you'd be forgiven for scoffing at the question of when to introduce it to your child. Surely, at this point, it's just absorbed through osmosis, right?
But there's a difference between "Star Wars" as a loose concept derived from toys and cartoons and Star Wars as a series of (mostly) great films that are (mostly) aimed at kids. Now that most of them are available on Disney+ and we're all spending a lot more time at home, the opportunity has never been better.
From personal experience, I can assure you that there's a unique and unqualified joy in sitting down with your child to watch Star Wars for the first time. Right from the orchestral blast of the opening fanfare, I knew the torch had been successfully passed to the next generation.
What followed, though, was a meandering path that tap-danced through the films in a thoroughly out-of-order fashion because the fact is that Star Wars is not uniformly appropriate for all ages. Like the Force itself, there is light, dark, and a whole lot in between.
Age-appropriateness is, of course, in the eye of the beholder, as is your interpretation of the films as a whole.
On one level, Star Wars a tale of space wizards battling space baddies in flying ships that go pew-pew! On another, it's a story about religious extremists warring for control of the government, interspersed with scenes of death, dismemberment, and immolation.
On more than one occasion, you may find yourself having to explain some fairly complicated plot points. "Well, sweetie, Obi-Wan cut off Walrus Man's arm because he was being mean to Luke, see?"
But ultimately, Star Wars is a fantasy film in which heroes bravely triumph over monsters and valor wins the day. You were able to grasp it when you were a kid and your child probably will, too.
Consider starting it off as background entertainment
There is, of course, no consensus on how or when to introduce children to Star Wars. Actually sitting down to watch a two-hour film requires some level of attention span that very young children simply don't possess. That doesn't mean they can't enjoy it on their own level.
Some parents employ an exposure method in which the movies are simply on in the background, though still with some judicious fast-forwards or omissions.
"I had it on in one form or another from the first week we brought my daughter home from the hospital," says Pete Bonavita, co-host of the Star Wars Minute podcast.
When seen more as ambience than as a front-and-center presentation, it takes some of the pressure off both parent and child. Otherwise, Bonavita states, "you risk your kids feeling bad about disappointing you by not liking it."
As you might guess, when hardcore Star Wars enthusiasts become parents, they tend to give a lot of thought to the question of how to share their fandom with their kids.
Jordan D. White, a senior editor at Marvel and former lead editor for its Star Wars comics, introduced his two-year-old son to the films in half-hour chunks.
"He was already reading and loving a boatload of books that told him the stories," says White.
While he admits that two may have been a bit young, "Star Wars is currently tied with Sesame Street as his favorite thing."
The benefit of these more gradual approaches is that kids can disengage when they become bored or scared, giving them time to process and come to you with questions.
Watching a complete Star Wars film the first time
When should you attempt sitting down to watch an entire Star Wars film?
"Five," was the immediate answer given by my own five-year-old. His confident exactitude may have been due to the fact that it's the age he was introduced. And as he loves the movies, why not make it a universal policy?
As it turns out, though, the kid may have his finger on the pulse of modern parenting. I took the question to a Star Wars Facebook Group I belong to (hold for applause) and the trendline became apparent.
Most parents—at least those who, like me, are inordinately attached to Star Wars—felt that around four to seven years old was the sweet spot. At that age, most children have sufficient attention span to sit down and follow a feature-length story.
If it worked, you'll know because they'll ask to watch it 94 more times (like any favorite movie). If it didn't, be patient. You can always wait a while and return to it in the future.
What kids will love about Star Wars
Whatever else you say about the films, Star Wars is not subtle. The action is spectacle. The emotion is melodrama. The comedy plays to the cheap seats. While some minor bits and pieces might fly over their heads, kids will intuitively grasp the vital elements.
In terms of role-modeling, there are plenty of great heroes for boys and girls. Particularly in the Disney-era films (The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, Rise of Skywalker, Rogue One, and Solo) there have been strides to include a more diverse representation onscreen.
If your kids are anything like mine, the biggest response might come from the parts that adult fans wish they could forget: poop and fart jokes, wacky escapades in a droid factory, and pretty much any scene with Jar Jar Binks. But then again, why shouldn't viewers of every age get to have a favorite part?
What parents might find objectionable in Star Wars
Here, without context or apology, are some things that actually happen in the Star Wars movies:
- A heroic figure remorselessly shoots someone at close range in a bar
- Forest-dwelling teddy bears bludgeon their enemies to death with rocks
- Siblings passionately (albeit mistakenly) kiss one another
- A classroom full of children is slaughtered
- Parents repeatedly attempt to murder their children and grandchildren
- Many, many arms and heads are chopped off
But Star Wars is not, of course, the stuff of horror films. Context matters. When presented in the course of the films, with the score blaring and the scenes racing along, these actions—war crimes, in some cases—are played for swashbuckling drama or for chuckles.
And the crazy thing is, it works! Your kids will laugh and cheer at all the right moments, and it's very unlikely they'll grow up to find themselves traumatized by what they witnessed in the films.
Death and violence are central to Star Wars, but that's the case for so many movies aimed at children: Bambi, The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast, just to name a few. Some argue that seeing representations of death in fiction can help children process real-life death. And like any good fairy tale, the darker elements of Star Wars are balanced with the traditionally heroic virtues of bravery, self-sacrifice, loyalty, and friendship.
The Star Wars films are not all equally age-appropriate
While I strongly advocate for first-time adult viewers to watch Star Wars in release order—the order in which the films were produced, starting with the original 1977 Star Wars (later subtitled A New Hope)—that's not necessarily the best advice for showing the films to young kids.
The darker scenes are scattered somewhat randomly through the franchise, and no matter what order you choose, you should always have the pause or fast-forward button at the ready if you sense a freak-out coming on.
Here's one possible order you might consider (major spoilers ahead):
- A New Hope: The original is still the best introduction to the Star Wars universe. There's a lot of death, but much of it happens off-screen or to faceless Storm Troopers.
- The Phantom Menace: The only film starring an actual child, Episode I kicks off the Lucas-era prequels with a load of slapstick and bathroom humor. Darth Maul looks terrifying, but meets his end quickly.
- The Force Awakens: It's the movie that launched a million little girls in Rey costumes for good reason. But Han Solo getting impaled by his own son may prompt some tears.
- Empire Strikes Back: Kids will love Yoda, but the Wampa scene is the stuff of nightmares. Plus the ending is a downer and may play better to adult audiences.
- Return of the Jedi: Ewoks are basically teddy bears (yay!)… that die in battle (hmm). Plus Jabba the Hutt can be pretty scary.
- Solo: Overall, a fairly light romp, with the occasionally creepy face of Dryden Vos.
- Attack of the Clones: Not so much scary as it is tediously complicated in its plot.
- The Last Jedi: Longer, grimmer, and slower than The Force Awakens, which immediately preceded it, very young kids might simply check out after a while.
- Rogue One: The first two acts are a fun, action-packed romp, but the story ends in the death of every major character. Of all the Star Wars, this one is an actual war picture.
- Rise of Skywalker: The most recent film is also the longest (155 minutes), packed with a storyline kids won't understand and a ghoulish Palpatine that is sure to induce nightmares.
- Revenge of the Sith: Anakin, hero of the two preceding movies, murders a room full of children, his wife, and almost kills his best friend, before frying on the banks of a lava river and turning into Darth Vadar. Hard pass for very young viewers.
Not ready? The expanded universe has lots to offer
One of the best things about Star Wars is that there are so many ways to enjoy it beyond the films. Imaginative and engaging stories that expand the universe can be found in the comics, the LEGO cartoons, animated series like Clone Wars and Rebels, and even as a set of Little Golden books for early readers.
It's a big, fun universe out there, so let your kids take their time and pick their own path. Chances are, you'll be seeing the next release together in the theater.