For a franchise that began almost fifty years ago when the Baby Boomers were barely adults, Star Wars remains incredibly popular. Now, as a fan who has recently become a father of two children, I have been taking some time to ponder the question of what I hope Star Wars will mean to them. While my children are still quite young—two and a half years and ten months—I’ve already enjoyed the opportunity to introduce them to some Star Wars characters via children’s books, cartoons, and kid-friendly clips from the films.
It’s an interesting balance though, because while I love Star Wars, I don’t want to force my kids into a hobby they aren’t interested in, and because I want to be careful about what exactly they absorb from Star Wars. Besides scary images or intense themes, there are moral questions that the series raises. For example, there are fair concerns one can raise about representation (or lack thereof) in the broader Star Wars universe. Additionally, I recall a pacifist mentor of mine who deliberately kept his preteen children from watching Star Wars because it arguably portrays violence as a solution perpetrated by the good side and bad side alike. As a pacifist myself, I once wrote an ETE piece specifically reflecting on the question of violence in Star Wars, but it’s become a bit less of a hypothetical question now that I have to warn my son not to swing his toy lightsaber at me, nor to pretend to point blasters at people.
But even aside from these specific questions, I think it is important to be thoughtful about any movie series that is likely to be watched ad nauseam by children, for the simple reason that these films may become some of their foundational blocks of understanding. Philosopher and theologian James K. A. Smith argues that more so than our specific ideological or moral beliefs, it is the activities that we love and the habits that we practice which shape us at a foundational level. He argues that when it comes to our inner identity, it’s not so much a case of “We are what we think”, but instead “we are what we love”.
So if I raise my kids to love Star Wars, how am I hoping it will shape them? What are the core values that I hope it communicates to them? I have three in particular.
First, I hope my children will learn that even when living in the context of systems of injustice and empire, their individual choices and agency matter. In some ways this is a privileged statement to make, and I freely confess I have a lot of privilege in every social category I can think of. With this status, I have a greater ability to make certain choices than others who are more marginalized than myself—and this will mostly pass on to my children as well. However, if one believes that only those with power can really affect change, then one is implying that those without power don’t have agency, and instead can only hope for change to trickle down from above. I refuse to accept that, and I believe when one looks at history it is evident that some of the most meaningful changes have indeed been brought about by those on the margins.
For its part, Star Wars agrees: even those who are the “lowest” are the ones who end up altering the history of the galaxy. An enslaved boy saves a queen and simultaneously liberates himself. A smuggler rescues a princess and they fall in love. A low-ranking stormtrooper becomes a Resistance general. An orphaned scavenger defeats a galactic emperor.
These singular narratives aren’t in and of themselves the full picture—Star Wars is about much more than just Anakin, Han, Finn, or Rey. But these images and stories are crucial for minds to latch onto, particularly for young children. Psychologist Dan McAdams writes that “preschool children collect the central images that will someday animate their personal myths. Arresting images make stories memorable to children of this age,” even if the plots are too complicated for them to yet comprehend. (The stage of understanding entire plots comes later, as does any deconstruction and/or reconstruction of those stories that may one day occur!)
As my children get older, they will face problems that may seem insurmountable to them. Climate change. Greed. Racism. War. And perhaps they will feel like Luke Skywalker on Tatooine: “I can’t get involved—I’ve got work to do! It’s not that I like the Empire, I hate it! But there’s nothing I can do about it right now.” Or perhaps they’ll be tempted to be like DJ in The Last Jedi, shrugging at injustice and simply seeking personal profit. Or maybe they’ll feel resignation, like Jyn Erso, deciding not to “look up” as the Empire’s flag reigns all around her. But my hope is that my kids, like the heroes in Star Wars, will ultimately dare to take a risk even when the odds are stacked against them. While for privacy reasons I won’t share their exact names, each of my children’s names mean “light” in a different language. My desire is that in a world with so much brokenness and evil, my two children will be able to be agents of love, of hope, of patience, of kindness, shining bright in the darkness even when the darkness seems overwhelming.
The second thing I hope my children learn is that redemption is possible even in unlikely people, and worth striving for. The persistent possibility of redemption in Star Wars is not to suggest that the franchise promotes some idea of “cheap grace.” There are many things in Star Wars that are clearly portrayed as black and white, and the decisions that characters make have real consequences. Anakin’s choices cost him everything. Cassian wrestles with a guilty conscience after the dark deeds he’s done as an Alliance spy. Jabba chooses not to free Luke and his friends—and pays the ultimate cost. I enjoyed seeing in the latest season of The Mandalorian a depiction of the New Republic’s rehabilitation program for lower-ranking ex-Imperials (selfishly I’d enjoy a one-off courtroom drama that follows a Nuremberg-type trial of some big Imperial general accused of war crimes…perhaps General Veers??).
In a sense, Star Wars maintains a very Manichean worldview, and because of that, as I foresaw in 2016, we have not yet seen a “Gray Jedi” using both the dark and the light sides of the Force at the same time. But despite the strict delineation between the two sides of the eternal conflict, there is one thing Star Wars has always emphasized strongly, and that’s the possibility of redemption. Padmé and Luke both believed against all reasonable expectation that there was still good in Anakin Skywalker, and each risked their lives in an attempt to draw it back out of him. Han, Leia, and Rey all believed and risked similarly for Kylo Ren, even though the prospect of a “Bendemption” seemed justifiably anathema in many parts of the Star Wars fandom leading up to The Rise of Skywalker.
But setting aside for now the very important conversations about what full redemption, justice, and reconciliation actually ought to look like, I think it’s utterly crucial that my children grasp the lesson that it is never too late for someone to turn away from the path of evil. There is a spark of goodness in every person, even those who seem totally lost. While many who choose paths of destruction ultimately are lost, occasionally there are opportunities to reach out a hand and pull them back from the brink. To give just one example, Derek Black was the son of the foremost neo-Nazi in all of the United States, and was thoroughly steeped in white supremacy and antisemitism. He held these views and spread them to everyone who would listen, until he enrolled in the tiny New College in Florida (the same one Ron DeSantis has been trying hard to take over in his war against “wokeness”). At New College, Derek was unexpectedly befriended by a Jewish student named Matthew, who would have had every right to shun Derek completely. But over a period of time, Matthew slowly got to know Derek, invited him to Shabbat suppers, and had many hard and vulnerable conversations. Over the course of this friendship, Derek ended up forsaking his white supremacist ideology and committing himself to working to undo his own parents’ evil empire. I want my kids to believe that there exist Derek Blacks in this world who are not beyond help, and who ought never be beyond our love. Through characters like Anakin Skywalker and Ben Solo, Star Wars helps to illustrate the beauty of loving one’s enemy and turning them back to the light. Granted, not everyone is ours to “save”, and often we need healthy boundaries, particularly when there is abuse or dysfunction. But sometimes even the worst people in society just need a single person to offer them love, so they can begin to climb out of the pit they have become trapped in.
This emphasis on redemption is important for a second reason as well: I want my kids to know that even if they make mistakes, they can never be too far gone to come back home. Unfortunately, many young people feel lost in unhealthy habits, addictions, or worse. Amid recent increases in depression, suicide attempts, and “deaths of despair”, I desperately want all people to know that they are not themselves beyond redemption, no matter what they’ve done (or think they’ve done). I come close to sobbing every time I watch Han Solo affirm Ben in Episode IX—Han promises his son that even though his failures have caused much pain, he is not beyond salvation, and can still make a positive difference in the universe. Similarly, my kids need to trust deeply that there is nothing they can do that can separate them from my love. And I want them to believe the same for others around them.
The final point I hope my kids will one day glean from Star Wars is this: our most important role is to train others to carry on the good work beyond us. Or to quote Yoda, “We are what they grow beyond.” In our society, it is tempting for leaders to center themselves in their work, to refuse to step aside or empower others. Examples of this abound: look at our gerontocratic congress, social media influencer culture, or the “I alone can fix it” mentality that certain figures espouse. Similarly, for the villains of Star Wars, power is seen as the ability to gather more and more people and resources beneath oneself, crushing all who would dare challenge one’s conception of right and wrong. “I have brought peace, justice, and order to my new Empire!” declares Anakin.
Yet for the heroes, there is always an expectation and inclination that whatever knowledge, skills, and training they have will be passed on to the next generation. Jedi take on apprentices, not to increase their faction’s power in the temple, but to follow closely in their footsteps, traipsing around the galaxy to better learn how to serve the Force. The Rebels and Resistance look to train up leaders, empowering them to fight the Empire in semi-autonomous cells and small groups. This structure appears weak, inefficient, and fragile compared to their mighty, top-heavy opponents. But ultimately it is precisely this unique structure with lots of semi-independent leaders that allows the Rebels to outlast and outflank their opponents.
As a parent of young children, it is true right now that my kids are utterly dependent on my wife, myself, and other caregivers. It will be tempting to try to keep that dynamic as they get older; to keep them firmly within my orbit, to refuse to let them begin to make their own decisions. But the reality is that I must be providing them with the training, skills, and opportunities to thrive without me, and ensure that as they grow they realize that true power and influence comes not from hoarding wealth and power for oneself, but from raising up others. To keep kids within our sphere of control is growth by addition; to train them in leadership skills is growth by multiplication; to see them raise up other leaders is exponential growth.
In conclusion, as I look back on my twenty-five years of experience with Star Wars and ahead to the next twenty-five, I am sure that my interest in the franchise will rise and fall at various points. The Disney era has not been the disaster that some feared, and I look forward to many more thoughtful and engaging stories being told in the years to come. But as I think ahead to enjoying the franchise with my kids, besides the explosions, the adventures, and the characters, I hope that they are able to absorb these three lessons—both for their own good, and for the good of the world around them.