Q. My son is a fifth-grader in the local public school, which recently showed the movie "Watership Down" to his grade.
I've never seen the movie, but apparently it concerns rabbits, some of whom have their ears torn off.
My son loves animals and became so upset that he had to leave the room. Apparently many of the children made fun of him. (He is one of the smallest and youngest in the class, so he is a natural target for teasing.)
All these years, I've been rearing my son with the idea that it's all right to cry and that you don't have to hide your feelings. Now how do I switch gears and tell him that it's all right to cry only if you're built like Roosevelt Grier so the other kids won't make fun of you?
Incidentally, I asked the teachers why they showed this movie to fifth-graders and all they could say was that "it's approved by the county and highly recommended."
A. In this case the teacher could have done a little more homework, but it's easy to make a mistake about "Watership Down." When a teacher sees a movie on the recommended list she may not question it further. And either a teacher or a parent might assume that an animated movie about rabbits would be perfect for children.
As you've found out, that's not always the case.
According to Lynn Minton, whose Movie Guide for Puzzled Parents (Delta, $12.95) should be available in every video store in the country, this particular movie is a fairly dark story meant for children in the seventh and eighth grades and above. The movie is not only rather scary, but the theme is quite sophisticated. It is an allegory about war, the German attack on Britain, how the British fought back and how honor wins.
"Watership Down" would be a good adjunct to a world history project for 12- or 13-year-olds, as long as it was well explained and the children took part in an active classroom discussion about it. It also could help them understand the importance of values in our society and why people -- and rabbits -- must sometimes fight to defend them. This is an important lesson to learn, but unfortunately it was hidden by the movie's gore (although less than in many television shows). The violence makes it upsetting to younger, animal-loving children like your son.
Now that he's seen it, however, you want to help him make the best of it, in the same way you would help him overcome any bad influence -- by talking about it. The worst adventure, the most wretched TV show has some redeeming feature if you critique it together.
There are other good lessons in "Watership Down." The heroic Hazel is the leader in the warren, but his brother Fiver, the smallest rabbit of all, is the visionary who tells Hazel where to lead them. Your son should appreciate that.
Together Hazel and Fiver persevere in the face of all odds -- another major lesson you want your son to learn. Above all, they do what they have to do, going forth whether anyone follows them or not. You want your son to be brave and independent, just like this pair.
Since the movie was scary -- and since the prize-winning book is better anyway -- you can guide your child best if you and he read it together. A chapter a night, dwelling on the beauty, on the values, on the story-within-a-story, will let you focus on your son's concerns and ease them, and it will help your child know where you stand. Never forget: You have more influence with him than any movie or book or teacher ever does, but only if you make your influence felt.
And that's really the crux of your concern. You're afraid you're losing that influence, and in the process, that he'll lose the gentleness you've taught him. And you're worried about what will happen to him if he doesn't.
It is time to change your views a bit. A child doesn't have to cry to show how sensitive he is. It's all right for a boy to admit his feelings, and to cry when he's unhappy, but at his age it's no longer appropriate for him to cry publicly (nor is it appropriate for a girl). Both will do it from time to time, of course, but both will feel silly, especially a boy, since he is much more likely to be teased.
This isn't as worrisome as you think.
Your son will grow up stronger because his friends and classmates will toughen him along the way; he'll still be sensitive and gentle with his family, because you're teaching him that it's right to be sensitive and gentle with people you love. He'll also learn much about honor and duty, and good guys and bad guys, if you take the time to explain the lessons he finds -- or doesn't find -- in books and movies and television.