Go see this movie. Take your children, even though they may occasionally be confused or fidgety. Boredom and confusion are also part of democracy, after all. “Lincoln” is a rough and noble democratic masterpiece — an omen, perhaps, that movies for the people shall not perish from the earth.
– A.O. Scott, New York Times, November 9, 2012
That is precisely what I did as Middle and Youngest, and Middle’s girlfriend, came along this weekend to see Spielberg’s Lincoln. While I don’t know the age of Mr. Scott’s own children, I do know that the material wasn’t beyond the grasp of an intelligent ten year-old so long as there was some pre- and post-movie background provided. While this particular adventure pertained to a movie, it goes to the larger matter that as a father, my greatest job is to help prepare the children for living in the great wide world and the state of American politics and the questions of personal liberty, security and the Constitution certainly are addressed in this film.
The film itself was superb, everything that I’d expect from Kushner and Spielberg; it leaned heavily upon Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2006 book, Team of Rivals, a good history but definitely improved with the personal touch that comes from the visual work of Spielberg. But to appreciate it in its entirety, it requires a basic level of knowledge that many of our kids lack today. What was striking even before the movie trailers ran was that Middle leaned over and whispered Dad, you’re like the fourth youngest person here and when I glanced about at the several dozen viewers present, he was right. Middle could appreciate it since he’s immersed in an Honors Civics course and it was his education that provided the impetus for the evening; Youngest however, could still appreciate it since we’d recently completed a ten mile hike at Gettysburg and is a budding history buff.
Apart from simply seeing a Spielberg film and having the kids learn something (hopefully), I had certain goals for the three kids. My first goal was to help them understand that history isn’t some dry subject but a living process, made by flesh and blood individuals who suffer, strive and often act only upon faith with no guarantee of ultimate success. Lincoln – like all of our forebears – was flesh and blood and not a demi-god as we’ve made them all to be. The second goal was to help them understand that the Constitution is largely a document of parameters and rules, not an explicit guide of regulations or an assembly book for government. As during the Civil War, our society is beset by questions of the balance between personal liberties and national security. Lincoln took great efforts to protect and defend the Constitution upon his inauguration and in doing so, he ran roughshod over basic precepts of free speech and habeas corpus; he admits as much to his cabinet during a scene in the film as they demand to understand why he believes it so important to enact the 13th amendment. These larger questions aren’t new and will continue to haunt us.
The most interesting exchanges about the movie occurred during the next evening’s meal as the film was described to my wife, who was out of town the previous evening. She glanced at Middle and inquired who’s the director? to which he replied Spielberg.
Why was it released now? she asked.
I responded well, it didn’t occur before the election so it can’t be called a clear endorsement for an African-American president, sort of "look how far we’ve come since the 13th amendment". The boys listened.
No, she commented, but it’s certainly a good piece to have out in the aftermath of the Obamacare passage. People want the big concepts like healthcare reform, but don’t want to see all of the little deals that go into the passage of such legislation. As the conversation meandered, we questioned whether Obamacare is actually something good. It’s 1400 pages that almost no one has actually read and many are opposed to it, sometimes viscerally. Yet the 13th amendment’s passage was likewise opposed, sometimes viscerally and in the moment of it’s passage, it required the courage and great effort of a minority to enact it. The point to the boys was this: all that you can have at that moment are your convictions and it won’t necessarily be until sometime later that you learn whether the fruition of those convictions was truly successful.
The upshot is this. Don’t presume that the schools are going to teach your children everything that they need to learn to survive in the great wide world. Look for your opportunities to expand their horizons and think about what you want them to take from those opportunities. Make it a point to ask them what they noticed or thought and then just chat with them. There are moments when they cock their heads and give you that Laddie, the Wonder Spaniel look but there will also be moments when you can watch the lights being turned on in the rooms inside their head and it’s those moments that provide profound satisfaction. Don’t let them nag you out of it just because it might be out of their comfort zone; kids will bitch, whine and kvetch since that’s what they do. Suffer it and push them so that they experience something that’s ultimately in their best interest and remember that since you’re the parent, you should know better than they do what’s in their best interest.