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Movies, My Kids, and Me

Shannon Hayes used movies to give her daughters—and herself—an occasional break. Then they began to take over.

TV girl, image by Keirsten Balukas

Image by Keirsten Balukas

My youngest daughter’s full name is Ula Lockwood Hayes Hooper. But we’ve always called her Ula de la Luna. She was conceived and born by the light of the full moon, choosing to join the world by swimming out into a pool of water in a room lit solely by firelight and lunar reflections on the snow outside the windows. 

And the moon has always seemed to be her personal friend. It was one of the first words she learned, and she would ask for it before going to sleep at night. On summer nights I’d carry her out to the lawn to visit with it before bedtime, and in the winter we’d scramble around to all the windows to search it out, wave, and sing “Goodnight Moon!”

As I’ve suggested in earlier writings, Ula has always had a rather kinetic disposition—one that made it very difficult to leave her with grandparents to give Mommy and Daddy a respite, much less allow us a few moments of pre-dinner conversation before she would discover my kitchen knives, dump the houseplants, figure out if her dad had left out any power tools, or eat half a box of chalk. I vividly remember sitting with my head on the kitchen counter, whimpering in desperation to Bob: “When can we get this kid interested in movies?”

Television has never been part of our family. But movies have been another matter altogether. Bob loves them in all forms, I like them on occasion, and we both came to adore them for the parenting relief they offered when our oldest, Saoirse, was just a toddler. We felt that, since our kids weren’t seeing advertisements or watching a screen all day, an occasional movie when we needed it was perfectly acceptable. We showed Saoirse Sesame Street videos to help her learn her alphabet and numbers, and played and replayed Beauty and the Beast whenever we needed to have some quiet time for ourselves. 

Shannon Hayes, Photo by Bob Hooper.Meet the Radical Homemakers:
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We tried Sesame Street with Ula.  She preferred pulling the cat’s tail. We tried Beauty and the Beast. After a few minutes, she toddled into the kitchen to experiment with putting pens and markers into the pencil sharpener, then asked to tour the windows in search of her moon. Then we tried Scooby Doo.

Ula forgot the moon.

The charisma of the Mystery, Inc. gang won over Ula’s heart. She assiduously perfected her impersonations of ghosts, mummies and vampires; studied and rehearsed Shaggy’s expressions, mastered his incessant use of the word “like,” and cultivated a dynamic Scooby voice. When the eye doctor told us Ula needed glasses, after many battles, we finally got her to experiment with lenses by purchasing oversized black frames so that she could look like Velma.

By her third birthday, Ula was fluent in Scooby Doo, and a few times each week, Bob and I had luxuries like folded laundry, complete conversations, glasses of wine by the fire, washed dishes, and even some time to listen to the radio. My knives stayed where I left them, the chalk went uneaten, the houseplants began to recover from their trauma.

Since we were homeschooling Saoirse, we expanded the movie repertoire. We showed the kids Magic School Bus videos, documentaries on bugs, and film versions of the literature we were reading as a family.

We never intended for movies to take over our lives. But it felt like they did, even if our kids spent far less time in front of a screen than most children. At first, it was something we allowed once per week. Then it became negotiable. Saoirse would find me as soon as Ula woke from her afternoon nap. “Can we watch a movie?” If I answered “no,” the nagging would ensue.  I’d argue for all the other evening pastimes we’d come to enjoy as a family:

We never intended for movies to take over our lives. But it felt like they did, even if our kids spent far less time in front of a screen than most children.

“Music night?” (This is when Bob plays the guitar and we sing).

“No.  I don’t want to do that.”

“Game night?”

“We’d rather watch a movie.”

“Popcorn and cider by the fire while I read to you?”

“How ‘bout popcorn and cider and a movie?”

By the end of last winter, Saoirse and Ula were pestering us for movies every night.  I told them I didn’t like the pestering.  I whined to Bob that I felt as though the kids wouldn’t talk to us after sunset, unless it was to ask for a movie. Together we warned them: The nagging had to stop, or the movies would go away.

The nagging didn’t stop. Once the girls settled in to watch yet another documentary showing how slugs mate, Bob would pour me a glass of wine, and we’d commiserate that it wasn’t the kids who were addicted to movies. It was us. We could threaten to take them away, but we were the ones who faced true punishment, because we’d lose our together time.

Then one afternoon this past spring, without planning, it happened. I went upstairs to wake Ula from her nap. Saoirse joined me. Ula opened her eyes and looked at me.

“Hi there, sleepy girl!”

“Can we watch a movie?” The first words out of her mouth?!

“No.” 

Saoirse joined her. “We’ll watch the Magic School Bus. It’s educational.”

Suddenly, I saw my cherubic, wholesome, earth-loving, home-schooled children with new eyes. They were brats.

“No. I want to play music tonight.”

“No,” came their unison reply. “Movie.”

“Then let’s play games.”

“Movie.”

“If you ask me again, I’m going to take it away.” Admittedly, I’d used that line before. I guess that’s why they ignored me.

“Movie!”  It was thrown at me as though I wasn’t to be taken seriously. Suddenly, I saw my cherubic, wholesome, earth-loving, home-schooled children with new eyes. They were brats.

“I’m done!”  I went over to the television and frantically began pulling wires out the back.

“NOOOOOOOO!!!”  They both screamed, tears flowing from their faces.  Bob, sitting in the kitchen, overheard the entire drama. He came upstairs. I thought he was going to stop me. To the contrary, he joined me in a frenzy of electronic disconnection while the girls carried on in hysterics as though we were shooting their dog.

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We left them in a caterwauling heap on the bed and went downstairs, where we sat to watch the sunset on the budding maple trees with deer-in-the-headlights expressions on our faces. As the mourning continued upstairs, we inventoried the full repercussions of our actions. No more cocktail hour. No more evening Internet. No more public radio news broadcasts. Taking away the movies suddenly seemed like a bigger commitment to parenting than conception, opting out of daycare, or choosing to homeschool.  Worried about how we’d survive, we decided to try it for the growing season to see how we fared.

It turned out taking away movies had bigger consequences than we realized. We found ourselves opting out of nights out, yoga classes—just about everything we could. But it wasn’t because we needed full-time home commitments to entertain our kids. It was because suddenly, we just didn’t want to be away from them. Admittedly, we don’t get anywhere near as many private conversations as we’d like, but we have discovered that our kids are really fun.  I’ve laughed more this summer than I have for years. Their fantasy play is more about scenes from their own imaginations, rather than re-creations of favorite movie plots. They run around  having naked water fights, linger over dinner conversation, ask to help in the kitchen. They play harder, to the point where they work themselves into a lather, and they seem to argue less. They make up songs, shake rattles, jingle bells and bang drums when we play music. They come up with their own knock-knock jokes (which are really funny in their non-sequitor un-funniness), and they dance.

We thought bedtime would come earlier with no movies in the house. To the contrary. We enjoy each other’s company so much at night, we all find it hard to wind down and climb up to bed. The sun is long set before any of us thinks of brushing our teeth.

Which means Ula sees her moon.

It was clear and beautiful the night of last month’s full moon. Bob and I were sitting out on the porch watching the fireflies when Ula came to join us. She sat on my lap, staring up into the sky, then turned to look up at me.

“Mommy, would you talk the moon?”

I tried to imagine how the silvery sheen would sound. Speaking in a hushed voice I said, “Why hello, Ula!”

Ula jumped off my lap, ran out to the lawn, and called up to the sky.

“Hello Moon!!!”

Hearing the commotion, Saoirse ran out of the house and joined her. “Hi Moon!”

For now, we are enjoying the thrill of our children’s unleashed imaginations, a spectacle far greater than the best film I’ve ever seen.

“How are you girls this evening?”

“Well, thank you!” They called out together.

“Moon,” said Ula, “if you sing, I’ll dance for you.”

I don’t remember what the moon sang, but it must have been a stirring melody, because the image from that evening stays in my mind as one I will hold until my dying day. Saoirse and Ula are on the lawn, twirling about under the light, looking as though they are floating in a fairy land, bathed in moon glow and surrounded by lightning bugs. Bob is with me on the porch, and we are smiling straight through to our souls. Maybe the movies will come back, every once in a while, when the snow flies. It’s hard to know. For now, we are enjoying the thrill of our children’s unleashed imaginations, a spectacle far greater than the best film I’ve ever seen.

After a good long while, the moon sings out,“I think it’s time for little girls to go to sleep.” Looking up, smiles across their faces, they wave their arms and both answer back, “Goodnight, Moon!”


Shannon HayesShannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet and The Farmer and the Grill. She is the host of Grassfedcooking.com and RadicalHomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.

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