Life is a highway…

The joy of watching a film with your child for the first time.

When you become a parent, your life changes beyond recognition. There’s the hazy period when your child is tiny, and you need to keep them alive at all costs and you basically never sleep. Getting washed and dressed each day is a major win. You enter the months where they can now support the weight of their own head, but you can plonk them down somewhere safe and they won’t move, so you can at least put the washing on. Then one day you discover that they can climb out of the small prison you’re so grateful for (ok, playpen) and the quiet times are over. Your child is a fragile, movable object with a short attention span, and you can’t do anything or go anywhere without them.

Many parents, myself included, assume they’ll keep their kid’s screen time down to an absolute minimum. It’ll be all wooden educational toys and healthy organic snacks made from scratch, their Mini Boden clothes remaining pristine throughout. But sometimes you’re so grateful when a five-minute episode of Peppa Pig comes on and you can finally go for a wee, that you quickly hand them another biscuit and cry actual tears. You become so familiar with various CBeebies characters that you almost set a place for them at the dinner table.

One thing I had been looking forward to with my daughter was watching films. Quality time spent together, enjoying her reactions to old Disney classics I’d loved as a child and creating new shared memories. But she wasn’t keen on the idea of sitting still for more than five minutes, let alone an hour or so. This was a bit of a surprise, I’d just assumed it would be there from early on like an innate skill, but it just didn’t materialise.

Even when she was beyond her toddler years and we were starting to have wonderful little conversations, or she was sitting down to draw of her own volition, she didn’t want to watch anything for longer than ten minutes. She’d rather create her own stories with her toys, and that was wonderful, but I also wanted to sit cuddled up on the sofa, watching her face captivated by the magic on the screen. I felt we were missing out.

Then one day on a whim I bought a copy of Disney Pixar’s Cars on DVD. Released in 2006, it wasn’t a particularly recent film at that stage, and it wasn’t one I’d thought about showing her (I was hoping she’d watch Toy Story.) But one day I put it on while making her tea, hoping it would keep her occupied for a short time and, well, she liked it. She liked it a lot. I remember thinking it was unnaturally quiet in the living room, so I peered in and saw her standing there in front of the TV, mesmerised. Tea towel still in hand, I sat down and watched it too.

She made it to about halfway through the first time. Then she asked to watch it again the next day. It’s a fun film and well made (even though it rips off the premise of Doc Hollywood.) The soundtrack is great too. I commented once that I liked a particular song in it, and from then on, every time she watched it and it got to that point, she’d pause it and shout for me to come in with, “Mummy, your favourite song is on!”

One day she finally got through to the end of it. There were tears from both of us. There is an element of jeopardy in the film, but not too much. She’s not good with that sort of thing, it makes her anxious rather than excited, and often even now films go unwatched beyond a certain point in the story. But I just felt so relieved, in my mind watching a film together was an important milestone on our shared journey. My emotions were stirred by that moment, just as much as the film’s sweet ending.

We watched Cars many times over the next couple of years, each time she’d talk about my favourite song or her favourite scene or character (Mater, obviously.) Eventually her tastes shifted, and she stopped watching it so frequently. Then she started making her own little films instead, her imagination sparked by the magic of cinema and storytelling, and now Cars sits on the bookshelf with the other films she never watches.

My daughter is nine now, and her screen time often involves building worlds in Minecraft or watching a few inexplicably popular vloggers on YouTube. But I look back so fondly on those sporadic Cars viewings. It was an important time for both of us. And I still have that song I liked from it on my iPod, a poignant reminder of our first shared film experience.

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