On Friday night, for the third consecutive December, my son and I will be planted in front of the opening of a new Star Wars movie.
My son’s a Star Wars fan like I was a Star Wars fan, like 40 years’ worth of fathers and sons are Star Wars fans. When he was younger, we played with my old action figures; now, we quiz each other on such important topics as bounty hunter names. We make fun of plot holes and Hayden Christensen, we binge-watch Star Wars Rebels, we discuss why no one in eight movies has ever built a walkway with a handrail. I tell myself he’s picking up all the messages about internal conflict and fathers and sons, but he’s basically in it for the jokes and exploding spaceships, like I was.
As it happens, Star Wars is hardly the only interest we share: Like me, he’s into Springsteen, he memorizes Weird Al lyrics, follows the Cubs, and … well, you see where this is going. We don’t share every interest, of course — I visibly recoil when forced to endure VenturianTale, the illogically popular YouTube series in which two of Earth’s most bothersome juveniles record themselves playing Minecraft for something like nine hours at a time. But we have much in common, he and I, and the comfort of sharing so many interests has lately bumped up against a second and more insistent thought: Wait, am I sharing these interests, or creating them?
We espouse independent thought and prize personal discovery and remind our children that just because we’re into Darkness on the Edge of Town and have certain opinions about politics, God, vacation destinations, and free agency, they’re under no obligation to follow suit and will, in all likelihood, one day impulsively decide to take the opposite stance just to gauge our reaction/be jerks.
But with my kid turning out enough like his father that Apple’s photo-face-scan algorithm thinks we’re each other, I’m left to wonder: Am I not doing that enough? Is it pure luck that his interests are turning out to mirror my own? Do I just have really good tastes? Or am I somehow directing him only to watch, listen to, and appreciate things that I also watch, listen to, and appreciate? I’m not arguing that self-worth derives from one’s level of interest in Star Talk and Sherlock Holmes, but how much is he developing into his own person, and how much is he emulating me?
Whether you’re a music dad, or a football dad, or an astrophysics dad, or an accountant dad, there exists some blurry, bubbly space between sharing your interests with your children and shoving your music/college football team/politics at them, constantly, all the time. (This also goes for adults, but generally speaking we can unfollow you, leave the room, or invent reasons to blow off your Christmas parties.) Like us, our kids are sentient and spongy collections of all the stuff the world puts in front of them. Like us, our kids will develop their own drives and obsessions. But our kids, in their sticky formative years, generally don’t know anything exists until someone tells them about it, and — with luck and for a short spell anyway — that’s the domain of parents. (It is for this reason that my children were unaware of Kidz Bop until this spring, when the daycare got an Alexa and all hell broke loose.)
For some reason, there aren’t a lot of academic studies about the effect of repeated exposure to Born to Run on the adolescent male mind. (I’d have to guess they’d all be positive, except for how it influences feelings about your back-breaking death-trap hometown.)
But we’re not exactly short on research on how parental involvement impacts career choice and general happiness. A study by the National Career Development Association found that parental interest in a kid’s activities is one of the primary ways they influence that kid’s eventual career choice, according to the Journal of Stuff You Have Probably Figured Out Already. If you attend, post videos of, and gush over your kid’s piano recitals, your kid will likely wish to continue taking lessons. For a while at least. Teens, because they’re humans, regard involvement as acceptance.
Researchers at Southern Methodist University wrote about the myriad ways parents initiate, sustain, mediate, and react to their kids’ career interests. So although science has yet to apply this theory to the shared appreciation of “Weird Al” polka medleys (specifically the one from Mandatory Fun) I’ll go ahead and assume the foundation is essentially the same: “Dad thinks this is funny, so I’ll see what else this Yankovic character has done and possibly learn to play the accordion.”
The flip side of all this, of course, is how there are few more efficient ways to ensure your children rejects something than jamming it down their throats. Passion drives interest, not pressure. To help arrive at some form of an answer, I did the only scientifically appropriate thing I could think of: I asked my son about all this. “Uh,” he responded thoughtfully, “I think I just like them because I like them?”
This was not helpful. None of this was helpful. So what I’m taking away is this: This world is reasonably large, and I should show him more of it. The Last Jedi showing is at 8 p.m., so we should get there around 7, to make sure our tickets work. And, as all of us follow in footsteps and stand on shoulders in pursuit of finding who and what we’re supposed to be, and for this tiny stretch of time I’m lucky to have things I share with my son, things I can hold onto as he careens off into adolescence, detaches from me, and starts spending his own time in some galaxy far, far away.