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The Lion King (2019): A Perspective From 3-6

Faith Stout has been an Early Education Teacher at Community Montessori for 14 years. She came to our school as a parent and volunteer, before becoming an employee. She has two children that are graduates of Community Montessori. Through these experiences, she has learned so much about child development and would like to share the following information with you.

I recently saw a movie and when the preview for Disney’s new Lion King came on, I was impressed with its beauty and the art of what they had done. Before you get all excited about taking your little one to see it, I wanted to give you a word of caution. As parents, we are all trying to do the best we can, and we do this by learning from each other. Here are some thoughts to guide you when choosing a summer movie to enjoy.

As many of you know Maria Montessori spoke frequently about reality and fantasy and her concerns about introducing children too soon to fantasy. Current research backs her up, with the discovery that most children before the age of five are unable to differentiate between real and fictitious characters and situations. This might be difficult for us as adults to understand, but it is important for us to figure it out. Children have very strong imaginations and might pretend a stick is a horse, sword, cane, pry bar, telescope, the sky's the limit, but all of those things will be things they have seen or had contact with. A child has a strong reproductive imagination, meaning they can hold a mental image of what is seen and experienced then use that mental image or experience in play acting. The problem becomes when they see cartoons or movies with things that are not real like flying cars and people, monsters, people with superpowers, talking animals and other things that are fantastical. This isn’t a child using their imagination; it’s the adult who used theirs. The child is simply watching and absorbing.

This can be hard enough to explain to a child that something isn’t real that they have seen in a movie, but the Lion King really crosses a line. They are taking real images and computer generated imagery, CGI characters, to a point that it was hard for even me to tell the difference. While I thought it was beautiful, I quickly became concerned not only about the very real looking talking animals, but also the dark undertones of the preview. If you remember Scar does try to kill Simba, then eventually Simba’s father is killed in a stampede and then Scar makes Simba feel as if his father's death is his fault. Now imagine (see what I did there) this from very real looking animals, dark scenes and music. Wow, I was shocked! So shocked in fact that I’m writing this.

I also looked up what might happen if a child is exposed to scary images too early in life. Some of which I lived! After showing my son (age 3) my favorite cartoon, Winnie the Pooh, he became afraid of the dark and afraid of sleeping by himself. I didn’t know where all of this was coming from. Each night before bed he would begin to run and spin and get so amped up! My house was in chaos each night. It wasn’t until later I began to understand that that sweet movie was the root cause, specifically the scene with the Heffalumps and Woozles. In reality, the scene was a nightmare that Pooh had; as an adult I just saw the beautiful colors, cute animals and the happy song. Wow, I was so wrong.

They may repeatedly act out a scene that disturbed them while they try to process and understand what they have seen. Even though children can understand cognitively what happens in the movie (i.e. lions, the savannah, family members, death), they can’t emotionally process or navigate it because they don’t have the experience or capacity for the most meaningful abstract parts of the story. When you notice a child repeatedly reenacting scenes from a movie like the Lion King, it’s because they are trying to process it. My co-teacher’s daughter saw the animated Lion King when she was three and played out the scene of Scar killing Mufasa and the hyenas threatening Simba repeatedly. Even though she cognitively knows what death, an uncle, a nephew is, an uncle being the villian was so far out of her scope of understanding.

If you choose to see the Lion King, here is a convenient but scary list of things you might experience with your little one: fear of losing control; fear of dying; trouble sleeping (yep, lived that one!); increased aggression; solving problems with violence. On the other end of the scale, they might become clingy or fearful of letting you out of their sight; it might impact their tendency to be compassionate.

Now, I’m not telling you to not see this movie, but if you have little ones, 6 and under, you should go into it with caution. Perhaps watch a few trailers (one is linked here) so you can understand where my concerns are coming from. If you do watch the movie, talk with your child and ask them questions: either right away, at dinner, or at bathtime. Use the phrases “I wonder...” “I noticed…” or “What do you remember?”

Whatever you decide to do, remember to give them lots of real experiences* this summer and have fun!

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