‘Star Wars’ Awakens Age-Old Parenting Debate

I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens opening weekend with my husband and 9-year-old son, and I was taken aback. No, not by the gripping plot line or special effects, but by how the film nagged at my parental self.

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen The Force Awakens, proceed with caution. Something that happened — a major plot point — is about to be discussed.

Okay, here goes: In the new movie, we learn that the dark side-deploying Kylo Ren is the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa — and, by way of Leia, the grandson of Darth Vader. Not long after being asked to process this family-tree twist, we watch as Kylo stabs Han, his own father, through the chest with a lightsaber.

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The moment I saw this scene I was in denial: It’s a Star Wars movie! Han’ll be patched up in a nanosecond! Except he won’t. Han staggers and drops down one of those deep, dark shafts that people in Star Wars movies always drop into.

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As Han is falling out of sight on screen, I asked myself: How did this happen? How did the heroic Han and the righteous Leia produce a fictional son with awesome Adam Driver hair — and a pitch-black heart?

Grandpa Darth’s genes, I presumed the J.J. Abrams movie was telling us.

As a parent — and an adoptive one — I found this profoundly disheartening. To be sure, I have always chalked up my kid’s talents to his DNA, the annoying stuff to behavior that he’s learned from me, and everything else to an ethereal mix of the former and the latter. But The Force Awakens was a big, bold step beyond that measured view. If nature versus nurture were an actual battle, then the movie was plunging a lightsaber into nurture and saying, “Sorry, dude. Gene-pool rules.”  Or at least that was my take-away, and it wasn’t a great feeling: Like, that’s it? As parents, birth or adoptive, we’re all just bystanders?  

“Researchers have been moving farther away from asking whether a particular behavior is based on nature or nurture,” Rachel Wu, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, tells Yahoo Parenting. “Instead, we ask how nature and nurture interact to produce a particular behavior.”

James Giordano, a Georgetown University neuroscience professor, gave me hope, too. Chiefly, he reminded me that The Force Awakens is neither a documentary nor real life. “What they were really doing in the Star Wars movie, they were taking a pinch of reality and giving it a good shake with an awful lot of fiction,” he said.

To wit, yes. In the real world, as Giordano explained, our biology determines our temperament, but not necessarily wholly.

And when I step back, I recognize the Star Wars franchise isn’t absolutist on nature over nurture: Leia and Luke Skywalker, for instance, who were both born of Darth Vader but raised outside of the Death Star, turned out fine.

As Wu said, perhaps the George Lucas-created universe has long been making the point “that whether you end up on the dark or the light side of the force is neither pre-programmed nor determined by genes. It is an inner battle you fight in every situation, big and small.”

Given the all-hope-is-lost alternative, I like the sound of an inner battle. It gives every parent and child a fighting chance. I’ll take it.

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