Lost Fish: Films and Fear in pre-school age children

watching a film

Last week while going around LIDL, I spotted some toffee popcorn and had a bright idea. It was time for a film night. We hadn’t really watched a film with The Boy since the endless Muppet-marathon of September last year, and he was probably going to be that much more able to grasp a longer story line now, six months later. I put the popcorn in the trolley.

“When we get home, we’re going to watch a film!” I announced.

“A film!” the Boy cheered.

“Which one would you like to watch: Cinderella, Ratatouille, The Muppets or Lost Fish?”

“Lost Fish!”

Finding Nemo it was.

I should explain that this was a risky venture.

We have made several attempts to have “nice family film nights” (or afternoons) with the Boy, most of which ended in tears. It turns out that Disney is pretty darn scary when you’re only 3. I realised pretty quickly that Ratatouille wasn’t going to happen when in the first five minutes the loveable furry main character is chased into a river by a woman wielding a carving knife and then a shotgun, after which he loses his family, gets lost and ends up homeless and starving in a sewer.

Cinderella took me by surprise, but it turns out a jolly set piece of a cat – with a broad, toothy, menacing grin – chasing a mouse – with an adorable twitchy nose, wearing a jaunty hat – is actually very distressing to a small boy. So Cinderella had to be switched off as well.

I was a little worried about Finding Nemo, to be honest. It starts with a massive great big shark eating the main character’s wife and all but one of his children, after which it goes on a roller coaster ride of separation, misunderstandings and mortal peril until finally, in the very last five minutes, you get your sugar-coated Disney ending and everything is okay. Mostly, my son doesn’t last past those first few heart-stopping minutes.

But he had once seen all of Finding Nemo – admittedly he was ill and drugged up to his eyeballs at the time – and had apparently been left with quite a positive feeling about it. Possibly because he had got to the end and realised all turned out okay. Whatever the reason, he had remembered the film as “Lost Fish” and I thought we’d risk it and I would just make sure I was to hand to comfort him and put things in perspective where necessary.

And the Girl? Over Christmas, when the Boy had been backing away from the television, terrified yet unable to unglue his eyes from the screen while watching the Gruffalo, she was calmly sitting on the sofa watching the story unfold, munching on a bread stick.

“Ah, she’s fearless,” we said to each other, with not a little pride. And that was what we continued to think, watching her try to scale climbing frames and slides meant for much older children, hurling herself through life, running away from us on tiny shoes adorned with strawberries. The Girl is a ninja badass. I didn’t even consider her feelings in my impromptu film night idea.

Finding Nemo was going really well I thought, and I was even able to retreat quietly into the kitchen to cook dinner. Then I heard a familiar whimper of fear. We were now in the midnight zone and Dory and Marlin were being chased by the angler fish.

But it wasn’t the Boy who came running into the kitchen. It was the Girl, padding on her little feet, reaching for me in distress, expressing with her limited vocabulary what the matter was: “Fish!”

And I realised that maybe it wasn’t that she was fearless. Maybe around Christmas time she was still too young, to understand context, to pick up on the implications, the scary music, what those massive teeth might mean, that the little fish she liked were screaming because they were scared of being eaten. And now, three months and a vocabulary explosion later, she had discovered fear.

So I did what any self-respecting parent would do.

I gave her a cuddle, then put her back on the sofa and wrote a poem about it.


Enter the World

Your world was safe, cocooned, defined
It was out and underlined
My arms your home
My hair your own
Image sound the world awash with colours friendly noises hugs and hair

You stood up, stepped and turned away
Charged into a world of play
A joke, a game,
You learned your name
Detach break free you ran off tugging me along by painful strands of hair

But with the wonder also crept in fears
New awareness came with tears
New lines to cross
With joy comes loss
Vast scenes and spaces gripping terror of a world without the comfort of my hair

Still I am always there
When dangers send you crying
you come flying to me cooking up some dish
you wail of “sad” and mourn for “fish”
unnamed undefined yet fear of dying
brings you crying hand still reaching
screeching for the soothing comfort
of my hair.

(c) Judith Kingston, 2014


I read this poem at the Virtual Open Mic Night on 25 March 2014 – watch it here!


Prose for Thought

21 responses

  1. My three-year-old hides behind the couch when she’s watching something “scary”. And also, she doesn’t like “Peter Pan” because of the first scene where the dad gets really grumpy. She finds him scary!

  2. Great poem and I particularly love the line before the poem, this being what any self-respecting parent would do, quite right 😉

    We haven’t reached the fear in response to films yet, but that may just be because we haven’t watched one since “Lost fish” at Christmas. I’d forgotten but you’re right that there can be a lot of peril in children’s films, I wonder why?

    • Actually, I think a bit of peril is necessary in a film, even for children. You can’t just bumble along like in your average toddler TV show, where the problem of the day is overcommitting yourself or not packing enough snacks for your picnic. For a compelling feature length story line, you need to take the main characters out of their comfort zone by removing their support structures (usually their parents) and then they need to face real adversity in their quest to fulfil their ultimate goal (fetch something, achieve something, get somewhere, defeat something etc.) Unless there is a real and believable threat to them achieving the goal, unless the stakes are high, the story isn’t interesting enough for a feature length film.

      Thus endeth my lecture.

  3. Disney can be DARK but it’s true, for high’s you need lows. I’d avoid The Princess and the Frog for now though….

    This did make me laugh though because we have a whole catalogue of ‘family’ films that for one reason or another (my 3 kids fears) we can’t watch altogether.

  4. It’s so true, with age comes increasing awareness and I agree, avoid The Princess and the Frog for now. Actually Disney excel at quite dark moments being resolved eventually, but of course littlies don’t know about the resolution when they’re in the midst of it. My daughter can get very upset at films and only recently enjoyed Ratatouille aged 7-previous attempts were disastrous! My son is not remotely interested in films-he wants to ‘do stuff’ not watch it 🙂

  5. Love the poem!
    Funnily enough my younger son (4) has started to struggle with some films now his ability to feel empathy has properly kicked in. He recently couldn’t bear to watch the bit in WALL – E where the spaceship tips and all the babies are slipping all over the floor. His eyes filled with tears and he kept saying someone needed to look after the babies. He first watched the film 18 months ago without a problem. I guess they respond to films differently at different ages depending on what they’re aware of.

    • Oh, that’s heartbreaking! Someone’s got to look after the babies! I think you’re right and it will just keep evolving and there will be different things they struggle with at different ages as they become more aware of the world. Gosh, life is traumatic isn’t it!!

  6. Wonderful poem!
    Disney films are always traumatic, but as others have said you need the lows for the highs. They make me cry every time! My oldest has never been particularly phased by ‘scary movies’, but my 4yo is quite sensitive and there are a few things he won’t watch (but of course, he is often being subjected to what the 7yo wants to watch!). I’d agree on the Princess and the Frog, avoid for now 🙂 #Prose4T

    • Disney really is very good at tugging at the old heart strings! I wonder how my two will turn out – I still suspect perhaps the Boy will be the more sensitive of the two, but it is a little early still to tell.

  7. What a lovely poem. My kids were all scared of Disney films too. It’s only when you see them through the eyes of a small child you realise how dark and scary the endless ‘mild peril’ can be. My daughter went to the cinema to see the final Harry Potter (12) rating when she was 5, but at 8 still can’t watch Polar Express – or even look at the box. It terrifies her!

  8. Love the poem, J, esp the introductory line to it…..’what would any self respecting parent do?”! My daughter was similar, and still aged 9 does have a high sensitivity to violence in films, like her mum (i’ve never grown out of that one) yet my 7yr old bro loves scary stuff and thinks it ‘awesome’ and ‘cool’. So we’re often having to wrestle/weigh up what is acceptable for him and what is not (I defer to my OH on this one as he has the appetite for these things). Overall, consider it a good thing, even if trying, as it shows they are sensitive and full of empathy – wonderful adults in the making! But maybe your two are still a bit young for films? There are some feature length ‘films’ of things like Angelina Ballerina that are about an hour that they might be able to cope with…that is, if YOU can cope with them too!

    • You are right, of course, and they are still a bit too young for films – especially the Girl. I’m sure you can munch popcorn while watching episodes of the Numberjacks and they will taste just as nice! Maybe not Angelina though…

  9. ‘The soothing comfort of my hair’…

    Made me smile 🙂 It’s strange and wonderful when theory of mind kicks in, isn’t it, when fear and joy etc are no longer just instinctive but reasoned. Can be tough going for parent and child, but a huge milestone on the road to independence (Prose4T etc)

  10. Those Disney films have much to answer for!! Grace was the same. She used to watch Dr Who at the age of 3 without a care in the world…now she is scared, but does still watch! Beautiful poem – it fits so well with your explanation. Thank you for linking to Prose for Thought x

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