Who Said ‘Game of Thrones’ Wasn’t for Kids?


“Mom, can we talk about ‘Game of Thrones’?” my 4-year-old daughter asks at the dinner table, looking up at me hopefully. My 6-year-old son nods vigorously.
“Absolutely,” I say. “Where do you want to start?”
This is now a standard question from my children, signaling respite and, when in public, deliverance.
I am a divorced single parent. Mealtimes are a nightmare. Victory means my children stay seated long enough to eat a few chicken nuggets before running off to “fight the bad guys,” ketchupy fingers pockmarking the furniture.
Restaurants? I’ve found hearings in criminal court to be less nerve-racking. Yes, the consequences can be dire for my clients, but at least everyone has to follow the same ironclad rules, strictly enforced by a forbidding black-robed figure. Not so at Bambinos. A bendy straw, a blue crayon, even a scrap of pepperoni become sudden, priceless treasures. Ensue kicking, screaming and death stares from childless couples out for a civilized dinner.
When it’s two on one, it’s hopeless. My children are great, but they aren’t angels and they aren’t fools. They know the score. “Do that again and I’ll separate you” is an empty threat. None of us are going anywhere.
Almost always, these battles ended in defeat. Me: scarfing my daughter’s macaroni and cheese, now chilly, over the sink while halfheartedly rinsing dishes. Them: in full body armor, plastic swords clashing in a fight to the death. Inevitably, when I looked over, one of them would be sprawled on the carpet, the other preening triumphantly.
My children lived in a world of fire and ice. Of swords and shields and who gets to be the king. Every night at my house was “Game of Thrones.”
Like millions of other Americans, I binged-watched the HBO series. I listened to the books on CD when I was in the car by myself. Sometimes, when I picked up the children I would forget, and the narrator’s rich, heavily accented voice came on when I turned on the ignition. Hastily, I would shut it off, only to be bombarded by questions.
“What are you listening to?”
“A story.”
“What is it about?”
“A land of seven kingdoms ruled by a king on an Iron Throne.”
“What seven kingdoms? What Iron Throne?”
I paused. Was it possible to cobble together a studiously abridged version of the story that would captivate their attention without scarring them for life? I decided to try.
Halting sentences became long paragraphs. There were different families all vying for power and glory. The Starks and the Lannisters and the Targaryens. The Greyjoys and the Freys and the Boltons.
“Are there girl warriors?” my daughter asked. “Definitely,” I told her. We talked about Brienne’s quest to find Sansa; Arya’s learning to fight with Needle; and Daenery’s quest to regain the throne. “Were there bad guys?” my son asked. “Bad guys galore,” I told him.
We watched the opening credits on my computer.
They loved the soaring music. They loved the three-dimensional map: the towers, ladders and bridges magically rising up. At every place of geographic significance, I hit the pause button while my son sounded out the name and I told them a bit about the history. Winterfell was where the Starks lived before Eddard went on his ill-fated mission to help King Robert. The Wall was where Jon Snow was sent off to protect the realm. Meereen was where Daenerys and her dragons went to rule. And King’s Landing was the den of iniquity. Or, as I explained it, where not-nice things happened.
I know what you’re thinking. What mother in her right mind would tell two small children stories about incest, beheadings, stabbings, torture and constant death?
A mother who edits.
A mother who just wants her children to sit down and eat their food.
But it’s so violent. The whole show is about war.
Exactly.
That my children’s fantasy play was so closely aligned with a hit show that had captured my imagination felt like winning the lottery. Entire episodes could be condensed, de-gored and used to hold them spellbound for a whopping 30 minutes at a time. Sansa’s harrowing escape, Lady Melisandre’s visions in the fire, knights, ladies, kings and queens. Direwolves, wildings and the dragons.
Delving deeper, I seized on “teachable moments” in response to basic questions. Why did Tyrion kill his dad? Well, his dad was not nice to him, and neither were a lot of other people. Why? Because Tyrion is a dwarf, which means he is smaller and looks different from everyone else. Is that a reason to be mean? No. Tyrion may look different, but inside he is just the same as everyone else.
Why was Queen Cersei so cruel? they wanted to know.
This led to a re-examination of my own views. I had always despised Cersei (who didn’t?), but was there a more sympathetic, feminist explanation for her actions? She was haunted by a prophecy that foretold of her unseating by a younger, more beautiful queen. She was terrified that she would lose yet another child. She wanted at long last to have some power and autonomy.
Jaime’s character arc also proved interesting. On the one hand, he threw Bran off the wall and paralyzed him. My son shook his head. Jaime was really, really bad to do that to Bran. On the other hand, Jaime had done some good deeds. He saved Brienne and sent her on an important mission to save Bran’s sister. “Can a bad guy really turn into a good guy?” my son asked. Sometimes, yes. People can change. Particularly when bad things happen to them that make it easier for them to see the world from another person’s point of view. For instance, when Jaime’s sword hand was chopped off.
Why do some of the girls get to be princesses and some of the girls get to be warriors? my daughter wanted to know. It’s kind of like at preschool, I told her. Some girls like to dress up in fancy costumes, and some girls like to play with the boys. “I like to do both,” she said. I told her, “In ‘Game of Thrones’ you have to choose, but luckily in real life, you don’t.”
Recently, I took the children to meet my former husband in Sausalito, Calif. We were early, and they were hungry. With some trepidation, I took them to a nearby brunch spot with rickety tables outside, set close together. Immediately, they started fighting over who would get to sit in which chair. Napkin-rolled silverware hit the ground with a clatter. My son punched my daughter. She shrieked. The table skittered sideways. The young couple sitting two feet away exchanged alarmed glances.
My heart sank. Then I remembered my secret weapon.
“Want to talk about ‘Game of Thrones’?”
They most certainly did.
The food came. Pancakes and bacon, scrambled eggs. On and on I talked, cutting their food into pieces, pouring syrup, and occasionally reaching across the table to wipe their sticky faces with a napkin I had soaked in my water glass. They listened, occasionally gasping or laughing, sometimes interposing a question. But mostly they sat still, wide-eyed and silent, dutifully chewing and swallowing.
After a while, I noticed that the couple beside us had fallen silent. They were listening, too. When the children and I finished our meal, I stood up to pay the check.
The guy half of the couple looked at me. “Wow, that was impressive,” he said. “Nice job, Mom.”
I beamed with pride.
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