If you’ve seen the new film adaptation of Stephen King’s It, you may have acquired a new fear of clowns. But the movie offers more than thrills and chills—it also inadvertently offers some useful lessons on parenting.
The movie, set in 1988, features a group of preteens who find themselves terrorized by a supernatural being called “It” and decide to stand up and defeat the monster. They can do this because their parents allow the children to experience life with some degree of independence. As a result, these kids end up proving far more resilient than many children raised by today’s helicopter parents.
These eleven-year-olds—asthmatics, chubby kids, and other outcasts—call themselves “The Losers Club.” Each member discovers that they’ve been pursued by some kind of monster, taking the form of their deepest fears. When they realize they’ve all been singled out, they band together to find out what’s coming after them.
They quickly realize that “Pennywise the Dancing Clown” is no garden-variety evil clown—it’s an immortal being that takes the form of a clown to terrorize children before it kills them.
But the Loser’s Club doesn’t take Pennywise’s terror lying down. One of their members learns that Pennywise has been terrorizing their town for centuries, and they determine to put a stop to it. Breaking into the creature’s terrifying lair, they track down the monster and defeat it. They realize that if they don’t fear Pennywise, he can’t hurt them. It’s not an original idea, but it’s still compelling.
But where are the parents? The kids have been riding their bikes around town, running into bullies and zombies around every corner. Wouldn’t they be safer at home?
In 1988, the kids don’t go to afterschool SAT practice or eat gluten-free snacks under their parents’ watchful, wary eyes. Instead, they bike around, play in creeks, and discover the world for themselves. One of the kids even spends his free time at the library—shockingly, some kids actually read without being tied down.
It turns out that kids don’t need their parents watching them constantly. It is really a coming-of-age story, similar to King’s previous Stand by Me and the new Netflix original series, Stranger Things. At some point the kids have to learn how to take matters into their own hands, and they succeed. Without constant supervision or meddling by adults, they overcome their fears, they defeat their bullies, and they even put their lives on the line to save a friend—something many adults would balk at doing.
Obviously, children need structure. The film gives positive examples of parental influence: One character named Mike is homeschooled by his grandfather, who also requires him to participate in the sheep-raising (and sheep-killing) process. By making Mike take responsibility and encounter grim aspects of reality, his grandfather shepherds Mike into the real world by thoughtfully exposing him to it—not by sheltering him from it.
The other parents in It show that an overbearing parental influence isn’t always a good thing. One of the mothers turns out to be the source of her son’s germophobia; Stan’s father forces him to stay inside memorizing the Torah instead of exploring outside with his friends. These parents sound pretty close to today’s over-scheduling helicopter parents, who might have the best of intentions but still end up severely limiting their children’s opportunities for unstructured free time.
Thanks to over-attentive parents, kids like Stan are sheltered and weak—when faced with adversity and hardship, they can’t face up to it and nearly abandon their friends. Only the kids who have had to face reality are able to cope, inspiring their friends to take on the evil that only they can defeat.
Parents in 2017 could learn some lessons from It, particularly that kids often do just fine on their own, and can actually take a serious dose of reality. In fact, kids are more capable than we think—when left to their own devices, they’ll go play outside, form friendships, and grow into the healthy adults we want them to be. But when we shelter kids from the ills of the world, they’ll end up unable to cope with adversity and hard knocks later in life. That, not an evil clown, is what should scare us.
Image: Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.