As a Netflix original series, Stranger Things is not exactly available to everyone, unless you subscribe to the online video service; however, my experience tells me that nearly everyone on the planet has an account. Season One premiered in July 2016, and with the release of Season Two premiering soon—well, actually today—the show is fresh in my ‘Continue Watching For Brian’ queue. For the last week I have been rewatching the first eight episodes, as a personal review for the much anticipated second season. Anyway, that’s all to provide a frame of reasoning for the following question…
“What’s Stranger Things all about?”, my teen son asks me. He punctuates his thought with “…it looks pretty good.” He is referring to our family-shared Netflix account, and a snippet of video, a brief preview that is available when you hover over a movie title. Apparently, “people in his age group” are watching the show. When pressed for a roster of science-fiction-horror-appreciators, he has difficult producing a list. He’s asking if he could watch the series, and the immediate reaction forming in my head is “he would really enjoy that”, but my verbal reaction is a swift “nope bud, I don’t think so.” Of course I think I’ve got a good reason, I’m the dad and I’ve got this Thing Called Life all figured out.
The show is classified as science fiction horror. We haven’t really exposed our children to scary horror movies, so I wasn’t sure how he’d react to the suspense and creepiness of each episode. The one thing that Stranger Things does provide is an ample amount of suspense and chills, but without the explicit gore or violence of modern horror movies and television shows. In the equation of “nope, I don’t think so”, I was less concerned by the horror aspect and more about the colorful language.
While the main cast of characters portrays kids within the 12-13 year old range, the writers chose to give each character a healthy vocabulary of profanity. From an adult perspective, I think it is pretty realistic to assume such language in teen characters, but that doesn’t mean that I want my own kids to be exposed to this reality. After my recent viewing, I was sure that I heard every piece of profanity (except for the Queen Mother one). I mentioned this fact to my son, warning him of the language, and his reaction was valid: “Dad, I hear all of that in school, on a daily basis.” I really couldn’t argue with that because I know it’s an accurate statement. I used to be a teen, myself, once before.
The premise of Stranger Things is that our world is mirrored by a parallel universe, dubbed at The Upside Down—exact in nature but drab and dark, everything is covered in vines, and haunted by the presence of a faceless monster that snatches and preys upon living creatures. As the story unfolds, we discover the rift between the two worlds was caused by some type of mysterious experiments by an equally mysterious laboratory. Equally unnerving, the monster can move between his world and our world, feeding on unsuspecting teens at an unsanctioned, parentless poolside party.
The remainder of the season fills in the gaps of a missing boy (Will) and his friends who are determined to find him, a tenacious mother who refuses to accept the death of her child, a cop with his own collection of closeted demons who attempts to right the wrongs of his small Indiana town, and—of course—the top secret shenanigans behind closed laboratory doors. And don’t forget the girl who escaped from the same said laboratory, subjected to interactions with the creepy monster within The Upside Down, who goes by the name of Eleven (nicknamed El, for short).
Upside down. When El showed us where Will was, she flipped the board over, remember? Upside down: dark, empty. ~ Mike Wheeler, Stranger Things
What I’ve learned in fifteen years of parenting is this: sometimes, being a parent (particularly of a teen) feels like living in an upside down world.
The events of any given day can be weird, unnerving, and quite frankly upside down. Considering that it has been thirty years since I’ve experienced the inherent awkwardness of being a teenager, I need to try and remember what it was like to be my son’s age. As a kid, my access to media was not limited, controlled, or filtered. As a result, horror and slasher films such as Halloween (1978) or An American Werewolf in London (1981) where deemed as acceptable forms of entertainment. My dad, being a huge fan of the genre, explained the intensity and gore, as simply tricks of the camera and a surplus of ketchup packets. While that may be true, from a technical standpoint of cinematic creation, it is not that same viewpoint of an eight-year old boy.
The one reality that I have learned as a parent is that every parent chooses to parent their own way, based on what they feel is proper or acceptable. Inevitably, this strategy looks different for each parent and each child.
Dustin: Do you know anything about sensory deprivation tanks? Specifically how to build one? Mr. Clarke: Sensory deprivation— What is this for? Dustin: …Fun… ~ Stranger Things, Chapter Seven
For my children, I chose the path of conservative values. They don’t watch R-rated movies, or listen to music with explicit lyrics. We don’t swear in our house, nor would we tolerate that behavior in our kids. So why the personal conflict in my parenting style?
What I’ve come to embrace is that there is a period of time when you must begin the transition of your teen into that of a young adult. That shift can take place over several years, but it seems like an inevitable shift. I’ve previously tackled the related subjects of private education vs. the academic opportunities of public education, and the concept of him asking to watch a more mature television show seems to be a natural progression in his journey.
And, in a roundabout way, that’s the focus of today’s story. No one can tell you, as a parent, when the time is proper and appropriate to begin treating your teen with more freedom or allowing them to make their own decisions and choices. That’s something that you just have to determine for yourself.
Binging the Upside Down
My wife and two girls are at a four-hour birthday party, and (with her approval) we’ve agreed to let our son watch Stranger Things. He and I have a simple soup dinner together, and then start the series at Chapter One. He’s enjoying the plot, the semi-creepiness-factor, and the synth music soundtrack. As an appreciator of mystery, fantasy, and fiction, this is the portion that I knew he’d enjoy. The profanity doesn’t seem to phase him at all—I’m sure he heard it all at school that same day in the lunchroom or on the bus.
Chapter Two features a small story arc of two dating teenage characters that get a bit physical, not explicitly portrayed, but I use that opportunity as a teaching moment. Nancy does not make wise choices! I re-enforce the importance of making good choices in life.
Chapters Three, Four, and Five are all widely accepted, from his perspective, as cinematic and story-telling brilliance. I tend to agree: the series is really wonderful, original, and engaging.
Sadly, our allotted time for Stranger Things comes to an end as the girls arrive back home from the party. My son really wants to watch the remaining episodes, and I ensure him that we can. Even more so, he really wants to watch the newly available second season of the show. Yeah, me too bud! It looks like my wife, my son, and I all have future plans to complete the series—I guess after the girls go to bed, I don’t know.
What I do know is this: I don’t have this Thing Called Life all figured out.
I’m still learning how to be a dad—an occupation that constantly fluctuates, requiring new skills and perspectives from year to year. And also, even as a father, that it’s alright to sometimes feel like you’re living in an upside down world.