What E.T. and Where the Red Fern Grows Can Teach Us

  by Chris Horst

This summer, our family endeavored to watch a few of our favorite films from our childhood. Inspired by a list of great movies for 8-year-old boys in my favorite fathering book, we’ve watched Princess Bride, Where the Red Fern Grows, and E.T. Still on the docket: Old Yeller, Stagecoach, Swiss Family Robinson, among others.  And, thus far, it’s been… illuminating.

A few surprising reflections on two of the films, Where the Red Fern Grows and E.T.:

Where the Red Fern Grows (1974 version; Trailer)

The first thing that struck me about this classic Great Depression-era story of a boy and his dogs? The pace of the film. The breakneck pace—sometimes feeling like one giant 90-minute chase scene!—of many recent animated films we’ve watched stand in sharp contrast to the deliberate, measured approach of Where the Red Fern Grows. Throughout the film, Billy, the 10-year-old protagonist, meanders his family’s modest ranch in the Ozarks.

But what truly shocked me was just how independent Billy was. At the age of ten, what his parents allowed him to do could be considered criminal today. Billy regularly traveled to town, solo, to visit his grandpa at the general store. Billy even traveled to the town of Tahlequah to pick up the puppies he purchased, a trip that was long enough it required him to spend the night camping in the woods alone.

Billy was unfazed by needing to build a fire, by carrying two puppies along with him in a burlap sack, and by fending off a mountain lion. It’s a fictional account, I realize, but the fact this was even viable fiction is crazy. Midway through the film, our oldest son (an 8-year-old) said he didn’t have the energy to travel to the kitchen to get his brother’s pacifier.


E.T. (1982; Trailer)

Our kids laughed out loud at some parts of the film…and hid behind their blankets at others. E.T. features Elliott, also a 10-year-old boy, as the protagonist. Elliott and his older brother and younger sister navigate family life with a new alien houseguest.

Sadly, we learn their father ran out on their mom with another woman. At several moments in the film, we observe the kids lamenting the loss of their father. They find one of his shirts still lingering with the scent of his favorite deodorant and describe the trauma of losing Dad.

Just like in Where the Red Fern Grows, the independence of the kids in E.T. surprised us. They trick-or-treated without their mom. Mom runs an errand with her five-year-old at home by herself. Generally, the kids just manage life without the oversight of adults. In the age of “snowplow parenting,” it’s jarring to see the levels of confidence these parents have in their children. And a convicting reminder to believe in our kids.

I’m not sure I’m ready to unleash our kids for adult-less trick-or-treating or to hike to neighboring towns on their own, but I’m ready to give them more independence than they have today.


If you’re looking for more thoughts on old films, check out our reflections on the unmatched greatness of Dad Robinson in Swiss Family Robinson.

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