'Home Alone': How It's Seen By Children And Adults

January 20, 1991|By Mary Corey

Laura Bacon would eat caramel, Tootsie Rolls and gum . . . with her retainer in. She'd turn her living room into an obstacle course for her 10-speed, store snowballs in her freezer and never, ever show up for school.

Oh, to be young and left alone. Imagine the fun, the danger, the mess.

Moviegoers no longer have to rely on their imaginations, not since John Hughes released "Home Alone," a comedy about 8-year-old Kevin McCallister who is accidentally left at home during a family vacation.

This wide-eyed wonder boy (played by Macaulay Culkin) has not only triumphed over a "Kindergarten Cop" and "Godfather III" -- ranking No. 1 at the box office for the ninth straight week -- he's also managed to become the latest hero of the preteen set.

But while children rave about how he outfoxes two bumbling burglars and parents appreciate the sweet story, some psychologists are finding a deeper meaning in this season's sleeper. The movie succeeds, they say, because it taps into that primal fear and fantasy youngsters have of being left alone.

"It's a perfect fairy tale," says Dr. Pat Fosarelli, director of the pediatric outpatient department at St. Agnes Hospital, who works with latchkey children. "Every kid has had that awful fear of, 'Oh, God, I'm alone.' But here's a kid who is handling it better than Arnold Schwarzenegger would."

Besides indulging in nearly every childhood impulse -- from riding his sleigh down the family staircase to reading his brother's Playboy ("No clothes on anybody. Sickening!") -- Kevin shows his mettle by ingeniously defending the family fort.

The booby traps he rigs to fend off the bad guys have been the talk of the lunchroom at Talbott Springs Elementary School in Columbia, according to Laura, a fourth-grader there. Over pizza and ham and cheese sandwiches, she and her friends have discussed the scenes they like best and arrived at one conclusion about Kevin.

"He's clever and brave," 9-year-old Laura says.

Some parents, however, have objected to how the character is treated at the beginning of the film. As the family prepares for a trip to Paris, he's called a "jerk" by his uncle and banished to the attic by his mom. When Shirley Harden saw the movie, the Owings Mills Elementary School principal says she had to overcome her discomfort at seeing adults behave that way.

"I had to get by that piece of me that works in the school system and sees the subtle abuse kids get by being put down," says Ms. Harden, 44, who is Laura's mom.

But even as an adult, she could relate to the anxiety Kevin feels when he realizes he's going solo in the world.

"It's a place where each of us has to go," she says. "You get to a point where all kinds of things are happening to you and you have to say, 'I can do this.' "

For Kathy Paal, it was easier to identify with Kevin's parents who in the mayhem of oversleeping and rushing to catch a plane forget their son.

"Our house is a little like that sometimes," says Ms. Paal, a Ruxton mother of three who's seen the movie three times. "There are times when I'm rushing out the door and I stop and think: 'Have I left someone?' "

After the movie, however, she made it a point to reassure her children -- particularly her 3-year-old daughter Elizabeth -- that this would never happen to them.

If there's one piece of advice Dr. Fosarelli would give parents, it's to make sure youngsters realize this is make-believe. For the 2 million to 5 million children in the country who are left alone for several hours a day, it's particularly important, she says. "The one thing that concerns me is that the movie can romanticize this notion that a small child could outsmart two adults and not be wounded. That's kind of a farce," she says.

And while some other parents have called some of the humor violent, Ms. Paal, who refuses to allow her sons to play with toy guns, found it harmless. "All they have to do is turn on Saturday morning TV to see Porky Pig shoot a duck in the head. That's violence," she says.

Ten-year-old Stephen DeVito didn't find the film violent, either. "It was a funny movie, not a scary movie," says the fourth-grader, who lives in Columbia.

Although he says he'd never do "naughty stuff" if he found himself home alone, his 15-year-old sister Melissa says she might act otherwise.

"I'd experiment a lot with my hair to make it spike up and turn green," she says. "I'd make a lot of popcorn, and I might call people long distance, maybe in England."

But if the movie brings out the mischief in some children, it also delivers a message, Laura says.

"Don't make your family disappear," she advises, "because it might be fun for a while, but soon you'll start missing them and wishing you had them back."

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