Monday, May 10, 2010

Questions Answered – May 10, 2010

What are your thoughts on letting your children watch television or movies with violence, bad language, etc.? Is that something to approach on a case-by-case basis, or are there some good all-encompassing ground rules? --Nervous Nellie

Millie Answers:

I have very specific opinions on this score (which any of my children could recite for you, chapter and verse). While I don’t censor much of what my kids read (well, no pornography for the under-teen crowd), when they were little I had extremely strict guidelines. The reason for this is that while when you’re reading you’re interpreting what you read and picturing it through your own imagination, but when you SEE something violent or strongly sexual it burns an image from someone ELSE’S imagination into your brain – and a lot of those images that are too charged for young children to process.

Even if your child is wise beyond her years and can hold remarkably adult conversations, she’s still a child and sees things through a child’s eyes. Once you’ve seen Freddy Krueger’s knife sticking through somebody’s throat, you can’t un-see it. There’ll be time enough for that; children should get to BE children for as long as they can.

Beyond that, it’s a good idea to have a general idea beforehand of what YOU think is appropriate. You may not mind a twelve-year-old hearing words that you’d cringe to hear a four-year-old using (because believe me, once they hear the words they WILL use them). You may think violence is okay for a sophisticated Ten to see but not sex, or vice-versa. Perhaps cartoonish violence doesn’t bother you but realistic violence does.

DON’T trust the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA) movie rating guides alone when you’re making this decision. Their heart is in the right place but their standards are slippery and there is some extremely inappropriate stuff out there masquerading under a mis-labeled PG or PG-13. Ask friends who’ve seen a movie you’re considering, or look it up online; I like the Movie Mom site (

Until my kids were in mid-elementary school we never took them to a movie that we hadn’t already seen ourselves. Yes, this can get expensive, not to mention the risk that you’ll have to sit through some howlingly bad movies—but it’s the only way to know for sure whether any particular flick meets your family’s standards.

Until your child is in high school (yes, that old!), they shouldn’t be watching a movie they haven’t already seen unless you (or another competent adult) is watching it with them. In the first place a kid doesn’t NEED to be planted in front of a screen for that long with no human interaction; but in the second place, you’ll be sharing the experience with him so that when he DOES have questions (or you see something you’d like to discuss), you can talk about it later. When the child gets older and you’re considering adding a little more spice to his movie-watching, you’ll be right there to monitor the effect it’s having. There’s no shame in turning the movie off and trying again in 6 months or a year. Not every 13-year-old is ready for The Sixth Sense.

One way to prepare children to watch more sophisticated movies is to have a lot of little conversations with them about special effects. Children much older than you would suspect still have pretty blurry boundaries in their perceptions of Reality vs. Fantasy. Talk about how Peter Pan can fly in the movie because they hook him up to a harness and a wire, and then erase the wire from the film. Show your child how you can make fake blood at home out of catsup or corn syrup and red food coloring “just like at Halloween.” Show your child a picture online of an actor at a Starbuck’s and mention that even though he got “shot” and “killed” in his last movie, after work he got up and went home just like Daddy comes home from his job. Talk about stories: How a good story has a beginning, a middle and an end, and there are all kinds of ways to make people think, “Oh no! What will happen next?” so they will keep reading or watching until the story is finished. In short, show the child the process YOU go through when reading a book or watching a movie to make it make sense in the context of the story and the medium.

In general, Dad will think the kid is ready for gore or curse words long before Mom will. It’s probably okay to trust him on this one.

Movies are a lot of fun for kids (as they are for the rest of us!) and, like anything else, they’re even more fun if we know how we’re expected to behave. I beseech you, Gentle Readers: Teach your children how to behave in a movie theater. Talking, running around and kicking the backs of other patron’s seats is going to earn them more glares and bad karma than you ever want to have aimed at your child – or at you. Before you take them to a theater (at 5 or 6 years of age; before then it’s just cruel to expect them to sit still that long), explain that it’s not like at home, where you can talk during the show – other people are listening too, so you have to be polite and stay quiet while the lights are out.

In an emergency a quiet, whispered “Daddy, I have to go to the bathroom,” is acceptable.

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