By Deborah Wood, Ph.D.
I confess. I took a 3-year-old and a 3-week-old to see E.T. when it came out in 1982. Critics were raving about Steven Spielberg’s smash hit, which was breaking box-office records and was on its way to earning two Academy Awards. My sister wanted company to see it again. I’d been cooped up at home during an unbearable heat wave. My husband’s ever-shifting work schedule wasn’t helping us settle into a normal routine with a new baby in our new home in Annapolis. All my son’s playmates lived at least a half-hour away. Same with any possible babysitters. "We’ll take turns with the kids if they need anything," my sister promised. "You need to get out." It was an irresistible invitation.
Fortunately, E.T. and Elliot made it through the movie while I whispered assurances to the 3-year-old, especially during the near-death scene, and the baby was content to stare at the flickering screen between nursings.
Two years later, my husband and I erred again. This time thinking a 5-year-old could handle King Kong (the original) and a 2-year-old wouldn’t even know what was going on. It was too much trouble to put the kids to bed first, so we all hunkered down for some family time in front of the television. Needless to say, the 5-year-old ended up in our bed after a nightmare. And the wide-eyed 2-year-old revealed a very knowing awareness of the movie’s storyline and her appropriately distressed emotional state. "I don’t like that big monkey!" she cried, as Kong ascended the Empire State Building in pursuit of the terrified damsel.
So we learned. Movie decisions should be suited to the emotional capacity of the children. Rating systems allow parents to make good choices without having to watch each and every movie beforehand. Standards are set by the Motion Picture Association of America to restrict viewers by age categories. (See sidebar for descriptions of the MPAA ratings.) Ratings and reviews with more specific standards, such as at www.kids-in-mind.com, can further guide parents to filter out films that exceed their tolerance for sex, nudity, violence, gore and profanity. The website, in operation since 1992, additionally alerts you to incidences of substance abuse, suggests follow-up discussion topics and summarizes messages conveyed.
Remember, we’re talking about children here. The developing mind, according to scholars, is vulnerable to both short-term influences, including imitating "colorful" language, and long-term attitudes, such as desensitization to violence.
Life is scary enough. Children fear rejection by a friend, disapproval of their parents and things that go bump in the night. No need to add movie visions of doom and disaster.
As a young movie-goer, I was awakened to the scary thought that there were adults who did not like children. Thank you, Baroness Bomburst in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Other menacing female figures — Cruella de Vil, Miss Hannigan and a host of evil queens and stepmothers — can rattle a child beyond her comfort zone. This stereotype is meant to represent mothers, teachers and other entrusted care providers in a really, really bad mood. That the movie character (usually) gets her due probably doesn’t erase the idea that one’s own real-life "Cruella" could unleash similar powers in a fit of rage. Malevolent males — including callous criminals, treacherous terrorists, poison-laden pirates and other creepy fellows — are abundant in movie fare marketed to children. These characterizations do a disservice to the men in children’s real lives, who are already at a disadvantage with their towering height and deep voices. Perhaps worse is the effect of a "good" man — a father, a doctor, a police officer — who turns out to be untrustable. I still can’t get over the betrayal by the uncle in The Lion King.
Ask yourself: How successful is your child in dealing with the frightening people in her life? How secure is she in knowing that she is surrounded by loving, protective grown-ups? What level of movie villain is she ready to handle?
Action movies are attractive for their ability to increase the viewers’ adrenaline. Which is great if your real life is short on death-defying thrills AND you are mature enough not to try your own stunts at home. But it’s not so great if you’re still young enough to see most adults as worthy examples of what to do. Experts put this range through the early teens, at which point youngsters begin ignoring most adults and start copying other teens. So, while you have the chance, choose media models who solve problems without violence and who don’t lie, cheat, steal or have indiscriminate sexual "hook ups."
A good movie is like a good book: a well-written story with a coherent setting and easy-to-identify-with characters who endure just enough trouble to keep us interested until their problems are neatly tied up by the end. A main character or two will undergo some personality improvement through the course of their tribulations. This is called "character development" and suggests that although human beings are fallible, we are also redeemable. Heidi’s great uncle loses some of his gruffness after being cast under the spell of the little girl’s sunshine. In Field of Dreams, Terence Mann (played by James Earl Jones) comes around to Ray’s cockamamie pursuit of a mystery that brings heavenly baseball players back to life. Faith, humility, patience, generosity, perserverance — these are some of the gifts gained by characters in a good story. Watching the transition, the viewer gains belief in his own deliverance from shortcomings.
Movie theaters are very tempting this time of year. Sizzling temperatures outside and ignitable tempers inside. Before you head off with the kids for the latest release, ask yourself, "Is this a good movie for my children?"
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist who lives in Annapolis. She recalls Mary Poppins as her first movie theater experience.
Let’s Review the Ratings
G: This is a film that contains nothing in theme, language, nudity and sex, violence, etc. that would, in the view of the Rating Board, be offensive to parents whose younger children view the film.
PG: This is a film that needs to be examined by parents before they let their children attend. The label PG plainly states parents may consider some material unsuitable for their children, but leaves the parent to make the decision. Parents are warned against sending their children, unseen and without inquiry, to PG-rated movies.
PG-13: Parents are alerted to be very careful about the attendance of their under-teenage children. A PG-13 film is one that, in the view of the Rating Board, leaps beyond the boundaries of the PG rating in theme, violence, nudity, sensuality, language, or other contents, but does not quite fit within the restricted R category. Any drug use content will initially require at least a PG-13 rating.
R: In the opinion of the Rating Board, this film definitely contains some adult material. Parents are strongly urged to find out more about this film before they allow their children to accompany them. An R-rated film may include strong language, violence, nudity, drug abuse, other elements, or a combination of the above, so parents are counseled in advance to take this advisory rating very seriously.
Excerpted from the MPAA website, www.mpaa.org. Please visit the site for full ratings descriptions.