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Age appropriate viewing

Age appropriate viewing

I’ll be taking my kids to see Star Wars: Rogue One this weekend, and I invited a few parents to bring their kids and join us. Most of the parents were excited to come, but one of them started the kind of conversation I’m starting to dread – “Well, do you think it’s age appropriate?” he asked. “It’s rated PG 13.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a big advocate for parents being careful of what their kids watch on screens big, small, and tiny. I’m not, however, a fan of letting some ratings board determine the things my kids should watch, because they don’t know my kids’ maturity level, their tolerances, and their sensitivities.

My 11- year old can watch quite high levels of action and tension and violence, but he’s so sensitive to loss and grief that he couldn’t watch the scene where the father cow dies in Barn Yard. My 9-year old actively enjoys the adrenaline of watching a scary movie, but he’s very impressionable about things – even not good things – that are presented as cool or popular. My 5-year old can sit through a two-and-a-half hour feature film in the theatre, but he’ll rehash that movie in his conversation and his play for the next two weeks.

So, when I’m deciding whether to take my kids to a movie, I don’t ask, “What’s the rating?” I ask, is this the sort of thing that will trigger my eldest son’s emotions? Is it something that will offer good models for my middle son? Is it something I want rolling around in my youngest son’s head all week? Answering those questions sometimes means that I need to do a little research, and what I learn often puts me at odds with the rating agencies.

For example, Rogue One might be PG 13, but it has no nudity, profanity, or drug use. It has plenty of clearly unreal sci-fi violence (which all of my kids tolerate well) and a few scary bits (which they all kind of like), but nothing that would keep me from taking even my youngest. On the other hand, I’ve come across some family rated television shows so full of terrible social models – obsessions with body image, immature relationships, consumerism, and so forth – that I’ve made them off limits to people of any age in my house.

Which is the second reason that I often disagree with ratings. Not only do the agencies not know my kids, but they have profoundly different ideas than I do about what’s good for kids to watch. They worry about how many swear words there are, how many body parts are shown, and how many people get killed. I’m far more worried about the kinds of social messaging a film contains about these things.

By the time kids get to school, they’ve heard swearing before. They’ve already seen the countless images of violence our media produces. They’ve been exposed to our culture’s pervasive sexuality. Trying to shelter them from these things is a battle lost long ago. What they need is media that makes them think about these issues rather than just accept them.

I’d rather have my kids watch a movie that actually works through problems of teen sexuality (even if there happens to be a bare bottom somewhere along the line) then to have them watch movies where everyone keeps their clothes on but highly sexualized teens are unquestioningly represented as a social norm. I’d rather have them watch a movie that takes the consequences of violence seriously (even if it that violence is a bit more graphic) than to have them watch movies where violence is sanitized but also thoughtless.

This is why I think parents shouldn’t let ratings agencies just determine what our kids watch. We need to think actively about what we want children to learn from movies. We need to teach them how to be critical of what they watch. We need to watch with them and model how we respond to what we’re seeing. We need to talk with them after to help them process what they’ve seen. We need to approach the movies we watch thoughtfully so that our children can learn to do so too.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you should take your kids to Rogue One, of course. You know your kids best. It might not be appropriate for them. It might not represent the values you want them to model. But I think you should make your decision based on those kinds of criteria, not on a decision made by some ratings board.