I remember going to see Saving Private Ryan in the movie theater on an afternoon matinee and a few rows in front of me was a father and his 10yo son. The boy was crying, clearly overwhelmed at what was a completely inappropriate movie for someone his age, and his Dad was just pissed, telling him to sit down and shut up. At the time, not yet a parent myself, I avoided saying anything, but if I could go back in time I would have encouraged the Dad to find a more appropriate movie for them to watch and/or asked the manager to step in (though it’s not clear what a theater manager could do in a situation like that).
With my own children, I’ve always been very careful about what films I let them watch, more than once incurring their wrath when I refused to let them go to a friend’s because of the designated movie of the night. As they’ve gotten older, it’s gotten easier and now my 18yo and I go to the theater to watch horror films together, which is great fun!
But what about the younger ones? My 11yo daughter is sensitive to film narratives, as were her siblings before her, and she’s definitely raised my consciousness about how many children in kids movies are missing a parent or two or have one of their parents die in the story. It’s easy to know because she’ll start crying. Heck, we all liked Big Hero 6, but did you know that the main character in the film is an orphan, living at his Aunt’s place with just his older brother, and then his brother is killed in an explosion? Memorable!
At the same time, everyone else in the family loves action movies, and with those there’s always some bad language, tense scenes and fights, but is that inherently unfriendly for children? I certainly know a lot of middle school kids who seem to be able to relate the storyline and talk excitedly about the latest PG-13 — and often R — films in the theater, and I see in some of the Dad’s groups I’m in people discussing if PG-13 is too intense for a 1st or 2nd grader.
The answer, of course, is “it depends”, because some kids seem to be able to handle quite a bit of action and drama while others even as teens find it adversely affects their sleep patterns and anxiety level. Still, kids cartoons now are more frenetic and more violent too, so is that helping desensitize them?
Where this question arises is because tomorrow night my 18yo and I want to watch a PG-13 action film and I’m toying with whether it’s appropriate for my almost 12yo daughter to watch too. We have watched both Guardians of the Galaxy and Fast and Furious 7 with her and she enjoyed them both, not wasn’t entirely sure of what was going on at certainly points. And I know that with her Mom she’s seen plenty of other PG-13 films, though more “adult situations” type movies than action and peril PG-13 ratings, as is my taste.
Making this all more interesting is that I’m a film critic, so movie studios send me a never-ending stream of DVDs and screener links, hoping I’ll watch and write about their films, most of which are definitely not child-friendly topics regardless of their MPAA rating.
So what would you do in this situation? How do you decide what films your own children are able to handle and enjoy, or do you just not worry about it and figure that they’ll turn away or tell you if it’s too intense?
For more on this, my buddy and fellow film critic Christian Toto has a smart piece on appropriate films for children too: Navigating media just as hard for a movie-critic dad.