Every child is different and every family is different. The age guidelines are just a starting point. The information in the review will help parents interpret the recommendation and adjust it as appropriate. Parents should keep in mind that the MPAA ratings are often inconsistent, especially in the PG and PG-13 categories. And just because a movie has no inappropriate material does not mean it is worth watching. The age recommendation should be looked at in conjunction with the grade, which is based on the movie’s merits for its intended audience.
In my reviews, I try to specify the ages that are most likely to appreciate and enjoy the movie. I do not recommend full-length features for kids under 5. While many preschoolers will find one or more features that they like, these are exceptions. In general, very young children are not developmentally ready to appreciate a full-length story, and will tend to watch a feature as a collection of unconnected pieces, drawing on their own limited knowledge of the world to help them figure it out.
Preschoolers think very concretely and even the most rudimentary of stories may appear to be a series of unconnected scenes to them. They love repetition, and just as they become attached to a toy or a blanket, they will want to see the same favorite video over and over. Try to limit television or video watching to no more than an hour a day and try to get them to talk about what they see, identifying colors, locations, and especially emotions. Getting them to identify the feelings of the characters they watch — not just whether the characters are happy, sad, angry, or scared but also whether they are lonely, proud, jealous, or worried. This will help them understand their own emotions and those of the people around them better. It is also important to begin to teach them how to handle scary scenes in movies. Rehearse with them what they will do if it is a little scary (hold your hand, sit on your lap) and what they will do if it is very scary (turn it off). If something is too scary, ask them to draw a picture or tell you a story about what they would like to see happen.
Kindergarten – Grade 3
Kids this age are ready to begin seeing movies in a theater. Be sure to let them know ahead of time that it is not like watching movies at home. It is very dark, there is a huge screen, and there is no talking or running around in the theater. They are also old enough for feature films with stories. It will really help children to give them some background before they see the movie, especially if it takes place in another time or location. Set up the situation for them, but don’t give away any surprises. Try to tie the film into something they are interested in or something they feel a connection to. Keep in mind that there is a wide variation in how children respond and be respectful of a child’s own sense of what is too scary or too adult. Be sure to expose kids to some classic older films so that they will not resist black and white movies when they get older. Keep talking to kids about how to recognize the emotions and concerns of the characters and ask them what they would have done. Use the movies they like as springboards to lead you to related books and activities.
Anyone who has ever seen a movie with an 11-year-old knows that if it takes 90 minutes to see the movie, it takes 90 minutes for him to tell you the movie’s story. This is a good time to begin to work on themes and summarizing. Normally, the hero is changed at the end of a story; he or she learns something or loses something. Teach kids to look for this, and try to understand what writers call the “arc” of the story. Ask them to predict what will happen, and to comment on the characters’ behavior, on consequences, and on the reactions of other characters. Kids at this age also love patterns, so encourage them to develop categories. Does the movie fall into one of the classic genres like fish out of water, people who don’t know each other or know each other and don’t like each other on a journey together, hubris, or redemption?
This is also the age when children begin to see movies with their friends, so it is especially important for parents to make sure that they research the films ahead of time to make sure they are appropriate and to be able to discuss anything significant with them afterward.
In general, if a movie has stronger material that you would find in prime-time network television, or material presented in an irresponsible manner I will not recommend it for an audience under high school age.
Surprisingly, teens are a lot like toddlers. Both are going through stages in which oppositional behavior is a temporary substitute for genuine independence. Just as a toddler’s brain is optimally constructed to be able to absorb information, a teenager’s is optimally constructed to absorb rules of interaction and behavior. For the first time, they are looking outside the family for guidance on how to behave, and they learn a lot from the movies. Like toddlers, they are more comfortable talking about what is going on with the characters on screen than they are talking about themselves. So movies can be an important way to help you connect with them about issues like communication, values, priorities, and evaluating risk.
Teens are busy and often prefer to go to movies with their friends. But parents should continue to impose limits (just because your child is over 13 does not mean that any PG-13 movie is appropriate), get a sense of what movies they are watching, and do their best to watch with them as often as possible. Child development specialists encourage parents to have “floor time” with toddlers, to get down on their level and let them lead the play. For parents of teens, the equivalent of “floor time” is letting them pick the movies you watch together part of the time (within your own guidelines for appropriateness), maybe taking turns. Watch the movies they love without criticism as a way to connect with them. Teens love to express their views of morality, and so they may be willing to talk with you about issues raised by the movies.
Mature High School
Older teens are ready for mature material that deals with the complexities of relationships and choices. Movies give them their first real glimpse into the adult world of love and work. Try to make sure that as they become old enough for a wider range of movies that includes not just the R-rated slasher films and sex comedies aimed at teens but also thoughtful dramas, sharp satires, and independent and foreign films to give them a sense of the wider world.