These are the questions parents most often ask me:
How can a silly comedy and a serious, award-winning drama both get the same grade? How can a movie with no objectionable material get a bad grade? What do the grades mean?
The grade reflects the merits of a movie for its intended audience and within the context of its own aspirations. A B grade means that the movie is likely to be a satisfying experience for the people most likely to want to see it. Just because a movie is not offensive does not mean that it merits 90 minutes of a child’s life. Children are as entitled to movies that illuminate, inspire, and entertain, filled with engaging characters and insightful writing and visuals. So are adults.
My reviews aim to give parents the information they need to make a decision about whether a given film is right for their family. Each child’s parents have to make that decision based on the child’s interests and tolerance of material that is scary or disturbing, based on their own values and each child’s stage of development and situation. But parents also need to have some guide to a movie’s overall value, and that is why I also assign each film a letter grade and recommended age range. The rating is an attempt to answer one question: Is this movie worth two hours of your family’s time?
A: Don’t miss it. This one is really worth making a special trip to see! Something special.
B: It may not be on anyone’s future list of classics, and parts of it might not be entirely successful, but the acting, script, and/or direction are above average and worth a trip to the theater. If you are a fan of these performers or this genre, it will probably meet your expectations for an enjoyable outing.
C: Average. If you like these actors, or this genre, you will enjoy this movie. But you probably won’t consider it one of your favorites. See it at a discount matinee or wait for the video.
D: Below average. There may be some good moments, but there are many more you may find dumb or offensive. If it is on cable and you want to watch something while you fold your laundry, it might be okay for background noise.
F: Really awful. Not just a waste of time but genuinely terrible. Stay away.
Is there really a problem, or are you overreacting?
Literally thousands of studies show that kids are harmed by premature exposure to portrayals of sex, violence, substance abuse, and other inappropriate material. They become less able to feel empathy, more desensitized. They form a distorted view of adult life. As one college student said to me, “My parents pretty much let me watch anything I wanted. At the time I thought it was great, but now I’m sorry. I feel like someone took something from me that I wish I’d been able to keep longer.” I was surprised to find that not one of the young people I interviewed while researching my book thought his or her parents had been protective enough.
The boomer generation rebelled against repression, but forgot there is a difference between repression and protection, and threw out the babies with the bathwater. I am not saying we should repress a child’s natural curiosity about adult issues and concerns; on the contrary. Some movies provide an exceptionally good context for initiating discussions on these issues. Others, however, do not, and parents can need some help in establishing limits.
Why does it matter? It’s only a movie.
Movies are our sagas, our myths, our touchstones, our collective cultural heritage. They illuminate and shape our culture, and they transmit it as well. Think back to when you fell in love: the movies you went to together, the movies you discovered that only the two of you appreciated or hated in just the right way. Think of the way that movies create a cultural language for us: Bogart telling the cop that the Maltese falcon is “the stuff that dreams are made of”; Claude Rains saying, “Round up the usual suspects,” or, “I’m shocked … shocked to find gambling going on in Casablanca”; Gene Kelly singing in the rain; Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, saying, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”; or Orson Welles murmuring “Rosebud” as he drops the snow globe.
Movies are one important way that we teach ourselves and our children cultural norms. Movies give kids their first exposure to the world outside the family and school. How do we behave with the opposite sex? How do we behave in the workplace? How do we behave when our parents are not there to tell us what to do? Movies give our children their first glimpse of these worlds, teaching how a couple moves closer to show their attraction, then how a woman holds her head when she wants to be kissed; how people evaluate risk and set their priorities; how people make decisions about work; how people follow their dreams and how they react when they fail.
More than 40 percent of children in America today grow up in families that have no particular religious affiliation. This means that unless families sit down together on a regular basis to talk about values, there is no one place where children go to learn moral lessons and confront ethical dilemmas. Thus, they are going to get it from television and the movies, whether you like it or not. You can either play a part in that process or not, but it will happen.
Movies show us the modem equivalent of parables or Aesop’s Fables. Characters confront moral dilemmas, they evaluate risk, establish priorities, adapt to change, learn important lessons, overcome loss and fear, grapple with responsibility, face consequences, solve problems, and find redemption, and in doing so, they teach your child how to do those things as well. They provide a superb opportunity for family discussions of values and feelings. And there are advantages to using movies to initiate discussions about these issues. Like parables and fables, stories told to us through movies have the power of distance. For kids, especially for very young kids and teens, it can be much easier to talk about what is going on with the people on the screen than it is to talk about what is going on inside them.
The difference between movies and life is that life doesn’t have to make sense. But movies do, and thus they give us a manageable starting point for a discussion of the most sensitive and painful topics.
Do you ever lighten up?
Of course I do. I love to watch movies just for fun with my family, and this book includes lots of these movies. There is no activity that brings a family closer together than sharing laughter, and I believe that the importance of laughter is one of the most essential family values. Sharing a movie comedy is great fun, and favorite moments often become a part of the family’s own set of in-jokes. As Sullivan’s Travels reminds us, “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh . . . It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cock-eyed caravan.” And as Sullivan himself realizes, those who laugh are not disrespectful of real problems; it is in some cases the kindest and wisest response to them.
Laughter provides essential perspective. One of the sweetest family moments on screen is the end of A Christmas Story when the family’s reaction to their hilariously bizarre Christmas dinner is not disappointment or blame, but laughter. Genuine humor is the highest level of emotional and mental functioning-if you can get the joke, especially when it is on you, you can handle anything.
For some reason, people are much more sensitive about their sense of humor than any other attribute. We don’t take it personally if someone likes chocolate when we like vanilla, but for some reason we do take it personally when we like the Marx Brothers and someone else likes the Three Stooges. Try to avoid these kinds of debates within the family. Instead, talk more generally, especially with older kids, about what makes something funny.
There is a very fine line between comedy and tragedy, with both encompassing the same kinds of events: mistakes, misunderstandings, near misses, and embarrassing mishaps. The difference between comedy and tragedy is that in comedy the characters get a second chance. In a tragedy, Romeo doesn’t get the message and, thinking Juliet is dead, he kills himself. In a romantic comedy, he would get the message just in time. In a screwball comedy, she would not have gotten the message that she was supposed to take the potion in the first place, and would be racing around trying to find him. In a fantasy comedy, she would have taken the wrong potion and turned into a purple monkey with feathers. In a slapstick comedy, she would have taken the wrong potion, and it would have made her sneeze every time someone sat down. But it all would work out all right in the end.
One of the reasons we love comedy is its reassuring sense that no matter how many times Moe honks Curly, no matter how many times Baby the leopard escapes, no matter how many people squeeze into Groucho’s stateroom, everything will turn out all right. A fall that hurts someone isn’t funny, but a fall that doesn’t hurt is. The bombastic Clarence Day of Life with Father is funny, but the tyrannical father in “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” is not. The cowardly milquetoast in “Fancy Pants” is funny, but the cowardly milquetoasts in High Noon are not. The greed is comic in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; it is tragic in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The direst circumstances often inspire the wildest comedy, as we see in movies like “The Great Dictator,” “Arsenic and Old Lace,” and Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. See if your family can figure out what makes the difference; how the director, screenwriter, actors, and composer set the mood for laughter instead of tension or tears.
Another reason we love comedy is that it is inherently subversive, questioning our assumptions, our standards, and our sacred cows. Movies like “The Great Dictator” and “To Be or Not to Be” took on Hitler much more aggressively than any pre-WWII dramas did. Humor allows a movie like Some Like It Hot to make humorous references to transvestism and impotence long before they were considered appropriate subjects for serious movies. Two movies addressing the perils of the Cold War arms race were made in 1964. It was the comedy (Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) that had the greatest impact and the most enduring appeal, not the drama (Fail-safe
Talk to the family about what makes something funny. Humorist Christopher Cerf has identified what he calls the “joke-oid,” often found on television sitcoms. They have the rhythm of a joke (often the classic three-count), and the language of a joke (as Walter Matthau explains, courtesy of Neil Simon, in “The Sunshine Boys,” words with a letter “k” are funnier than words without), they have the element of surprise, and there is laughter on the sound track, but they are not actually funny. In real humor, the element of surprise usually comes from making you see something from an angle you hadn’t considered, whether it is, “What’s black and white and red all over?” or a sophisticated political cartoon. Often in “joke-oids” this element comes not from an insightful surprise but from mere incongruities, like insults or precocious comments about sex from small children, elderly people, or someone otherwise relatively powerless. Getting kids to recognize this distinction is a step in the right direction, because they will learn about critical listening, and because they will then begin to insist on better.
They should watch critically as well. Many comic actors and comedians (the classic vaudeville distinction is that “A comic does funny things; a comedian does things funny”) have exceptional physical grace and timing that is an essential part of their humor. Bob Hope was a boxer. Buster Keaton and Cary Grant were acrobats. W. C. Fields began as a juggler. When Fields saw “The Great Dictator,” he announced with jealous fury that Chaplin was “a ballet dancer.” Today, Steve Martin and Jim Carrey are extraordinary physical comedians. In comedy, even more than in drama, precise timing is essential, and this is never more clear than when we watch Stan Laurel, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Jacques Tati, or Rowan Atkinson.
It is a great joy to watch the development of humor in children as they grow. There is the low humor of the potty-training period, and the laughter at the misfortunes of others. Then there is this wonderful moment when they are around seven, when they first really understand, that a word can have more than one meaning, and they spend a year asking you riddles. By then, some of them will begin to think up wisecracks, not to be rude or sarcastic, or even cynical, just to show that they don’t take themselves or the world too seriously. Others will need a bit more time. Others may need a lot more time. Maybe those are the ones who need these movies the most.
How do you determine whether a child is old enough for a particular movie?
As any parent knows, this is a very complex issue. The key is whether the child is ready from a developmental standpoint. No matter how intelligent he or she is, a child follows a path of comprehension-development that is directly related to age. Age-based development matters above all else, even intelligence, in a child’s comprehension of the messages of movies and television. So it really does not make sense for a parent to say, “It says ages five and up, but my child is very bright, so she can watch even though she is only three.” A three-year-old might be so bright that he can read at the second-grade level, but that does not necessarily mean that he can follow a story line that involves changes in time and location, or one that turns on some characters knowing a secret that others do not.
Children are less cynical than adolescents and adults are about what they see, more prone to confuse important issues raised by what they view, less able to see actions in light of motives and consequences, more apt to confuse fantasy and reality, and more ready to accept screen characters as behavior models. As a result, children are more vulnerable to the potential negative messages in what they watch, including violence and other inappropriate behavior. The nature of film and television lies in fast-paced action and cuts that are difficult for young children to follow, often causing them to miss the consequences and motives that are central in understanding and analyzing actions. In one study, kindergartners, second, fifth, and eighth graders were shown an edited version of an aggressive television program. Afterward, they were asked to recount the plot, their understanding of the main characters’ motives, and the consequences of the main characters’ actions. Kindergartners typically remembered only the aggressive actions and didn’t mention any motives or consequences. However, older children associated consequences first, then motives, and finally the full complex of motives and consequences as they described aggressive action. Thus, younger children are prone to see actions such as violence as stand-alone deeds.
Children are more likely than adolescents or adults to act on violence they witness on the screen if it is portrayed as rewarding (which it often is). By watching violence or other aggressive behavior with an underdeveloped ability to see the relevant painful consequences or reasoned motives, children get a distorted impression of what actions mean in the real world. A definitive shift in viewing sophistication generally occurs around the age of nine. For example, before the age of nine, children tend not to understand the difference between a television program and the commercials that interrupt it. This is made even more difficult by programs that are essentially half-hour-long commercials for action figures and other toys, such as Power Rangers.
The MPAA ratings (G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17) are based on a fairly narrow definition of “objectionable material” rather than on age-appropriateness, so they are not necessarily a good guide. The ratings are formulaic, based on particular body parts, words, and the amount of blood and guts, rather than on situations. In my reviews, each listing specifies the ages that are most likely to appreciate and enjoy the movie, but that is just a starting point as there is no substitute for a parent’s judgment about a particular child.
I do not recommended any full-length features for kids under four unless they are specifically designed for that audience. While most kids under four will find one or more features 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. For example, my son, then about four, seemed to have an unusual amount of trouble following a simple “good guys-bad guys” plot in a Disney movie. Finally, just before the end, he said in utter astonishment, “You mean the bad guy drives the big car?” At that point, his passion for vehicles of all kinds was so overwhelming that it was simply impossible for him to believe that a bad guy would have a great car. My recommendation is that preschoolers watch material designed for that age group.
And, as with kids of any age, I recommend that viewing of television or videos be strictly limited. The important “work” of the preschool years is the development of interpersonal skills and imagination, and that is best accomplished away from television. While movies and television can stimulate daydreams, studies show they can depress creative imagination by providing a plethora of ready-made mental pictures, sounds, and actions that can later be called up at will. This store of knowledge seems to hurt abilities integral to creative imagination such as the ability to dissociate oneself from existing information, a reflective style of thinking, sustained effort, and the peace and quiet necessary to give a matter careful thought.
For school-age children and teens, a parent’s primary concerns are likely to be sex, violence, and scariness. There, the MPAA ratings are a starting point (especially since they now explain the basis for the rating: e.g., Titanic is rated PG-13 for “disaster-related peril and violence, nudity, sensuality and brief language”), though they cannot always be counted on. Context is crucial. There is a big difference between a character having a glass of wine at dinner and drunkenness used for comic effect. And there is a big difference between sexual references concerning an exploitative relationship and one concerning two people committed to one another. In this book, I make distinctions between sexual and other material that seems to me disturbing and material that seems innocuous. In general, I will not recommend a movie for middle schoolers and younger if the material is more adult than that on prime-time network television. But the information is in the review so that parents can decide for themselves what is appropriate, based on their own values and their understanding of each child’s level of development and comfort zone.
How do you determine if a movie is too scary or too upsetting for kids?
First of all, it is simply impossible to predict the reaction of any child under age five. One almost three-year-old I know was so terrified when she saw the Disney version of Cinderella that she talked about it constantly for weeks. What scared her? Not the wicked stepmother, and not the mean stepsisters. It was Lucifer the cat, who preyed on Cinderella’s friends, the mice. My niece Alexandra, a very smart, funny, tough kid who is not easily scared, showed me the ultimate folly of trying to predict how scary a movie will be for a child. When she was about four, her mother took her to see Bambi, with a favorite toy, a box of candy, and a seat by the exit in case the movie became too upsetting. Her mother even spoke to several friends ahead of time, so that she knew exactly what the scary parts were (Bambi’s mother getting shot and the forest fire) and when they occurred. Alex did just fine through both, and her mother was breathing a sigh of relief when, just before the movie ended, Alex burst into tears, crying, “Where’s Bambi? Where’s Bambi?” As her mother assured her, Bambi was right there on the screen. But to Alex, it did not look or sound like Bambi. He was now a young stag. “That’s not Bambi! Bambi has the white spots on his back!” Nothing her mother could say would change Alex’s mind. At that age, she was barely able to understand that children become adults, and Bambi appeared so different (and sounded so different because his voice had changed) that she was simply unable to comprehend it was the same character.
Very young kids react in ways we cannot predict because their fears tend to focus on a part of the story that is more understandable to them. It is better to err on the side of caution and keep them away from movies that may scare them, especially those that feature major characters in peril, menacing bad guys, or the death of any character. By the time children are older, they will have a sense of what they can handle and may be able to talk about something they find upsetting. Just as some kids love roller coasters and some would rather die than go near them, some kids enjoy grisly movies, some like intense suspense, some love crashes, explosions, and shoot-’em-ups, and some never like them, even as adults. Always respect a child’s choices about what he or she does not want to see, and do not hesitate to impose limits that you feel are appropriate on what he or she does want to see.
My child got scared. Now what do I do?
First, respect the child’s fears. Never say that what they think is scary is not scary for them. But that does not mean you should admit that it scares you, too (even if it does). Someone has to be the grown-up, and the thing about being a parent is that it has to be you. You cannot always protect a child from getting scared, but you can teach your child some important skills for dealing with fear. There are some excellent books to read together. My favorite is Annie Stories: A Special Kind of Storytelling by Doris Brett. Brett created these stories to help her own child deal with nightmares, starting school, loss, scary animals, and other childhood fears. She explains how parents can adapt the stories for their own children. Young children also love There’s a Nightmare in My Closet by Mercer Mayer, Go Away, Big Green Monster, by Ed Emberly, and There’s a Monster Under My Bed by James Howe.
Teach children to take some action that will help them feel more powerful than what they fear. Remind them they can always turn off the VCR, DVD player, and television if something upsets them, and make sure they know how to do it. If it makes them feel better, they can put the video on a high shelf or in a locked box or somewhere else safely out of reach. Some parents have had success using a spray bottle filled with water to “spray away” bad dreams. Encourage kids to use their imagination: “Can you draw me a picture showing you putting Lucifer the cat in jail?” “Can you sing me a song about what you will do to the bad guy?” “If you had magical powers, what spell would you cast on Cruella De Vil?”
What do I say when my child says, “Everyone but me has seen it?” Won’t I harm his/her social standing?
We don’t raise kids by lowest common denominator. One of the greatest gifts you can give your kids is the lesson that appeals based on what everyone else does never work. Parents who are susceptible to such appeals teach kids that they can justify their behavior by saying, “Everyone else smokes pot (or shoplifts, or has sex) and everyone else will think I’m a dork if I don’t.” If you hold firm, your kids may not agree with you, but they will understand that you love them enough to establish limits to protect them. And of course it is crucial to set an example for your kids. If they see you doing what everyone else does, they will think that is the right way to decide what to do. If other kids’ parents permit their kids to see inappropriate films, we feel sorry for them, but we don’t sink down to their level.
Teach kids that cultivating an expression (and a feeling) of smug superiority when other people try to make you feel bad for not doing something you shouldn’t be doing anyway is a wonderful skill to develop, and now is a great time to start. You can use some of the movies in this book to provide excellent examples of individuals who do the right thing despite peer pressure (12 Angry Men, Erin Brockovich, Remember the Titans, or High Noon, for example).
What do I do when my child goes to someone else’s house?
The complaints I hear most often are from parents who tell me how careful they are, only to find that their six-year-old has seen Dumb and Dumber or their twelve-year-old has seen Pulp Fiction at someone else’s house. The only way to prevent that is to talk to the parents hosting your child ahead of time and say, “My child is not allowed to watch television or videos. Will that be a problem for you?” If a parent replies, “Oh, that’s a shame, because we were hoping to make popcorn and watch Babe,” you can say, “Oh, just this once,” and show your flexibility and good judgment. Or, you can take on the challenge of approving in advance whatever they intend to show the kids. But it is always wise to establish clear and firm limits when your child visits friends or when a baby-sitter takes charge in your own home.
Is it okay if the objectionable material is just “over their head”?
No. Item number one in the job description of being a kid is trying to figure out everything, and they don’t distinguish between the stuff we want them to figure out and the stuff we don’t. That wonderful natural curiosity and persistence that enables them to learn language and understand the notion of gravity and figure out how many times they can ask us for something after being put to bed, before we get angry does not discriminate. They will puzzle about whatever they do not understand until they figure it out, and when it comes to sexual values, a little information (or misinformation) can be very disturbing.
Even when they think they do understand, it is no better. A twelve-year old who told me that Clueless is her favorite movie and that she has seen it more than thirty times repeated to me a joke she particularly liked, where a high school-aged character says she can’t play tennis because her plastic surgeon “doesn’t want her to do anything where balls might fly at face.” The heroine’s comeback is, “There goes your social life.” The twelve-year-old thought that was funny because if the girl could not play tennis, she would not have a social life-in other words, the insult was that tennis was the only social life she was likely to have. She will continue to repeat that “joke” until someone tells her what it is really about. Imagine how she will feel.
Many young kids have seen the Ace Ventura movies. Five minutes into the first one, a woman client asks Ace if he would prefer to be paid in cash or by having her pull down his zipper. He then gets oral sex-off camera, but we see his facial contortions. At the end of the movie, a woman’s dress is torn off, and it turns out she has a penis (a Crying Game joke). In the sequel, there is a prolonged masturbation sequence and a joke about a gorilla raping a person. Will six-year-olds “get” this humor?, No, but on some level it will register, and it will teach them concepts of sex and sexual values for which they have no context, and that therefore may be very disturbing.
What are the best movies to watch in the car?
Don’t watch movies in the car. And don’t let children listen to music with earphones. For today’s busy families, who seldom find time to sit down for family dinners at which everyone can talk to each other — and listen to each other, the car is the only place left where families are really together for sustained periods of time. Parents and children are captive audiences for each other, and the car can be an ideal place to teach the essential life skills of conversation, contemplation and compromise.
And then there is that other essential life skill — the ability to occupy oneself. What do we teach our kids when we let them think that they can’t amuse themselves — or us — for even a half-hour ride to a ballgame? When we let them think that we have so little to say to them or to show them that we have to use videos to keep them occupied? How can the subtler attractions of ethnic neighborhoods, interesting architecture, funny signs, regional flavor or cows on a hillside hope to win a tug of war with Jim Carrey or Austin Powers? Yes, a video can be a welcome respite on a long trip, and families can even use DVDs to show movies that relate to the place they are headed or movies that lead to a discussion of characters and choices. But families should be careful to avoid the parallel isolation of headphones and use travel time wisely. An argument about what to listen to on the radio can be more valuable than the artificial peace and quiet of yet another viewing of The Lion King. Time spent with the family — even playing license-plate bingo — can be pretty magical, too. What is the deal with Pokemon (or Digimon or any other fad characters for very young children)?
There are three reasons that children are drawn to characters like Pokemon. First is the perennial appeal of characters who appear to be weak but have hidden sources of power. Kids, who live in a world of powerful giants are drawn to stories of transformations and secret strength, from Clark Kent who is secretly Superman on through the Transformers, Ninja Turtles, and Power Rangers. Next, the many facts to memorize about Pokemon give children a chance to master something that is vastly beyond the ability of adults, giving them a sense of power and competence. Finally, as children start to develop social skills, fads like Pokemon provide a shared language outside the adult world that can help those conversations and imaginative games get started, training wheels for early social interactions. Older kids will do the same with sports, rock, and movie stars or fictional characters from “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” “Lord of the Rings,” etc.
How do I get my children to talk to me about what they see?
Watch with them. Listen to their questions, but first let them try to answer them by asking them, “What do you think?” Model the behavior you are looking for by commenting on the action yourself: “Wow, she looks happy!”; “Why do you think he decided to do that?” Vote on a rating for the movie afterward, or get the kids to pretend to give reviews at the dinner table, explaining to someone who has never seen the movie what was good or bad about it.
What if my children say old movies are boring?
Kids (and adults) tend to use television more to numb their thoughts than to engage them. Studies show that while adults think of watching television as relaxing for themselves and their kids, it is quite the opposite. What it is instead is superficially anesthetizing, providing us with the illusion of relaxation, but in reality it jazzes us up. We can see that by the way we tend to click the remote from show to show. Kids who grow up putting their minds on hold this way will look for more dangerous ways to zone out in the future.
Make sure they learn that watching should be active exercise for their minds and spirits. And make sure they learn the difference between pleasure and happiness, both from the way that you and they use and watch movies and from the characters and stories themselves. There is a big difference between fun and distraction, and the way you use entertainment in your home is an important way to teach that to your children.
Sometimes kids who have been saturated in media need to be “detoxed” before they can begin to learn about watching a movie with the intellect and the heart instead of numbingly mainlining it into the pleasure center. The best thing to do for these kids is to go cold turkey, with a week (or more) of no television or video games. (It is harder on the parents than the kids, but it can be done.) After that, make it clear there is to be no television watching unless chores and homework are done, and make sure whatever they plan to watch is genuinely worthwhile. Even the best movies on video should not be the “default protocol” in the house.
It is important, too, not to make a particular rating a badge of maturity. Otherwise, kids want to see R-rated movies just because they are not allowed to, because it will make them feel grown up. And they reject G-rated movies as babyish. One day when my son was about five, he asked me how old my grandmother was. “Almost ninety,” I replied. “Wow,” he said. “I’ll bet she can go to any movie she wants to!” Make sure kids know that the ratings are just one of the factors you consider in making the decision about whether a particular movie is appropriate.
My child wants to watch the same movie over and over, as much as two or three times a day. What do I do?
Many parents have this problem. In some cases, children re-watch movies to help them understand the story. In others, like a security blanket or a favorite toy, a particular video becomes almost a “transitional object” for some children, especially when they are facing some unusual stress, either from external sources (family changes, illness, starting preschool) or internal (going through some developmental stage). I recommend respecting a child’s attachment, but imposing limits, such as watching the movie no more than once a day and then only if there is time. This stage will pass.
For some kids, it returns at the next huge developmental leap in the early teen years. As everything seems to be unfamiliar to adolescents, even themselves, the predictability and familiarity of a favorite movie becomes even more appealing, especially when friends share the connection to the film as well.
Why do teenagers like to watch such grisly movies?
For kids and teens, movies can serve as the training wheels for social skills that are still unsteady. Movies with very intense action can be a bonding experience, a way to blow off some steam, a way to feel a little bit out of control while knowing it is all pretend, and of course an excuse to grab on to each other.
Why is it that in most movies featuring a child in the lead role, the child is missing one or both parents?
This is often much more troubling for parents than for kids, though some children will ask what happened to Heidi’s parents or Dorothy’s parents or become upset when the parents are killed in The Witches and James and the Giant Peach. Even in movies where the child has loving parents, they are physically separated for the course of the movie, as in Home Alone, Peter Pan, and Pinocchio.
Adults who watch these films and are at a stage of life when they have reason to be concerned about losing their own parents are sometimes upset at this consistent theme and wonder if there is some sort of maliciousness behind it. There isn’t. Parents are missing in children’s films for two reasons. First, it is very hard to place a child in the middle of the action if a parent is there to protect and warn him. It removes most of the narrative momentum. Second, it is impossible to inject romance into a movie about a child. And a single parent provides the potential for a romantic happy ending to appeal to a broader audience. How did this all happen?
Why are movies so different now from the ones that I watched as a child?
The idea of appealing to a larger audience with sex and violence is not new. Some of the movies of the late silent and early talkie eras were quite frank. Responding to objections from moviegoers and the threat of some kind of censorship, the movie industry developed the Production Code, adopted in 1934. It required that evildoers be punished and prohibited plotlines like interracial romances and the portrayal of clergymen as comic characters or villains. The restrictions on sex and language were very explicit (there was a memorable fuss over whether Rhett Butler would be permitted to use the word “damn” in Gone With the Wind), but the rules about violence were more general, essentially requiring that it be in “good taste.” These rules remained in effect until the mid-1960s, when they were amended and then abandoned in favor of the rating system in use today. Similarly, television’s National Association of Broadcasters adopted a standards and practices code in 1952 that lasted until the 1980s, when government concerns about antitrust (and competition from cable) intervened. The television ratings system adopted in 1997 is designed to work with a V-chip, which enable a parent to limit inappropriate programs.