Last weekend, we went to see Godzilla. We were excited for the afternoon date and the mindless entertainment (mindless, because we don’t have to take monster movies seriously even when they try to make a deeper point about the folly of humanity’s self-destructive love affair with advanced weaponry and technology, and attendant disregard for the delicate balance of our natural environment. Mindless fun!).
Our fun day at the movies was almost ruined however by the appearance of an entire family a few chairs over. And by family, we mean mother, father, and three very young children (aged, we guess, 8, 4, and 1). We cringed and gritted our teeth.
We were not worried about noise, although we expected it. We aren’t the kinds of people who don’t like flying or eating in restaurants with kids. We think kids are noisy and there you have it. Kids trapped indoors are perfectly free to vocalize and act out in our opinion. While it can be hard to be trapped indoors with them, we sympathize with parents who do not always have choices when they need to travel somewhere or do something difficult with kids in tow.
No, what was threatening our calm was wondering how anyone could think it was a good idea to voluntarily sit in a dark room filled with images of death and the sounds of screams and destruction with children too young to know that what they are seeing and hearing isn’t really happening.
A couple years ago, Dave took our teenage son to see Looper, a smart but very violent movie. A similarly-aged family sat behind them, and the kids, one of whom was a toddler, were not so happy to be there, and fussed and cried. The parents tried to keep them quiet (another blow—let’s put small children in a noisy, scary, dark, and constraining environment and then make them behave quietly and respectfully so that we can enjoy ourselves) and they were sort of successful. But after multiple grisly killings, Dave couldn’t stand it and turned to appeal to the father, saying, ‘This is not a good movie for your kids. It’s too violent, too scary. I don’t think they should be here!’ The father, whose English wasn’t great, apologized and seemed to think that the complaint was about the noise. They left shortly after.
This raises questions. Are parents dragging the whole family to movies because a) they think that the risk of permanent psychological scarring is outweighed by the chance to share popcorn together during a fun family outing, b) they are intentionally desensitizing their children to media violence and sex through exposure, c) they can’t afford a babysitter, or d) they lack the education or knowledge to make a wise decision?
One way or another, there are cultural differences here. We think differently than the people who would take their kids to see movies with mature themes. Maybe they were raised this way. Maybe they are thinking it through and actively making choices. Maybe our position is a position that we can afford to take.
But before we talk ourselves out of being horrified, or assume that parents should just do what feels right for their family, it’s not a bad idea to take a step back and maybe check in with someone who thinks about these things for a living.
A good starting resource is Common Sense Media, a collection of media reviews for families. On this site you’ll see a breakdown of a movie’s content in categories such as violence, sex, language, drug use, etc.. These come along with ratings by the editors, by parents, and by kids. What do the kids think about Godzilla? They rate Godzilla appropriate only for ages 11 and up.
We’re not talking here about violence in society. The editors rightly point out that the research on media violence begetting violence is not very conclusive, and most commentary on kids and violence is fraught with anxieties related to infrequent but high-visibiltiy crimes by youths. It’s too hard to say what the impact of media is in such matters when many factors come into play. But it’s clear that violence (including images of violence for the very young who cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality) causes stress and stress causes a reaction (which in the very young can be impossible to talk out). At the very least, learn from your child’s ability to talk about stressful issues. If they can articulate their feelings, or tell you how they feel, then you can reflect together on something you’ve watched. But if they are not verbal enough to understand or communicate an issue of violence, then don’t expose them to it.
With our kids we really tried to learn from them what their threshold for discomfort was. Our daughter was far more bothered by intense images than her younger brother was, and in the beginning we had to judge whether a Disney movie was too scary (and when our kids were very young, they were!). We tried not to put her in a situation where she’d be exposed to something she was uncomfortable with. We remember her first movie in the theater was almost a non starter because the previews were so loud and intense—she and mom went into the lobby to wait them out. Once the feature started she was fine. Remember what it was like when you were young, listen to the experts, and don’t be in a hurry.