When children are super-little, it’s easy: G-rated movies only. But it doesn’t take long before kids want to see shows whose ratings say they’re for an older audience. When are they ready?
That depends on two things: your child’s temperament and the reason for the movie’s rating.
How Your Kid Is
If your child is a kid who tends be fearful or obsess over things, take it slow. If a movie might cause nightmares, why let your child watch it? Before long they’ll be older and it might be fine for them, but there’s no rush.
Other kids might not be timid but are deep thinkers. They notice subtexts or mean behavior even when it’s not a major theme and the movie is a comedy. Everyone else may breeze right through the movie laughing, but your little thinker keeps wondering why someone did x or how y could be so unfair. If you let them watch a movie, be prepared to debrief, maybe repeatedly, about any unsettling parts.
Then there are kids who are copycats. They see a comedian taking a pratfall or doing a prank and decide to try a similar trick. They see an action hero jump from one roof to another and want to jump off yours. They hear an off-color line that gets a laugh and delight in repeating it for weeks (especially when it seems to shock people). Be careful about what you give them to imitate.
Why Is It PG-13?
Movie ratings consider factors like graphic or foul language, danger and violence, and nudity and sexuality. I believe the reason for a given film’s rating is a crucial part of your decision whether to let kids watch.
For language: Do your kids hear swear words every day…maybe from you? Do they use foul language in situations where it might get them in trouble? Or do they understand that swearing can have consequences? The more profanity kids hear, on screen and otherwise, the more they’ll think it’s acceptable behavior.
(Pro tip: Explain to kids that swear words are just words—but words with impact. It’s better to save them for times when you really need them, like when you drop a hammer on your foot. If swearing becomes a habit you’re hardly aware of, it’s less effective as stress relief and more likely to get you in trouble.)
For violence: How much violence is in the movie—and what kind? There’s Wily Coyote dropping an anvil on Road Runner; there’s shooting or blowing up “bad guys” in a stylized, James-Bond-ish way; and then there’s graphic, maybe gratuitous, torture and brutality. All are violence, and we need to think about everything we expose kids to, even classic animation. But different kinds and amounts of violence have different impact.
What do you want your kids to see?
For nudity or sex: This too is a wide range of things, ranging from quite innocent to extremely coarse. It matters exactly what’s on the screen.
If there’s nudity, is it sexual or not? Someone walking out of the shower or changing into a bathing suit may not be a sexualized image; it’s just the human body. I don’t know whether the raters at the Motion Picture Association think all nudity is a problem for kids, but I certainly don’t. Just as in real life, context matters.
If there’s sex in the film, what kind of sex? Is it part of a caring relationship? Is the sex mutual and respectful? Is it casual and fun, or casual and disappointing, or casual and awful? Is it forced or demeaning? Humans have all those types of sex, and films are happy to show them.
Is the kind of sex in this movie the kind you hope your child someday has? Is this the kind of relationship you hope they have?
As kids develop, a big part of our job is giving them context. They see and hear all sorts of things out in the world, including in entertainment, that can be confusing or uncomfortable. We adults know so much background about how the world works that it’s easy to forget kids don’t.
So when you let your child watch a movie that might be “too old” for them, watch it with them. (Even better, watch it yourself first and then with them.)
When movies have profanity, point out that people on screen often say crude or “funny” things that would get them in trouble in real life. If there’s violence of the stylized, action-movie kind, make sure they know real people can’t actually fight off six armed attackers simultaneously. Point out that people would actually be getting hurt here (and that in real life, few people are totally “bad”).
After a movie with nudity or sexuality, talk with your child about what you saw, especially what was realistic and what wasn’t. Is that how people really treat each other? Is that a typical way for relationships to unfold?
Watching movies together is a great way to open up talks about values and human interaction. What might this movie teach your child about the world? What messages does it convey about how people treat each other? Are those the messages you want them to learn?
If some of the movie’s messages align with what you believe and others don’t, that’s fertile ground for conversation.
For instance, if there was sexual behavior in the film, say what you liked and didn’t like about how it was shown. If a character pressured someone for a kiss or for sex, say you don’t think it should be that way (and that forcing any sexual activity is illegal and emotionally harmful). If the sex on screen was caring and relational but they didn’t use condoms, point out both those elements. Your kids may not say anything, or they may groan or roll their eyes—but they’re listening.
As a sex-positive person, I worried more about protecting my kids from exposure to violence than to sexuality. (I did eventually cave on some violent stuff by the time they were in their mid-teens. But I still don’t like it. Sigh…) I also told my kids why violence bothers me more than sex in movies: That I hoped they would never experience violence, but hoped they’d someday experience (loving) sex.
Which might have been one of those times they looked at me and said, “You’re…not like other moms.” Well, okay. But those are my values, and part of my job is explaining them to my kids, which helps them develop their own values. Used thoughtfully, movies that are a stretch for kids can help you talk about yours, too.