We are all familiar with wanting to know the “right” age to allow our children to watch a particular movie. And frustratingly, there’s not really a definitive answer that satisfies every parent, every family, every time. Advice can differ to a considerable extent (“To infinity and beyond!”) depending on who you ask.
Australian Classifications give us some helpful (although quite broad) standards or ratings for when a movie may be appropriate. It is important however to take into consideration each child’s unique personality and sensitivity when deciding if they are “ready”. Ratings are just a rough guideline for when children MAY be developmentally ready. There is a huge developmental difference between ages 3 and 12 for instance, and yet they are both within the recommended G Rating.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what content is appropriate for your child (“Inconceivable!”, I know!). But the reality is that your values may be different to mine. Every family has their own standards, their own ideas about what age a child should be before they get to watch a particular movie (“Always let your conscience be your guide.”).
Please do your own research.
I can, however, give you some helpful suggestions for deciding when and how to introduce a movie to your child.
When your children are young (especially for those under 5 years old), it’s best to stick with G-rated movies. Even then, it’s good to have some knowledge of what the movie is about first. Many G movies have frightening scenes and themes for little ones (Finding Nemo for instance) which they may not be developmentally ready to process.
Common Sense Media is a great resource for learning more about a particular movie. You can search for a title and see multiple reviews from experts, parents, and even children. The website gives a thorough story outline, details of potential concerns (eg instead of just “sexual content” it describes specific scenes - teens kissing, poster of a naked woman on bedroom wall, sex scene covered by blankets). The website also offers a list of themes and discussion points that may arise in each movie. Each review suggests a more specific age recommendation than just the standard rating. A site worth bookmarking!
If you are not going to be watching movies alongside your child, please consider using Parental Controls when available (on streaming apps like Netflix). These can help you limit access to inappropriate content and to set the ratings best suited for your child.
Allowing PG or M will depend on two things: your child’s temperament and the reason for the movie’s rating.
Firstly, your child’s temperament and sensitivity.
As the parent you are in the best position to know if a movie will be suitable for your child. You know their personality intimately and should decide if they are emotionally and developmentally ready to deal with the content. (“Kids, these days. They just don’t get scared like they used to.”)
What is your child like? Do they get frightened easily? Do they tend to obsess over details? Deep thinkers may need to debrief a movie afterwards, to discuss concerns, worries or issues that arise.
Does your child tend to be a risk taker or to imitate things they watch (for example pranks, swearing, dangerous stunts)? These are all things to take into consideration when deciding if a movie is suitable.
And secondly, the reason behind the movie’s classification.
Usually, a movie has been given a PG or M rating because of language, violence, mature themes, and/or sex/nudity. Watching these movies with your older child is a wonderful opportunity to discuss values and beliefs that you may hold as a family ("Remember who you are!"). It’s a chance to acknowledge differing values and ways of doing life (“You think the only people who are people, are the people who look and think like you. But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger, you’ll learn things you never knew you never knew.”), and allows you to add context to the themes you are viewing together.
Questions such as, “What can the movie teach you about the world? How do the characters treat one another? Is there a lesson that can be learned through the themes and actions seen?”, give plenty of opening for further conversations based upon the messages conveyed.
Explore, Explain, Empower
Exploring and explaining your personal values with your children can actually help them discover and pin down their own values. It is also a helpful conversation starting point for when you need to say “No” to a movie. Responding to the inevitable groans of “but all my friends are allowed to watch it” with the 3 E’s will be much more effective than simply brushing off their disappointment with a dismissive response (“Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn”).
Or if - for example - you have just watched a movie depicting violence: the conversation could go something like this. Explore your child’s feelings and beliefs - is this how we should treat others? What would they do in this circumstance? You could then share your stance on violence. Explain why watching violence bothers you (or doesn’t), and how your values influence your feelings about this. Then empower them by discussing scenarios they may encounter, giving them options and scripts, and ways to ask for help if they ever experience violence or feel threatened in any way. You could then suggest and model ways to manage their own anger that doesn’t resort to violence.
Family Movie Night Tradition
It can be tempting to just let our children watch movies on their own and have that time to ourselves. However, having a Family Movie Night can be such a fantastic and important ritual.
Traditions get so much harder to hold as the kids get older and desire more independence. A movie night is something they can always look forward to (and look back on fondly!) no matter their age. How many teenagers can resist the offer of a movie, pizza, and dessert? Time with the family in a relaxed and fun setting is just the salt on the popcorn!
Traditions actually help our children make sense of life. They help to create bonds, impart values, promote shared experience, and build memories. The sense of family connectedness that tradition and ritual provide can encourage our children’s self-esteem and wellbeing to develop and grow ("We may have our differences, but nothing's more important than family"). Traditions - like a Family Movie Night - are about recognising the uniqueness of our family identity, and should be fun, simple, and designed to bring us closer to the people we love (“There’s no place like home!”).
What a brilliant outcome of watching a movie together!
In conclusion, if we are intentional about what our children watch and when, if we use movies as a means of connection, and if we communicate clearly with our children about what they have seen, our kids are going to be just fine
“May the Force be with you!”
P.S. Just for fun! Can you name all the movie quotes in italics?