With studios running $50 million advertising campaigns to get you to see their movies, parents need all the help they can get in making wise entertainment choices for their children. And that's where Movie Mom Nell Minow comes in. A lawyer by training but a movie fan by passion, Nell Minow writes and talks about movies from a parent's point of view. On her Web site (moviemom.com), on dozens of radio stations, and in her book, The Movie Mom's Guide to Family Movies (Avon), Minow lets parents know what's objectionable in the latest movies and what values are lifted up. Mostly, though, she is an impassioned advocate for parents taking an active role in screening what their children see.
Do movies really affect the way children think about moral issues?
When I was writing my book, I interviewed many people in their twenties. Universally they said, "I wish my parents had done a better job of protecting me." Every one of them felt that they had been harmed. One said that he felt "someone took something from me that I can't get back."
People need to remember it's not called "show art" or "show morality"; it's called "show business." Studios are in the business of getting as much money out of you and your kids as they can, and they will try to do that by sending messages and images that you don't want your children to see. These messages are being delivered to our children all the time, and we can either make use of them or we can let Hollywood decide what our children's values should be.
Do you find that parents are resistant to playing the role of censor for their kids?
I think they're exhausted. I think they feel helpless. When I go into a video store, I see parents looking at the new releases shelf with this glazed look. They'll ask the teenagers behind the counter, "Is Dr. Doolittle okay for my 6-year-old?"
At a workshop I did, a mother said that her child had seen an inappropriate movie on a bus on the way to a soccer game. The coach put it in, and she said there was nothing she could do. I said, "Okay, if you remember one thing from me today, it's that you can do something about it. You are the parents."
My child's school showed a movie that I thought was inappropriate for my fourth grader. So I called up the principal and said, "Are you nuts? You know it's a PG-13 movie," and she said, "Well, the kids voted to have it for a school party." So I said, "Oh great, let's have them vote on whether to have homework." I really gave them a hard time.
I didn't realize how much of an impact I had until four years later, when my son was in eighth grade. The principal called me at home and said that they were thinking of showing the movie Much Ado About Nothing in my son's Shakespeare elective. It's PG-13, and they wanted to make sure that was okay with me. I said, "You know, the movie I objected to first was an Adam Sandler movie, and I think there's a big difference. Much Ado About Nothing is okay." Obviously I shook them up.
You are the parent. You can do that.
What guidelines should parents use to determine whether a particular movie is appropriate for their child?
You have to know two things: You have to know your child and you have to know what's in the movie. I can help with that second category, but only you can make the decision about what's right for your child.
I have two children, one who is like me. I am the biggest sucker in the world. I always think that Lassie is not going to get Timmy out of the well. I fall for it every time. And then, I have one who, even at a very young age, has never been scared by a movie. So I'm going to have a different rule for him than I would for his sister.
It seems like most movies are rated PG-13. Can parents really trust movie ratings?
PG-13 is a no man's land on the ratings system. You have very mild stuff in there, and then you have unbelievably raunchy material—stuff they should rate R or even NC-17. When parents see a PG-13, an alarm bell should go off. You don't know anything based on the fact that it's rated PG-13. Do not say to your kids, "PG-13 means you can't see it until you're 13." Do not fall into that trap, because, all of a sudden, they will be 13 and you'll want them to stay away from a particular movie. Make it absolutely clear, from a very young age, that you'll look at each movie on its own merit and decide what's appropriate.
Of course, the next line is, "But everybody else has seen it."
You have to teach children that the "everybody else does it" argument doesn't work. Something that I did, which my son said was the worst thing that I ever did to him, was to set up an e-mail list for the parents of my children's classmates. So when we do get "everybody else" arguments, we e-mail everyone on the list and say, "A child has told his parents that everybody in the ninth grade gets to go to R-rated movies. Is this true?" All the parents write back, saying, "Are you crazy? No!" It works with allowances, curfews, driver's ed. All of those things have been discussed on the list.
One of the areas that's difficult for parents is monitoring movies our kids see at someone else's house. For example, my daughter went to a friend's house, and a movie wasn't even on the agenda. But her friend put in The Matrix, which upset her. How should a parent handle these situations?
When I do workshops I say, "Look, I hate to say this, but before a child goes over to someone's house, you need to set the ground rules with the parents." I find it better just to say, "My child is not allowed to watch movies or television at someone else's house. I hope that's not a problem for you." I get it out of the way. Because I guarantee you, there are people who have the same books as you, drive the same kind of car, whose kids go to the same schools, and who you would trust with your life. But they will show your children something that you would forbid. People have wildly different values about this kind of stuff, so you cannot trust anybody, and you cannot trust any situation.
So the rule should be no movies or TV when you're at a friend's house?
For elementary school children, yes. Frankly, you're not sending them over to somebody's house to watch a movie. You're hoping that they're going to have some social interaction, develop their social skills and their imaginations.
When your kids are older, that's when you say, "If there's going to be a video, you need to clear it with me."
Won't teenagers resist that kind of restriction?
Because teenagers are so difficult, parents tend to pull back, thinking that's what the kids want. I've learned that they really don't want that. They want you to stop yapping at them all the time, but they still want you there paying attention to them—listening to them, guiding them. It's wonderful for a teenager to be able to say to a peer, "I'd love to do it, but my parents would murder me." You have to say to your children, "No matter what it is, you can always blame me." They can say, "Oh, my impossible parents!"
It sounds like we need to be willing to be the bad guys.
Teenagers are the ultimate paradox. They like to break the rules. If you don't give them rules, they're going to break some that you really don't want them to break. If your child sees an inappropriate movie, it's a completely different situation if you didn't authorize it.
I got a heartbreaking phone call from a mother who said that her son was a freshman in high school, and he wanted to see a certain movie. She checked it out; the movie was fine; she drove him to the theater, bought his ticket, and told him she would pick him up afterward. But he went into a different movie, and it was one of the most sexually violent movies ever released by a major studio. The kid came out very upset. He confessed to his mother what he had done. She asked me, "Is he warped for life?"
I said, "Look, first of all, I'm sorry he saw this stuff, but he knew he was doing something he wasn't supposed to do. In a way the experience inoculates him from the real horror of the movie. It's when he feels that you don't care enough about him to try to protect him from this material that he really gets damaged."
Is it always bad when a child gets scared by a movie?
When they're little, they will be scared by something. I don't care if you show them nothing but Barney videos until they're 12. Something is going to scare them. It's good to teach kids how to deal with scary thoughts, because scary situations happen. Say, "Well, if you were there, what would you tell Cruella Deville? Would you give her a time out? Would you put her in jail?" You help them conceptualize what kind of response they would have.
When kids are older, they are more able to talk about their feelings. So you can say, "Was it the extreme violence in The Matrix that you found upsetting or was it this idea about reality?" Ask your children questions that teach them how to think critically about a movie: Why do they think a movie was so popular? What was it in the movie that connected with people? If they were going to try to make a movie that would not be upsetting, how would they do it?
In your book you list different virtues and give examples of movies that lift up those values. Can parents use movies to teach positive values to their kids?
Every movie is a morality tale of some kind. Movies are often about people who are trying to solve problems. Sometimes they're successful, and sometimes they're not. That's a great thing to point out to kids.
In a movie like Stalag 17, based on a true story about a prison camp in World War II, you have soldiers who are coping with the horrible situation with humor, which is a good way to cope. And some are coping by coming up with escape plans that are far fetched—and that's okay because it gives them some sense of control. And there are others who are scrounging, trying to make life a little more comfortable for themselves. You can ask your child, "What do you think about these different ways of adapting? Which one would you choose?"
How can parents maximize the positive effects of movies?
You don't want to turn every movie into a seminar. First, make yourself available for questions and discussions. Second, model the behavior of looking critically at what you see and talking about it afterward. So while you're watching a movie at home, for instance, you can say, "Wow, that's what I call perseverance" or "I was in a situation like that once and I made another decision, and it came out this way."
There are great movies out there with wonderful stories that help enlighten and enrich families and help bring them closer together.
Neglected Family Classics
Friendly Persuasion (1956)
This is the only movie I know where somebody says, "This is a very serious problem, I'm just going to have to pray about it." I can't recommend it highly enough. It's about a Quaker family, during the Civil War, (headed up by Gary Cooper). They're confronted with a huge moral issue because they say they won't fight. Their neighbors question them, "The fact that we might be killed defending your property should be an issue for you." And each member of the family has got to draw on faith to try to make a decision that is morally correct.
The Court Jester (1956)
Every family should see this Danny Kaye classic once a year.
Yellow Submarine (1968)
A very underappreciated movie and perfect for families—sweet story, gorgeous animation, wonderful music. I know some parents are concerned about psychedelic references, but there's nothing like that in there. It's just a lovely movie about "all you need is love."
National Velvet (1944)
One of the sweetest stories I've ever seen. There's a beautiful moment between mother and daughter in this movie.
The Thief and the Cobbler (1996)
Unlike the recent Disney movies, this was not designed to sell merchandise, just to tell a story and entertain, which it does very well.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
I have all these categories in my book—integrity, duty, responsibility, tolerance—and I could have put this movie in any of those chapters. I put it in "courtesy," because, first, it is an important value, and second, there is so much in this movie about the way that courtesy transforms both people—the person who is being courteous and the person receiving that courtesy.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today magazine.
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January/February 2002, Vol. 14, No. 3, Page 22