When Is Your Child Old Enough To Watch Films Rated Higher Than PG?
Some of us movie fans grew up watching horror and violent movies. But should we let our own kids do the same?
It’s a scene which will no doubt prove familiar to a great many parents. My wife and I had just got done binge-watching Stranger Things Season Two, and I thought of our eldest child – close in age to Mike, Eleven and co – and casually remarked that he might enjoy the show too.
This was met with the steeliest, most serious of stares from my better half, as though I’d just implied our precious first born might learn some valuable life lessons from the Hitler Youth. Her response, as you might have guessed, was a blunt and unequivocal no.
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On most parenting matters, my wife and I are in complete agreement: creativity, open-mindedness = good; bigotry, vandalism = bad, etc. Yet the question of what is or is not okay for our kids to watch; that’s something which, every so often, we have difficulty seeing eye to eye on.
Now, I hasten to add that I don’t consider this a uniquely father-specific position (the bulk of the most passionate horror/extreme cinema aficionados I know are female; just not my wife, alas). Still, after years spent watching – with variable degrees of willingness – nothing but CBeebies or Cartoon Network every school night, whilst trudging through every Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks animation in existence on family movie nights, surely any discerning parent has found themselves asking: at what point can I show my kids something that isn’t really for kids? When is your child old enough to watch something scary or violent?
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Some of us, no doubt, will say this work has already been done for us. if our trusted British Board of Film Classification rated it PG or below then it’s okay; if they rated it 12 or above, then it isn’t. This, however, is to overlook a number of key factors. For one, there’s the sheer number of films which were rated PG in days gone by which would never get away with that rating now (Jaws was a PG! JAWS!) For another, there’s the simple, near-universal truth that very few people make it to their 12th, 15th or 18th birthday without having seen a film of that rating beforehand.
For myself, I saw my first 18-rated films (Repo Man and RoboCop) on VHS before I was even 10 years old, and was soon thereafter watching 15s and 18s on a regular basis. I consider these viewing experiences to have been a valuable and pleasurable part of growing up; and given that my own child has now reached that same age, surely it’s not unreasonable for me to wonder whether they too might be ready for such material.
Again, some readers may be aghast at these revelations, screaming about the harmful influence of violent videos on young minds, and how it all contributes to the imminent breakdown of society or some such. This mindset, prevalent during the 1980s “video nasty” panic (but by no means originating in that era), sadly persists to this day among reactionary types to whom small matters like actual evidence are of little consequence; yet the reality is, no genuine studies have ever concluded that watching violent entertainment promotes violent behaviour in viewers.
On top of which, standards have noticeably changed over the years regarding screen violence. Plenty of films once rated 18 for violent content – Alien, The Shining, The Terminator, recently even The Silence of the Lambs – have subsequently been downgraded to 15. Hand-in-hand with this, the violence in a great many of today’s 12A-rated blockbusters is arguably no less intense than that of yesterday’s 15s and 18s, just with less visible blood and not so many F-bomb one-liners.
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Still, even if we accept that watching violence and/or horror isn’t going to turn our kids into serial killers, that isn’t to say that they might not still be distressed by it. No question, I saw films at an early age that got under my skin in a big way, most memorably A Nightmare on Elm Street, which did indeed lead to a few bad dreams.
But can a film really be held responsible for nightmares? They’re a fact of life, for kids and adults alike. Anxiety afflicts us all, and will make its presence felt one way or another, especially when the dreaded puberty comes along. As A Nightmare on Elm Street’s late director Wes Craven said, “Horror films don’t create fear; they release it.” Far from being responsible for our anxieties, violent and scary entertainment can, however briefly, offer a cathartic means to dispel them, even in young viewers. This being the case, such material might be considered beneficial to the young.
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Yet even if we accept that 15/18-rated material won’t cause actual harm to our children (though surely there must be some limits; I’m not suggesting anyone swap Toy Story with A Serbian Film on their next family movie night), many of us will still not be inclined to show such things to our children simply because it doesn’t feel right.
I can understand this, though I do have to wonder whether it’s less to do with actual concern for our child’s well-being than it is our own discomfort. After all, the simple act of a child watching a grown-up film or TV show just brings into focus that painful fact we’d often rather ignore: that they themselves are growing up, growing beyond our control, and we will not always be able to protect them.
This being the case, who’s to say a family viewing of something non-family friendly might not prove a beneficial experience, for parent and child alike?