By Joseph Gough - Director of Residential Operation
Unfortunately, the answer to this question is not a number. Neither is it a once-for-all remedy. Instead, this topic will require specific knowledge of the media in question, an understanding of your child, and a reckoning of your own personal/family values.
Most movies already come with an accompanying rating thanks to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). You are likely familiar with these: G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17. However, as you’re already experiencing, these generic rating can fall short. For instance, the PG-13 rating did not exist until 1984. Therefore, films made prior to this time may be rated PG but have content more appropriate to a modern PG-13 or even R rating.
Further, the people and groups who determine film ratings must make judgment calls and cannot always work from black & white objectives. This will likely result in juxtaposition where what they believe is appropriate for a 13-year old or a 17-year old will conflict with what you believe to be appropriate.
Simply relying on a media rating system is too blunt an instrument for a situation where a considerate approach is needed. Resources like kids-in-mind.com allow a user to look up a movie and will list and rate potentially objectionable content. Rather than giving the film an overall rating, it provides the user to make a decision based on the list of content. Additional resources like Fandango’s Family-Friendly Guide allow the user to filter for movies based on more granulated criteria than G, PG, PG-13 & R.
Like snowflakes, no two are alike. This applies to your 17-year old, the 17-year old next door, or even your 17-year old’s identical twin! Just because something is deemed appropriate for a 17-year old does not mean that it is appropriate for your 17-year old. Children grow and mature at different paces. This could result in your 15-year old being more equipped to handle an R-rated movie than your 17-year old.
Rather than using the magic of a birthday to determine when your child is ready to handle the responsibility of growing up, you may be better served by an incremental method of exposure. Sooner or later, your child must deal with all of the adult scenarios and responsibilities of life. Dealing with these issues slowly, in a controlled environment, and with a caring parent can help in providing context and direction for interpreting adult themes.
A simple way to gauge your child’s progression is to watch a movie with her, and—this is crucial—talk with her after (or during) the movie about its themes and content. If your child is disturbed, frightened, or confused by the content in the film, she may not be old enough to view such material (so maybe start with a low-risk film). Or, perhaps she really enjoyed the film but is unable to interact with good and bad behavior in the film, e.g. can’t explain why a bad action was bad, why the character shouldn’t have done it, the action’s impact on others, what the character should have done instead, etc. In this circumstance, she does not appear to have yet developed a refined moral framework capable of handling the subtleties of adult life. If instead, she can watch a film and understand the themes of good vs. bad and, more importantly, why something is good and why something is bad she may be ready for other media to help inform her moral and ethical construct.
Please note that this does not mean that you’re beholden to watch every film with your teenager. But, to have a somewhat realistic understanding of your teen’s ability to parse media and deal with it in an appropriate way, you’ll have to share a bowl of popcorn from time to time.
The only way you can determine if something is right for your child is by knowing… what does right even mean? This question is answered by your personal values and the values that you agreed to with your family. This isn’t usually something written down or stuck to the refrigerator. Instead, it’s a product of your family’s culture—which you, as a parent, are largely responsible for creating.
It’s possible for a film to pass the first two levels of inspection that we discussed above – generally age/content-appropriate and that your child has proved that he or she can interact responsibility with the themes presented – and still be deemed inappropriate for your child or family. For example, as a family, you may have determined that violence is a social ill. In fact, not only will you not partake in it personally, but you do not want to encourage it socially. For these reasons, you might decide that a film, while otherwise appropriate, goes against or misrepresents a value that is core to you or your family and, as a family, you will abstain.
Role-playing can be a great way to teach and interact with young children. Unfortunately, children grow out of that stage sooner than is helpful. Media, movies especially, can be a great tool to “role play” life situations. Role-playing is simply practicing a response to a simulated though realistic, situation. Movies can help us visualize situations that are difficult, dire, extreme, or wonderful. Through that depiction, we can imagine ourselves in that situation and “role play” what we would or should do. This practice can help a young person interact with difficult aspects of life in a safe environment before they have to interact with them “in the moment” and while facing real consequences.