Children and the Movies: How To Avoid Scaring Your Kids

After a dismal introduction to movie-going with my 5-year-old, I found that when it comes to managing media as a parent, information is power.

As my 5-and-a-half-year-old daughter wailed on my lap, I looked around at the only other two patrons in the movie theater. Suddenly it seemed like we were closer to them than we’d been a few minutes earlier, when we were happily munching popcorn and marveling at the footage on the big screen.

“Do you want to leave,” I murmured several times, as the sobbing continued.

“No,” she’d choke out, then “yes,” then more wailing.

I was pretty sure the other people with us in the theater were women (in my mind even mothers) and likely to understand our plight. But we eventually settled for moving up to the top row, just to put some distance between us and them, not to mention that newly-menacing giant screen.

It was my daughter’s first movie experience, just the two of us on a girl-date. Having been raised on movies the way most of my media-savvy generation was, I’d looked forward to this day with brimming excitement.

We have a largely media free-home and although she was thrilled about the date, too, my daughter had a sense of nervousness as well. We already knew she reacted more sensitively than her friends to the little bits of movies she’d seen here and there. She’d asked a lot of questions before we left and, together, we’d read the review of the movie Chimpanzee, and watched the trailer (video attached).

I also asked a friend who’d seen it and she said she and her daughter had loved the film. But even though it’s an expertly filmed documentary, not an animated feature, it was still a Disney flick and so, of course, the mother had to die.

Once my friend warned me of this and I told Ginger. She said she understood and was OK with it, as long as it wasn’t scary. But really, just being in a big dark theater with the giant wide screen for the first time can be scary, no matter what you’re watching. And as it turned out the movie wasn’t exactly about the co-operative side of mother-nature: the main plot is dominated almost entirely by two warring factions of chimpanzees, one of which is led by an aging alpha-male named “Scar.”

Scar? I’m sure I must have read that in the review on movies.com, but it hadn’t set off any red flags. Perhaps in my excitement to plan the date, now that my daughter seemed old enough, I’d let my judgment cloud. How else could I have allowed us to be sitting in that big loud theater “learning” about how the best time for a raid on another chimp tribe’s territory is in the dark of a violent electrical storm?

Cut to my daughter, post-movie, still crying at all the violence and sadness as we walked through the streets of the Gaslamp District, me so desperate to turn the thing around that I offer a trip to the Ghiradelli Chocolate store on top of the buttered popcorn and Calistoga soda she’d just powered through.

Needless to say, she never wants to see another movie again. Nice work, Mom!

In the aftermath of the girl-date, I went back to the review on movies.com and read the clues I should have seen before. They describe the action in the movie by saying, “…the leader of their family, Freddy, vigilantly defends their territory from his rival Scar... When tragedy strikes and Isha perishes, Oscar struggles to survive without a parent to feed and protect him.” 

So the information is there, albeit a bit vaguely, and in my excitement I probably interpreted these scenes to be far less tense and drawn out than they actually were. But I wished I’d thought to consult a more targeted website for parents with small, and possibly more sensitive kids, instead of such a generic one. Even though most people I know just seem to ask around to see if something is too scary before showing it to their kids (the answer these days, by the way, is usually yes), I knew there had to be an 'e-better way.'

My research turned up several sites tailored to this purpose and there were two that I’d certainly recommend. The most commonly suggested to me, via word of mouth, is CommonSenseMedia.org. Common Sense’s mission statement reads that, “As a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization, we provide trustworthy information and tools, as well as an independent forum, so that families can have a choice and a voice about the media they consume.”

Their review of Chimpanzee is a bit more clear than movies.com: “After getting a taste for how the chimpanzees eat, hunt, sleep, and play, 'dramatic tension' is introduced in the form of a rival chimpanzee group with a menacing elder alpha named Scar.”

The post then goes on to describe various violent scenes like the orphaning of the baby, Oscar, with great detail about what exactly was shown on screen. Had I read this review before planning our outing, I don’t believe I would have chosen this film, even given my Gen-X zeal about consuming pop-culture alongside my kid.

The next site I consulted was Kids-in-Mind.com. This organization seemed even more committed to serving the needs of each individual family, no matter what their concerns, by providing as much detail as possible about three general categories: sex/nudity, violence/gore and profanity.

They also include occurrences of substance use, a list of discussion topics that may garner questions from children, and the message the film conveys, saying “since our system is based on objective standards, not the viewer's age or the artistic merits of a film, we enable adults to determine whether a movie is appropriate for their own children.”

Kid-in-Mind’s explanations of the scarier scenes in Chimpanzee were incredibly detailed, explaining each scene according to its tension level, visuals and audio track. At one point, I could feel myself tensing up just reading their account of the climactic battle in which the mother dies: “…we see one group of chimpanzees attacking a second group, we hear shrieks and the sound of the chimpanzees beating tree trunks and the screen goes black as we hear a chimpanzee shriek…”

Again, had I read that line, even if I’d already bought the tickets, I would have abstained.

All in all, I’m hoping my daughter remembers the good of the day, more than the bad. Thus the trip to Ghiradelli. But I’m doubtful, given that she has no interest in telling people how happily the story turns ends—and it does in a heart-warming Disney kind of way, of course. Rather, she tells them just how loud and dark the theater was, just how awful it was when the baby was orphaned and, oh yeah did I forget to mention: “Did you know chimps hunt and kill monkeys, and then feast on them in a big pack?”

Nope, neither did we. But had I been a little savvier and checked with a review like Kids-in-Mind’s before going, I would have. I’ll chalk that one up to beginner’s enthusiasm.

Now, on to my next great mistake as a parent …it’s only a matter of time.

CUICUI November 02, 2012 at 02:32 PM
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