As the parent of a toddler I have noticed that conventional movie ratings (G, PG, R and their likes) are quite useless when it comes to determining which films my child should watch. Currently this is because most G rated films contain too much excitement for my delicate three year old to absorb; for teens the nature of the problem remains the same with films such as Harry Potter artificially made to get more tolerant ratings than they deserve in order to get the cash milking cow going.
We notice the problem whenever we try and present our son with material that’s not tailor made for a toddler. Films like Toy Story or Finding Nemo, which all of us regard as children films, regularly turn out to be much more than he can tolerate. This leaves us with a dilemma: on one hand there is temptation for him to watch them, just because he’s seeing Woody and Buzz everywhere he goes; on the other hand, each time he’s watching them we have to have our finger on the remote if we don’t want to have a catastrophe on our hands.
Obviously, we are not the only parents facing this problem, which by now has been often nicknamed after the dreaded Bambi syndrome: your child watches a children’s film, Bambi, a seemingly effortless and tranquil event; however, by the end of this viewing session you, the parent, have to explain to your distressed and crying child what death is all about. You didn’t sign up for death when you clicked “play” on the DVD, did you?
The question is, what can a parent do to successfully manage their kids’ movie viewing?
I’ll start with the bad solution. A parent I know whose then three year old child was suffering from Bambi distress told their child not to worry, because Bambi’s mother is now “with Jesus”. Now, there are a billion and a half reasons why I think this is a crap way of addressing this problem, and they start with the fact I don’t wish to bullshit my own child. There is as much evidence to support the “with Jesus” explanation as there is to support the suicide bomber’s “with 72 virgins” ones – nil. As the suicide bomber analogy shows, giving your child the “with Jesus” explanation is actually morally wrong, too. If you are so sure of an eternal post death session with Jesus, why are you afraid of your own death? And why are you sad when others die, when instead you should do your best to ensure they die quickly and move over to their eternity of happiness as efficiently as possible; people you like, in particular. You don't, though, and you label those that do lunatics. Then there’s the problem of whether you’d go crazy or want to kill yourself out of boredom in the process of spending an eternity with Jesus...
Yet there is no escaping the fact that Jesus and his fellow make believe idols provide comfort to billions of people around the world who are afraid of dying. The problem, it seems, is not limited to parents wishing to calm their children, but to society in general: we are all afraid of dying. Thing is, some of us are afraid of dying and deal with it through denial – just look at the way talking about death will turn you into the life of a party, while a minority of us is happy to accept life with all that’s bundled along, death included. I belong to the latter group, and I think my son would lead a healthier life if he was there, too, instead of the deluded group.
Alright, then: having disqualified the delusional solution, how would I solve the Bambi syndrome?
My solution should work, but as with many things in life it comes through hard work because it requires awareness and an active rather than a passive role for the parent. Essentially, it requires the parent to determine what movies the child should be exposed to in the first place and be involved enough with the child’s life, especially as a teenager, to have a saying there. That is, instead of randomly picking the Bambi DVD up and pressing play, the parent should research the consequences of their choice first and choose the films carefully.
There are tools out there to help you think of those consequences. The Australian Council on Children and the Media, to name but one example, publishes thorough movie reviews aimed at the concerned parent on its website. These reviews don’t just tell you whether a film has “violence” or “a sex scene”, the way the normal film classifications work; instead they go into great detail to describe the nature of each potentially problematic scene. Another interesting factor about these reviews is that they don’t necessarily signal out scenes as bad ones; for example, the Dark Knight review alerts the parent to the problematic features of the film but also tells the parent that the film can be used to initiate ethical discussions with your child. In the particular case of Dark Knight, the question of whether one can take the life of another to save oneself (or someone else’s, for that matter). It’s really interesting stuff.
Another advantage of knowing what the potentially problematic issues are is that you, as a parent, can decide for yourself just how problematic they are. I, for example, do not see a problem with exposing my son to nudity, especially when done under control to ensure his perception of sex is not twisted. On the other hand, I do have a problem with the glorification of violence and the portrayal of violence as a good means for problem solving.
As for Bambi, I would prefer to introduce my son to the concept of death gradually and over time; once that is done to a satisfactory level he can watch Bambi as much as he wants.
P.S. If you are under the impression this post is all about showing off my superior parenting skills then you are wrong. My son still avoids watching Cars after I failed to properly introduce him to the film. Parenting is tough work, and all I can do is try my best given my limited resources and my need to keep some sort of a non parental identity version of myself alive.