The singing! The dancing! The racism!

west side storyA memory popped into my head: squirming in the creaky elementary school auditorium seats, feeling the humidity of  the rainy day.  A movie projector behind me click-click-clicking a film onto the big screen, instead of the normal Bugs Bunny cartoons. A fit of unstoppable giggles at these weird characters who randomly broke into song and dance when they weren’t fighting. And what was with all the snapping?

Not having seen West Side Story since…well, probably since then, I figured it would be fun to introduce my kids. Mostly because they love musicals, they too are in elementary school now (sniff), and I’ve had America stuck in my head for the last five years or so.

I found it, DVR’d it, and we watched.


Holy sheet.

While it was hard enough explaining why the heck everyone keeps snapping (little has changed in that respect), I found myself fielding questions about why those boys were always fighting and why those other boys were wearing orange makeup, and where their parents were if they were teenagers, and why they were being mean to the police officer, and why Tony was lying down with Maria without a shirt on and…


Let’s just say I spent a lot of time saying, “wow! Look at the great dancing! Isn’t that great dancing? Should we skip to the next part with dancing?”

I started thinking about how sensitive we’ve gotten about so many things. 30-something years ago, it wasn’t a big deal to show West Side Story in an elementary school setting. Let alone Bugs Bunny, the sociopathic cross-dressing rabbit. Today, I can only imagine the hand-wringing letter-writing and pitchfork-and-torch-wielding that would ensue. Something tells me it would be more controversial than even a star chart.

Now of course, I’d argue much of our increased sensitivity is for the best; the idea of casting Nathalie Wood as a Latina lead today would earn a Hollywood boycott, not 10 Oscars. (Wow, was she cute. And wow, was that accent bad.)

But improved cultural sensitivities aside, have we gone too far in the other direction in terms of kids’ media? It’s like we don’t want our kids exposed to any dark themes at all. No fighting, no dying, no conflict, no hating, no teasing. Definitely no guns. No gangs. And no Bugs Bunny.

We fast forward through the opening scenes of Finding Nemo and Bambi. We mumble through the pig-killing descriptions in Charlotte’s Web. I know parents who have even avoided the Wizard of Oz altogether for fear the Flying Monkeys would scare their kids. And these are parents of five and six year-olds.

(Thalia used to tell everyone as a toddler that the Flying Monkeys were her favorite part. I always thought it was kind of cool that my twirling little ballerina had a dark streak.)

It’s something that’s been on my mind heavily since I posted about reading Ozma of Oz to my girls and readers offered their own wonderful suggestions of childhood books. A few mentioned that they realized upon rereading the Little House on the Prairie books or the CS Lewis Narnia books, that they came across some uncomfortable themes that they hadn’t remembered as kids. It was a fascinating point.

I tend to go back and forth on it all. Should I skip the dark parts? And if so, am I inclined to skip past the dark parts because I don’t want my kids to see it, or because I’m worried about having to explain it?

Do I edit the more sexist aspects of Land of Oz as I read aloud? Or do I read it as written, as a way to discuss how differently people used to think of girls 100 years ago, and how far we’ve come since then?

And above all, are we depriving our kids of some psychological benefits that they reap through dark themes that are becoming increasingly scarce? Maybe a chance to grapple with their fears through storytelling, and work through them so they can grow?

I’m not sure.

In the case of West Side Story, we watched the movie without fast-forwarding, I la-la’ed through most of Officer Krupke, I answered their questions about why people sometimes fight, and I overemphasized the importance of the dancing. And the love story.

It seems to have worked. All week, the girls have been playing Maria and Tony now (Sage being Tony), which involves dancing the Mambo and pretending to hug on a fire escape.

I’ll consider that a win.

Have you encountered uncomfortable themes with your kids? How have you handled them?


66 thoughts on “The singing! The dancing! The racism!”

  1. I probably err more on the go ahead and show them some of the dark stuff and be right there with them to talk about it. I guess I’d rather be the first one talking about the tough stuff with them than have it be anybody else. That hasn’t desensitized my teen I don’t think, she’s reading “Of Mice and Men” in her high school English class. One of her first comments? “Not sure I like this book, Mom. Well, I guess I’m just not comfortable with all the racist talk and all the swearing, but I do like Lenny.”

    For the little girls – I don’t skip the tough parts of Disney – evil me. I do think it’s interesting that they really do like The Polar Express despite its dark parts. Again, we’re right there and we talk a lot.

    You’ve prompted a thought, though. I remember being angry, I mean really angry, when I learned about the Holocaust and not just at what happened. I was in 5th grade and I remember being angry that no one had told me about all of this. It was like, ummm… how could you keep something like that a secret for so long. Maybe a weird reaction, but I really do remember that emotion being fairly strong for a while.

    1. Wow Lisa, that’s amazing. I hadn’t thought about the feeling of betrayal, that something was kept from you.

      I remember feeling that way when I realized my Dad had never taught me how to tie a towel around my waist so it would stay. But that’s not really the same thing.

    2. I teach Of Mice and Men to high schoolers and love all of the amazing stuff there is to talk about in there. One of the things that is so disconcerting about the racism and sexism in that book is they are non-issues. Everyone just accepts them. Which should make us uncomfortable, more so than a book “about racism” or “about sexism.” It sounds like your daughter is thinking through all of that well.

      1. So maybe it’s time for her “English major Mama” to actually read the John Steinbeck book – instead of just relying on the John Malkovich-Gary Sinise movie? (This is what happens when you go to a college that concentrates on Shakespeare & has stronger Brit Lit than Am Lit professors…) John Steinbeck, who’s that again? Not to worry, I do know Mark Twain. 🙂

        1. I think Jen’s comments below contrasting books with movies is fascinating. I hadn’t articulated it exactly, but it makes so much sense.

  2. I remember renting the audio book “Island of the Blue Dolphins” when my oldest was 5 or 6 (hey, dolphins in the title!) and then turning white as people were killed, hurt, driven away. But, we didn’t shut if off b/c it was an amazing story that gave us loads to talk about.

    But, Huck Finn? Heck, I ejected that immediately after the “N” word came out of my car speakers. Oops!

    So, I guess I can handle the subject of death with the kids, but bad language and racism have me back pedaling.

    (just saw West Side Story—no love for it at all)

    1. Thanks Christina. You’re right, I would draw the line there too. I was really uncomfortable with some of the Puerto Rican aspersions in the movie. Fortunately, the kids couldn’t understand them much.

  3. I think you have to just know your kids and yourself. You asked if we’ve gone too far in diluting difficult scenes for our kids. I think we have. I mean, Toy Story 3 has a really scary scene at the end, but my almost three year old just wanted to hold my hand. And we haven’t had nightmares. My kids (almost 3 and 4.5) leave the room on their own if they get scared (Zurg and evil witches scare them). That’s how they deal with it.

    As to racism and sexism and all the -isms, those are big deals for adults to deal with, let alone kids. Do we whitewash (ha!) stories for the kids? Or do we answer their questions honestly? I’ve certainly seen a lot of de-sexism-izing (huh?) around the ‘nets lately, no?

    When they are older, putting it all into context makes sense for movies like Westside Story or novels like Huck Finn. The important thing is to know what you’re talking about. Cleansing history – whether its artistic history or factual history – is wrong to me. Talking about why something is wrong – or even better – why something makes *me* uncomfortable is going to help my kids form their own (hopefully approved by me, but maybe not!) opinions and likes/dislikes.

    Our local grocery store hires many developmentally challenged people, and my daughter has started asking about physical and speech and behavioral attributes she notices. That’s a lot more complicated than having a conversation about a book or a movie.

    1. Amazing comment. Thank you so much. You’re right of course; as they get older they’ll understand the different shades of gray and more and more context. I suppose we start small.

  4. Great Post and yes I found myself in a very uncomfortable discussion when me and my 6yr old watched Pocahontas. She kept asking questions about why the Indians and white people wanted to fight. I told her that sometimes people are afraid of things and others that they dont know or understand. There are mean and hateful people in the world. I also told her that you should get to know others regardless of how they look what people say about them.

    1. Sheesh, you should be at my family Thanksgiving sometime when we try to describe the real story about what we did to the indigenous American people…

  5. My girls are aged 9.5 and almost 7.5. Although their English is OK, living and growing up in France means that their first language is French. I do try, though, to encourage them to watch films etc. in English. I jumped on the Glee bandwagon (buying the DVDs as you can’t see it here in France, certainly not in English anyway) and they started watching it too. Now, they’ve always loved musicals and singing and dancing, but Glee has some pretty complex themes… At first, I was worried it would be too much, or too difficult to explain. But now – they’ve just finished watching the first half of season 2 (the rest isn’t out on DVD yet) – I’m glad. Being so young means they don’t have prejudice. They were fascinated at the beginning with the whole “Kurt likes boys” thing as they’d never come across homosexuality before. And that innocence has meant that when I explained, “well, some girls like boys and boys like girls, and some girls like girls and boys like boys”, they just went “oh, OK” and accepted it. The same with the April Rhodes-being-drunk episodes – “sometimes people enjoy drinking alcohol so much that they become dependent on it and that’s when it becomes an illness that needs to be treated” – and several other themes. Of course, there’s also a lot that they just don’t pick up on (for example, I never had to explain why Finn thought he got Quinn pregnant) as it’s complicated language for them and I suspect there’s a lot they don’t understand simply because of the English. I’m pretty sure the headmistress at their Catholic school would disapprove of them watching Glee if it were in French, but I have no regrets. It has inspired many interesting conversations and their interpretations of certain episodes has been fascinating. I think it will make them more tolerant, more open-minded. They don’t in any way identify with the characters (high school kids are a world away and perceived as essentially adult) but love the way they interact, behave etc. For me, it’s all positive.

  6. It’s all about context. Every concern you write about, every film you see with the girls hardly matters, because all that really counts is that you are there to talk about it with them. Watching Bugs Bunny at recess at Murray Ave. without anyone to contextualize it for you or even to answer questions, meant that  an 8 or 9 year old, left to her own devices, could decide for herself the truthiness ( see, I do watch Colbert) of the cartoons and have that untested assumption leave a lasting impression.

    Gone With the Wind, for example, would have always been a great, sweeping “history” of the Civil War had I not taken a few million film classes where I learned to see it in context. I still love it but no longer without the intellect to accompany the emotion. (Something the Tea Party is lacking, by the way).

    I remember when Mrs. Taylor showed West Side Story to your class of 5th graders. You hated it. You were bored to tears, even as I had 1960 memories of being swept away by the drama and the romance. NYC was so “true” for me in the movies in ways that Yeadon wasn’t. Duh.

    So even when you help the girls see through the hype of the movie, even if you tell them the real story of Romeo and You Know Who, there’s no guarantee they’ll become critical thinkers. On the other hand if you try to shield them from the real stuff of literature and life (Disney’s Pinocchio vs. The Real Pinocchio with its not-so-clean ending) they’ll grow up waiting for a prince to save them and a happily ever after existence. Ew.

    Art is both a reflection of a culture and a shaper of it. How you want to present it to Thalia and Sage is up to you, but I’m on the side of honesty and being present. I’ll bet you are, too.

    As always, a great post. Provocative and straight from the heart. Hope this helps. A little.

    1. Aw thank you.

      If I don’t raise critical thinkers, I can think of two parents (and a few grandparents) who will be rather disappointed.

  7. It’s funny you mention Bugs Bunny, because I remember the first time I realized how much cartoons had changed was when I bought a Looney Toons box set for my girls when they were about 5 and 3. Guns! Everywhere! Ducks getting shot in the face due to pronoun trouble! It was really shocking.

    I think part of the problem is that a lot of cartoons or musicals that used to be presented to kids were actually written for adults. Programming for kids today on channels like PBS is taken more seriously and is more age appropriate and with an emphasis on learning.

    I worry a little that maybe my kids are too sensitive, and too soft, but they will have their innocence robbed soon enough by all the sadness and evil they will have to confront in the world whether I like it or not. I’m not trying to shelter them too much, but I think they should enjoy the world awhile free from knowing about how truly horrible people can be.

    1. a lot of cartoons or musicals that used to be presented to kids were actually written for adults

      Bingo. So smart.

      Yes, I grapple between the loss of innocence issue and the need to discuss uncomfortable themes with them before the kids at school do.I’m already seeing the misinformation coming home at the end of the day.

  8. My kids are still very young, but I don’t fast forward through any scary parts of the Disney movies. I think letting kids see them and ask questions is important in forming a dialogue. I remember reading somewhere that exposing kids to scary things in a safe way (with parents) is actually good for them. It helps them process things better.

    I’m trying to get a hold of some sociopathic cross dressing Bugs Bunny cartoons to expose my kids to.

  9. My daughters, ages 13 and 15, have pretty much seen it all. Glee, Jersey Shore, you name it. I always wanted an open and honest relationship. I use situations in movies and television as a jumping off point for conversation. That said, it seems harder with my son, who is eight. First of all, he isn’t watching Jersey Shore (have to draw the line somewhere!). He does get exposed to shows that aren’t age appropriate. It doesn’t help that he can’t watch anything scary. He cries in movies…he was inconsolable during Tangled.

    Every child is different. I answer their questions as honestly as I can. Some parents must shield their kids from A LOT. Last fall our 8th grade band went to see “West Side Story” on Broadway. There were several parents who were horrified…there was a gang rape along with everything else…and I actually didn’t remember that from the movie. Anyway, even several of the kids didn’t like the musical. They hated the violent ending…do kids today always get happy endings? Have the parents censored everything remotely distressing? It was very interesting to me. I loved it, but like you, have fond memories of West Side Story from my youth. Heck, I even was a dancer in it when in high school. I am SURE there wasn’t a gang rape in the high school version.

    1. I can see already that my children have different thresholds for horror, fear, darkness. I need to keep that in mind.

      And gang rape? Really? Eek.

    2. Oh my gosh, I took my girls to see Tangled in the theater three days before my son was born. I will never forget my 6yo looking up at me toward the end, sobbing, and saying, “Why did you bring us to this movie??” Gah!

  10. Just to be clear, I can’t stand Jersey Shore. I finally starting watching it because my girls were…every teenager at school would hash it out the next day at school during lunch. Ugh. Sometimes I worry that the kids will think that is acceptable behavior.

  11. we should probably take the fact that none of us remember these dark themes from our early exposure to these books and movies as indication that our kids won’t really remember it either, and therefore we aren’t scarring them for life by exposing them to things other than sunshine and rainbows. Doesn’t make it any easier for us as parents, to cringe our way through it, though.

  12. I’m a teacher, and I’ve taught in public, private, and charter schools. I see parents and administrators alike become more and more (in my opinion) overly sensitive about what kids should read – I’ve had complaints about Frankenstein because people are anti-cloning (which, FYI to those parents, the book also is, in a 19th century way), “concerns” about The Scarlet Letter because the whole plot revolves around adultery, and more ridiculous issues. One thing I’ve noted is that many of the complaints come from people who haven’t been exposed to the literature, which irks me – don’t tell me Harry Potter (which I was allowed to teach in a Catholic school to the extent that one of the priests came in and did a Harry Potter discussion day with the kids) is full of black magic if you haven’t read it for yourself. In my eyes, it’s the literary equivalent of when my daughter tells me she doesn’t like a food she’s never tried.
    Personally, since my daughter is only 2, we haven’t broached those yet, although I noted the other day that the fairy tales (3 Little Pigs & Jack and the Beanstalk) have somewhat violent aspects to them. I still read them to her, and if she wants me to read the version of Cinderella that ends with birds pecking the stepsisters’ eyes out, I will – because we’ll be reading.
    As far as the violent parts of Disney movies, I’d be one to fast forward the beginning of Finding Nemo because *I* get really upset. But since I don’t want to end up with a kid who “can’t handle it,” I’ve decided that once she’s interested in movies like Nemo, I’ll just “need to go to the bathroom” at that particular juncture.

    1. Gah, talk about my pet peeve! Banning is never the answer, especially that which you haven’t read yourself. Although something tells me, there will always be people who says that HP is inappropriate for kids, whether they’ve read it or not. Last week on the Cool Mom Picks Facebook page, one reader suggested that a campy Vampire themed backpack for tweens/teens was “not cute” and in fact, inappropriate. I kind of wanted to lean over and whisper in her ear, “psst…it’s not real.”

  13. As white parents of two black kids (adopted from Ethiopia), we find ourselves having to deal as openly and honestly (and age appropriately) as possible. It’s hard, but those hard conversations are what teach us how we want to behave and help determine the king of person we want to become.

  14. I am a teacher and I work with kids to write stories/plays/scenes. Even the very youngest, when left to their own devices, will come up with some kind of a Good vs. Evil plot 90% of the time. It makes for a great conflict and therefore an interesting story. Children like it when the good guys win, it makes them feel secure. (and really, are adults any different?) But if there is no one or nothing for the good guys to triumph over or fight for, children are smart enough to find that boring. Kids can handle far more complex plots & characters than we give them credit for.

    The one thing I really struggle to explain to my kids? Smoking. They are never around it, they rarely see it, they have no idea what a pipe is used for. There seems to be a lot of it in older shows/cartoons (even the Little Mermaid, or Frosty the snowman) as it comes up fairly often and I have no idea how to talk about it.

  15. When I was very young, I remember very distinctly my parents sitting down with us and watching the mini series “Roots” (based on a true book by Alex Haley.) I asked questions about slavery, why people with dark skin were treated badly, etc. My parents talked to us openly and honestly about that time in our history, and from that time on, my brother and I were part of the solution, i.e. Human beings are created equal, and the color of your skin has nothing to do with it. Slavery, racism, is wrong.

    So, that open, honest approach to dealing with some of the more complicated aspects of human nature stayed with me. When I began reading the Little House On The Prairie series with my daughter last year, we came across several references to Native Americans and based on my own parent’s example, I dealt with the topics in a similar straight-forward manner.

    Depending on the age of the child and your own personal sense of how they process information, I really think that being open, honest, and direct is the best approach. It gives you the opportunity to impart YOUR values on the topic before they happen on it in the world and then have to try to make sense of it. They are still under your wing, as it were.

    Skipping the part in Nemo when Nemo’s mom gets eaten, when you know it’s going to send your toddler into an existential crisis is one thing, but glossing over the realities of life and humanity are something else.

    Just wait until you have to explain sex.

    1. I have the same memories about roots Karen (we must be the same age!) as well as the Holocaust miniseries. You give good advice, mama.

  16. This is such an interesting discussion. I also skipped the first scene in Nemo, but my son was 2 when that was on autoplay at my house. And he was always kind of obsessed with death, asking questions about it nonstop. It’s tough to answer those questions all the time when they are so young. Now that he’s 5, I probably would not skip it. As for the classic books/movies, I can’t imagine sanitizing those either, although I would want to know that my kid was watching them (maybe not at age 5, depending on the material) and make sure I was there to explain the context – like how racism and sexism were much more socially acceptable in those days and having a back and forth about that.

    I think a big part of our avoidance of these things does have to do with our level of discomfort with talking about them, for many of us (me included). It’s hard but, as they say, no pain, no gain. And I’d much rather my kid hear stuff like this from me rather than other kids at school or even another adult who might have different values than us.

    When my son hears or sees “bad” stuff in movies or TV shows, I’ve just explained that sometimes people do bad things that they shouldn’t do. That seems to satisfy him. He’ll see fighting on cartoons and comment that the police are going to come and arrest those guys. He’s also seen people smoking on the street and complained about the smell, then commented that those people are going to get really sick and they shouldn’t smoke because they might have to have a hole cut in their throat (love those public service commercials, they really have done their job!).

  17. My kids are older now (youngest 9, oldest 20 -gasp-) but our self-guidelines divided on the differences between books and movies.

    Reading to a child or the child reading to him/herself requires that the kid makes their own visuals to go along with the story. That’s a whole different story than seeing it done for you (by grownups) in a movie or video. Your brain visualizes using your current experiences, your knowledge base and grows out from that — you can imagine what you haven’t seen or previously thought of. That is all missing from the movie experience. It’s given to you and all that’s left you is thinking about someone else’s image — and the thinking time that comes with movies and TV is pretty small!

    I went back and reread some things I’d read in elementary school and was amazed at all that I’d missed — because I had no basis for understanding it, I read the words and moved on to the parts I got. When we read to our kids we did sometimes do either a pre-explain or an aside during the reading or a little talk at the end. For instance, we did talk about Ma in Little House and her bad attitudes about anyone with brown skin, and contrasted it with Pa who didn’t seem to share her fears. We talked about how ideas about being accepting of others have even changed as time has gone by.

    Reading it in a book seems to open up discussions, while seeing it in movies is a much more emotion without thought sort of experience. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But, it’s important to remember and not overload children with too much emotional material without any way to process it.

    1. I’m also a firm believer in the pause button when watching DVDs… sometimes it’s okay to take a break and talk about what they’re seeing too.

  18. I’m not a parent, so I don’t feel completely qualified to talk about this subject — but all I know is that I grew up on a diet of Bugs Bunny and West Side Story, so yes — it was a different era. My parents even took me to see the Godfather with them when I was a child, so they didn’t have to get a babysitter!

    Frankly, what truly scares me about today’s kids are the video games they end up playing at a rather early age, especially the video games that boys love so much. It is one thing to watch Bugs Bunny put some TNT in Elmer Fudd’s pants, and another to pull an imaginary trigger to blow the head off of some robot or terrorist in an Nintendo game. When it comes down to it, most of the movies or TV shows from the past, were moralistic in nature, and good always beat evil. And even though my parents took me to the Godfather, where I got to see my first topless woman, they never let me have a cap gun because of what it symbolized.

  19. When my boys were about 6 and 8, we spent many a winter evening watching Great. American. Musicals. As you experienced some of the themes came as a bit of a surprise to us, but I think my biggest shock was the amount of cigarette smoking. Everywhere, all the time. And I think this was right around the time come bi study revealed that exposing kids of images of people smoking increases their odds of taking up the habit by 150% or something. Watching Gene Kelly sing and dance made up for any potential awkwardness with my kids.

    1. Thanks Tinne– but don’t you think the discussion is a little more nuanced than that? There’s a lot of “wrongs” in this world, from torture to gang rape and I don’t think every kid is ready to handle all of it.

      1. Absolutely, but it works like a discussion about sex. We give them what they seem to need, we answer the questions they ask, and we fill in more details the next time, when they’re older.

        My son came home from school after 9/11 this year, having had a really thorough discussion of the word “terrorist’ in the second grade. It seems to have been age appropriate information and we discussed it more together so I could check his understanding. But all these topics are the same. Sex, violence, racism, religion, politics, drugs/alcohol/cigarettes.. all the “grown up” topics. Expose, discuss, expose, discuss. Lather, rinse, repeat. We can tell if we’ve gone too far not generally because they freak out, but because they tune out. We didn’t notice these themes as kids, and neither do they.

        1. Of course the discussion is more nuanced than that. It is walking a very very fine line.
          I agree with My Kids Mom that we need to answer the questions our childeren put to us on an age appropriate level and fill in the blanks later. No five year old can grasp the meaning and repercussions of abuse (rape or other) , but they can be made to understand what is and why it is wrong. It is also part of keeping them safe. We Belgies are a but traumatized on this front after the Dutroux-case, which spiked a whole new level of awareness in childeren and parents.

  20. This is a fun topic for me because I think it illustrates how kids are given to the right parents-barring extreme cases. I, for example, have a kid who really can’t handle scary themes on t.v. We’ve only begun to explore suspense and dark themes through books. Some parents are really rude about the way I filter movies and shows, but at 7 she’s too embarrassed to admit they freak her out.

    I have a friend whose son loves Jaws. To me it’s damn near child abuse to show a kid that movie, but her son surfs! I don’t get it, but it works for them!

    As for prejudice, it depends on how it’s treated. I like how in Huck Finn he says such awful things, but he intuitively knows Jim is a person. It’s an awesome depiction of reality confronting your prejudices. I can’t wait to introduce it to my kids.

  21. You know, it all takes context. Take a look at the Bible again, as if it were the first time. Many people dislike the sexism displayed by Paul in his letters, but if you learn that they hadn’t yet started to use quotation marks, you discover that he might have been sexist, but he might have been quoting others. I’m just pointing out that all literature ages, and that translation is often needed to appreciate it.

    I think that having “the n word” in Mark Twain, having sexism in Disney and racism in West Side Story are part of the explanation we need to give our kids to help them understand the world. Rules, standards and language change as time goes by.

  22. I took my oldest son to see West Side Story on Broadway last year, he was 14 at the time. I had forgotten about the rape scene…and even though it was Broadway and thus very glossed over, it was disturbing. Andrew was disturbed by the scene too and it led to a really interesting discussion between us. I think sometimes this is one of the reasons the arts are so important. They move us, whether in a positive way or a negative way, and get us thinking and talking about life in a new way.

  23. I think it depends on the child. I know I shield my son (5 yo) from a lot, but he is so obsessive and fearful over everything! He doesn’t just ask questions, he MUST. OBSESS. He didn’t sleep for a month after Tangled, and he still talks about the evil witch with fair regularity. We’ve seen some others lately that I think might have been mistakes (Fantastic Mr. Fox, Rango). I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even think he should see PG’s until he’s 6 or 7. He doesn’t follow them, doesn’t understand anything, but man does he focus in on the guns/weapons, and the dying! Then he obsesses. And it doesn’t help that he’s so literal: “So stepmothers are bad?” And yet I know some of his buddies are seeing The Dark Knight and Green Lantern and other PG-13’s and they’re fine. I guess it just depends on the kid.

    1. I think it’s wonderful that you know your own kid. One kid’s “favorite part of the movie” is another kid’s nightmare.

  24. My opinion is strictly regarding two-year-olds, because that’s all I have. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Unless the child can fully understand what he is watching, he shouldn’t watch it. I mean, of course, with help from the parent. So, if your child cannot fully understand your explanation of why one man is hitting another, or why a man is lying next to a woman, then the child shouldn’t watch it. Partial understanding means the child can’t figure out where the line should be drawn. When is it ok or not ok to do this thing?

    1. Hm, I see what you’re saying but children will never “fully understand” things because we gain different levels of insight as we get older and gain more life experience. It’s like how everyone says cartoons like The Simpsons “work on two levels” – kids will laugh at the slapstick humor and adults understand the political commentary. In this case, I explained to my kids that the man was lying next to his girlfriend because he loved her and they were cuddling, just like Daddy and I do.

      I would argue that no knowledge is a dangerous thing. A little knowledge is a good place to start.

  25. I had the same “West Side Story” experience with my kids a couple of years ago, when they were about 8 and 11. I gathered the whole family around the tv one Saturday afternoon because it was on. They had all the same questions yours did, and probably ended up thinking I was crazy for loving that movie, but I don’t care, I still do! I had just forgotten, with all the songs running through my head, that it’s pretty depressing. As far as I can tell a few years later — no harm done.

  26. I feel really lucky that I have people in my life tackling these big issues so thoughtfully before I get there with my own kiddo. Thanks for this post and to the commenters. My daughter is only two and a half, so it comes up a little bit, but not much yet. I have been pretty sensitive about even the little things in books that might introduce some darkness to her that she wouldn’t come up with on her own, and I’m trying to back off a little because that’s just not sustainable. And she will come up with her own darkness, and that’s okay as long as we’re talking to each other like we are now. As many have said, that sweet innocence is so wonderful, and it’s really hard to see it get chipped away!

  27. I go back and forth on this. There’s a fine line between exposing our children to complex issues, and exposing them to unnecessary violence, racism, and sexuality which may desensitize or normalize them to such things. I think whether or not we choose to expose our children to such things, the more important thing is that we communicate and play with them. I generally don’t look down on parents who allow their children to watch or read about the darker themes (within reason), as long as they also talk with their children about those things and help them deal with those themes appropriately.

  28. Oh, how I struggle with questions like these. Until more recently I haven’t let my son, now 7, watch many movies because I know he can be sensitive. When he was in preschool, movies like Monsters, Inc. (or was if Monsters vs. Aliens? maybe both?) scared him sometimes — movies that it seemed should be pretty harmless.

    It wasn’t until earlier this year that I finally let him watch the first Star Wars movie (A New Hope) — I remember hearing boys at his preschool discuss the movies, and that just felt so young to me. For the most part my son was fine watching the movie, except when Darth Vader would use his powers to hurt people. Just before school started he saw The Empire Strikes Back and loved it. Probably before too long he’ll get to see Return of the Jedi, but it’s going to be quite some time before I let him watch the prequels. I don’t think he would do well with those movies at all just yet.

    He’s also read all the Harry Potter books. My original intent was to read them out loud to him — going rather slowly. But he was determined to read them on his own. And read them he did, rather quickly (my husband and I would read each book before he did so that we could answer any questions — and to see whether we thought he could handle them). Then my son got partway through the seventh book and then stopped. For a long time the book sat unfinished. I didn’t ask him why (mostly because I was fairly certain that it was because it is such an intense book). Instead I decided to observe for a while and see what happened. Then one day he and I got to discussing the book, and he admitted that it was a little scary (though it seems he also wanted to save face a bit as he also commented on how busy he had been this summer so he hadn’t had as much time for reading). Eventually, he went back to the book on his own and finished it. And now he wants to be Harry Potter for Halloween — though I think he just wants the magic wand that comes with the costume.

    Oh, and it’s going to be a LONG time before we watch the Harry Potter movies. I didn’t mind him reading the books as much because he could imagine as little or as much as he wanted to/could handle. But movies are so much more intense and graphic and leave very little to the imagination (unless you close your eyes in time).

  29. i don’t think that our children only have to see the “shiny, pinky” things. it depends on the parent, with whi he/she is watching it. A good parent can explain the bad things as well, maybe this way could be the best for a healthy education. i also watched with my son The Wall, Hair and so on… the most important is, that the child mustn’t watch these things alone, because they all find out the answers for the “dark” questions themselves, and this could be really dangerous. and that’s one of the msot important reasons, why we parents are for our children: give the answers!

  30. I haven’t read all the comments, but I come down on the side of being real with our kids. My children watch Bugs Bunny, we read challenging books (my daughters are 4 and 6 years old; baby boy is only 9 months). Yes, it’s challenging to explain death, sexism, racsim, sex, and so on. But why would we “protect” our kids from reality? What does that teach them? I’m suddenly in mind of the Friends episode where Phoebe talks about the happy ending of Old Yeller. I don’t think not having serious conversations with our kids does them any favors.

    Also, the adult messages we see in this stuff now, kids don’t necessarily pick up on. My older daughter laughs and laughs at Bugs Bunny; she loves the physical slapstick. I don’t want to take that away from either one of us.

    1. I totally agree with the notion that kids don’t pick up on adult messages. We had posted an honest review of Cars 2, which Kristen had enjoyed with her 5 year-old son. Some readers were outraged that we would recommend a film with a brief scene in which “torture” of a car was implied. (Mind you, this is an animated movie.) Kristen’s feeling was that her son never picked up on it and it didn’t hamper his enjoyment of the other 117 minutes of the movie. But plenty of parents had a different perspective.

      It’s so complicated sometimes, isn’t it?

  31. What a great conversation!

    Last year, my partner found a couple of her old Bobbsey Twins books, and was so excited to share them with our kids, then 5 & 2. (Or maybe it was just before Noah turned 5.) I’d enjoyed them as a girl, too, so we added them to the bedtime routine.

    We were stunned by the level of racism in both the depiction of characters of color (mostly African American, but also indigenous Hawaiian) and by the dialect. And it was no Mark Twain, I assure you.

    I censored. It was an in-the-moment choice, and I don’t regret it. We talk about race sometimes, as the kids live in a city and go to a public school that’s roughly 65% African American, and I look forward to those conversations getting more sophisticated. But it didn’t feel like quite the “teachable moment” then, and the books have been put away. When the kids are older, if they want to read them independently, we’ll talk about it.

    We’re reading Harry Potter right now, and I don’t think I’m going to censor the scary parts, although Noah has a pretty low threshold for “that’s too scary!” I think books will be different from movies…but I may change my mind.

  32. Great post! I had to leave the room to compose myself after watching the beginning of Finding Nemo (why hadn’t I been warned?!). My kids on the other hand were no worse for the wear. It’s a tricky question you pose…At what age are kids developmentally/cognitively ready for certain subject matters? At what point am I ready? I definitely think there are benefits to allowing kids to be exposed to uncomfortable subjects – especially when with a parent or another adult willing to discuss/explore the matter, and especially when the alternative is keeping them isolated/unaware of realities in their world. That being said, I’m very guilty of using the FF button…..

  33. My boys hate watching movies (or TV) with me. I constantly pause the movie and explain things. We talk about the themes, the way things were at the time the movie was made, the sexuality, the homophobia … EVERYTHING! I know they’d rather just watch and skim over these things as these are often uncomfortable conversations. But I think it’s important to them to have a healthy dose of “questioning” in whatever the media feeds them – current and past.

  34. I’ll probably go ahead and show it. What I take from everyone is this, “Wow, I don’t remember that part.” So that means as a child the dark or questionable bits of our favorite movies and books went over our heads. To wit, a couple of my favorite movies were Grease and The Best Little Whore House in Texas (really).

    For Grease, I didn’t have a clue how dirty the song lyrics where and Rizzo possibly be pregnant granted a big *shrug* “When’s the next song gonna be?” Whore House? I was a little older, middle school I think, the first time I saw it. I had a vague understanding the girls were prostitutes and yeah there were a few naked butts and lots of naked boobies, but meh. I guess I was raised in a cavalier home and nudity (or cursing) was just not a big deal. I loved the music, and I love Dolly Parton. The end.

    1. I agree, that no one “remembers” it- but I wonder if it still influences us, shapes our opinions and views. I don’t know! What do you think?

      And lord, I remember that scene in Grease. I had to ask what “broke” that she was talking about. I was 10.

      1. If those movies shaped me in any way, it was to not to be a prude. If it was a racist movie, I don’t know. I can’t think of a particular favorite that is really racist, but maybe I have just not seen it as an adult. IMO race and sex are two completely different topics and I honestly am more uncomfortable with racism. Could be because I grew up in multi-racial household and have kind of always known that shit is bad.

  35. I cringed all the way through “Rudolf” last winter- you know the one with the stop-animation? Racism, parents hitting each other, parents abandoning their children…ugh- it was awful…and that was all between deers.

    The 1950’s an 1960’s films were rife with racism- which, I think it’s good not to expose kids to- but I think that fairy tales (dark and light) are good (i.e.- Bruno Bettlemeins’ book).

    Thanks for warning me about West Side Story!

  36. We just recently caught an episode of All in the Family. After the opening duet (which my husband and I sang along to, obviously), I went into a silent panic, just waiting for Archie to say some off the cuff, racist/homophobic/sexist comment to which I was expecting my 8 years old daughter to react. It never happened. I was let off the hook. But I kinda wish it had come up so that I would have been given the opportunity to open that conversation.

    I remember watching that show when I was a kid, and I remember laughing along with my parents and grandparents, but not really getting the jokes. And then I remember GETTING the jokes, and thinking, WTF? Why were they laughing? That’s messed up! And it didn’t skew my view of Archie, it changed the way I looked at my family.

    I guess all I’m saying is trust your instincts, always try to keep an open forum with your kids so they know that no topic is taboo, and always keep a bottle of wine in the fridge, because eventually they’re going to want to talk about sex and the response “That’s how babies are made” ain’t gonna cut it. K, let me know when you’re done explaining that one and then I’ll come out from under the staircase. Thanks.

  37. Most of my book “editing” has been a direct result of lazy parenting (I love Dr. Suess, but holy moly bedtime can get dragged out with just one reading of “If I Ran The Circus.” I have also physically altered a picture book. (I maintain a potty book without a page dedicated to hand washing is just plain wrong.) I know there is research that suggests overt violence in television and video games at young ages can alter cognitive functions, and I’m trying to be mindful of that, but I can’t shield everything. Media isn’t the only thing that affects these children. There are all kinds of situations that will present themselves in real life that are where the real understanding happens.

    I guess what I’m getting at is I try to be level. To show them often the bad comes with the good. And the bad doesn’t have to break you.

  38. Your daughter is brave. Those monkey’s still scare the “you-know-what” outta me! ;P

    I’m glad y’all watched the whole thing and that it proved to be a pretty good experience.
    I sat here and watched the first Harry Potter movie with my 7-year old today while he was home sick from school. (He’s also already read the first 3 books). Yeah, it got a little scary and dark there at the end (as we both knew it would – ha!) but we got through it. I don’t believe in shielding my kids from things in which I know they can handle and I knew he could. I think it depends on the individual child and as involved parents we are good with figuring that out.

    p.s. I feel pretty. 🙂

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