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Preschoolers & Big Kid Shows: Making Sense of TV and Movie Ratings

Preschoolers & Big Kid Shows: Making Sense of TV and Movie Ratings

By Amalah

Hello Amy,

I am struggling with TV and movie ratings.  My son who will be 4 next month loves everything involving “fighting” and “ninja” and boy.  ALL of his play centers around the theme of fighting and bad guys and death right now.

My dilemma is with his TV viewing, which is limited to about 2 hours per day, sometimes less.  He wants to watch shows like Ninja Turtles, Spiderman, and shows with other superheroes, and most of the things he is interested in watching are rated Y7.  He is and has always been mature for his age.  His best friends are always a year or two older than he is, and he is an only child.  He has seen many PG rated movies (mostly Disney) and has never, ever acted scared or disturbed by what he has seen.  He has never woken up screaming from a nightmare, or said he had a bad dream about something that sounds TV-related.  I know this doesn’t mean the shows aren’t too scary or violent for him, but he just seems to handle them well in my opinion.  I have even asked him if he thinks the shows are scary, and he assures me that I’m being ridiculous.  

So my question is, do I just let him watch these shows?  Indulge his “bad guys” and “weapons” phase that seems pretty normal for his age group?  Or should I still be restricting some of the darker-themed programming?  He also loves anything Star Wars, and we purchased the original trilogy for his birthday (he has never seen any of the Star Wars movies), but now I am torn about giving it to him.  I am stuck between using my own best judgment and respecting the ratings.

Thanks in advance for any useful insight.

Oooohhhh, this is a good question, and one that I imagine every parent has struggled to come up with the “right” answer for. (And then found that answer completely undermined by a spouse, grandparent, playmate’s parents, older siblings, etc.)

We personally limit TV viewing to 30 minutes a day on Sunday through Thursday, with movie nights on Friday and Saturday. That time limit strictness is countered, however, with a pretty liberal view on ratings. Our 5 year old wants to watch what his older brothers (10.5 and 7.5) watch, and yes, he is also deep into a superheroes/Ninja Turtles/good guys vs. bad guys phase. He will watch (and deeply enjoy) the more age-appropriate preschooler fare on PBS Kids and Nick Jr., but of course his older brothers are completely over those “babyish” shows. Any attempt at suggesting they split up and watch different shows is met with great distress, because they enjoy the nightly ritual of watching their post-chores/homework/dinner 30 minutes together. So it’s fair to say he’s watched some stuff I never would have permitted my oldest to watch at that age. He also seems to handle it all well (the only nightmare-inducing show we had to cut off was Spongebob Squarepants, of all things), and his good guy/bad guy “fighting” play is honestly no different than any other kid his age. We have the occasional “don’t hit/fight your brother” issue, but overall he understands “bad guy” talk and “bad guy” words are not to be repeated, and has a solid grasp on what’s real and what’s pretend.

And then there’s my husband, who grew up with a much older brother who always ducked the ratings and let him watch whatever, and who now takes on a similar role. He loves letting them watch whatever he loves, so they’ve seen all the Star Wars movies (except for Revenge of the Sith, because I think that one went particularly too dark) (also the prequels are hot garbage), most of the Star Trek movies, some of the Marvel/Avengers stuff, Lord of the Rings, etc. They all just watched the original Ghostbusters this summer. Lots of PG and PG-13 stuff going on there. They love all the old 80s/90s Saturday morning cartoons on Netflix, which are of course basically loud, obnoxious toy commercials. (And the modern Lego shows like Ninjago, Chima, Star Wars, etc. which are also obnoxious toy commercials, but at least keep real violence to a minimum and at least attempt to have “morals” like friendship, loyalty, acceptance.) We recently allowed our oldest to watch one of the new Transformers movies after months of begging as a Very Special Behavior Incentive, but I did put my foot down and say that one was still off-limits for his little brothers.

(Oh, and we had to turn off Guardians of the Galaxy, which other kids seemed to love but it scared the crap out of ours. That was a bad call.)

So  I’m in no position to tsk tsk anyone who lets their kids watch more grown-up fare from time to time. I mean, most Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks movies coming out these days are all PG and I rarely give those a second thought when we show up on opening weekend. If you’re on the fence about a movie or TV show, check out CommonSenseMedia.org for comprehensive reviews and specific descriptions of violence, language, sex, etc. I think the age recommendations there are a lot more precise and helpful than the more general catch-all TV and movie ratings. (Is that PG-13 really more of a 10+ because of some bloodless sci-fi action, for example, or actually more like 15+ because of sex and drug use?)

It’s good to talk to your son about what he watches (like you’ve been doing). Things can change — something previously “fun” and “just fine” can randomly turn into nightmare fuel for no real reason at all, so talking through what he’s just watched and focusing on the positives is important. I try to wring whatever (thin) life/social lessons I can from the good guy/bad guy dynamic, because of course my boys want to model the hero. (Not that there’s anything wrong with letting children experiment with playing the villain or bad guy! That’s also so normal.) Bad guys can be good source material to teach your son about things like greed, selfishness, bullying, etc. Likewise, you can talk about the hero’s good qualities and how we can/should emulate things like teamwork, bravery and doing the right thing even when it’s hard.

That said: Two hours a day is an awful lot of screen time, especially for a barely 4 year old, and I would definitely not be comfortable with two full hours of the non-educational options at that age. I would probably reserve the Y7/big kid shows as a special treat for as long as possible, if you can. Keep the preschooler fare on for most of his watching block (there are a ton of superhero-themed options; my youngest adores Super Why and Wild Kratts), then let him watch a Ninja Turtle or Lego superhero episode as a reward for cleaning his room or setting the table, for example.

Watching short clips online is also a good way to indulge their love of a favorite character without over-exposing them to the full show’s more intense scenes: My kids love the videos at Lego.com and Nickelodeon.com, for example, which tend to be mostly just funny and pretty carefully curated. (And it keeps them from falling into a YouTube hole of ever-more-questionable “Related Videos.”)

(And watch the original Star Wars movies together, as a family. We recently did this to introduce our youngest to the trilogy before taking them to Force Awakens, and I maintain watching a small child fall in love with Star Wars in real time is basically a huge reason to have children in the first place — it’s so magical!)

Photo source: Photodune/ChristianLola

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Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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Comments

  • Myriam

    It’s also interesting to learn about how movies are rated (who is rating them, what the criteria are, etc.). You might find that the process does not align with your family’s values, and then decide to ignore the ratings. I do not place a high value on ratings, but if a movie/show is rated PG-13 or above, I will take a peak before I allow my 6 yo to watch it, for example…

    • Roselyne

      THIS, OMG.

      Sometimes the rating is PG-13 because of limbs getting torn off, or because of domestic violence, or the like. Yeah, I’ll screen those. Sometimes it’s PG-13 because of consensual non-explicit sex or masturbation, and I’d really rather my pre-teen get a decent idea of consensual sex and healthy relationships BEFORE hitting puberty, so those are totally allowed. Depends on where your boundaries are, and a very non-specific ‘PG-13’ doesn’t say much.

    • Roselyne

      Also, Caillou and Arthur are absolutely not allowed in my house, ratings be damned, whereas I don’t care about the Ninja Turtles. Caillou and Arthur WHINE. Of all behaviors I don’t want to have to listen to, either on screen OR as a repeated behavior, whining hits the close to the top of the list. Can’t take it.

      • Molly

        Ugh. Caillou. The whiniest.

      • Tiffany

        YAASS!! Also, Cailou is bad! The 30 minutes cumulative I’ve ever seen of that show over 8 years (why is it always on at the dentists?) always feature his parents telling him not to do something… And then him doing exactly what they just said not to.

      • Melissa

        Oh my GOD Yes! So much! I am a major Law & Order addict and I’ve been known to watch it in the the same room while my 3 year old plays. She doesn’t really watch, but she loves the opening credits music and will ask me to rewind so she can dance. Every so often I worry about her picking up on the too mature themes or walking in on a particularly bloody crime scene. But tv shows like Caillou and Arthur and a particularly obnoxious episode of Sofia the First have been the ones that create the WORST attitude from her.

  • Jamie

    We’ve tried to keep our almost 4 and 6 year olds focused on mostly educational fare, not for fear that they’d be scared of other stuff, but to at least make their screen time have some value,and its not solely educational + we’ve watched Star Wars here w/o problem. There is some great stuff on pbs kids and disney jr, if they’re into good/bad guys. PJ Masks is great for superhero obsessed kids, Jake and the Neverland Pirates is always fun, and the newer ones have more bad guys than just Captain Hook. We’re also huge fans of Super Why and Wild Kratts as well as Odd Squad on PBS which revolves around Math and has some great villains.

  • Allison Bass

    We have 3 young boys and allow them to watch star wars (agreed not #3) most of the Avengers, and even Jurassic World (we skipped the blood feat in the middle) but for us those are always family movies or special movie night with dad.
    The Lego star wars shows are hilarious, and short! Only 20 min. Also, Super hero squad (while super annoying) is great for the younger super hero phase. I think that while they are younger being able to watch those shows as a family is wonderful.

  • Kim

    I have a 2 and a 5 year old bpys- I try to stick to Pbs kids, Disney Jr, Nick Jr when they both watch but let the 5 year old watch some of the superhero and Lego shows from Netflix while the little one naps. I also allow up to 2 hours of screen time so I don’t think it is an awful lot. It’s not all at once- a little in the morning, some after preschool/lunch and some after dinner before bath/bedtime. Guessing there will be less once my older one starts kindergarten. There’s a new Netflix show- Beat Bugs- that uses Beatles music. It’s cute and now my kids sing Beatles songs!

  • Emily

    I think this may be a little easier with girls (which is all I have). My oldest (also 4) isn’t really interested in violence, fighting, ninjas, etc., but she is starting to get into tween type programming (My Little Pony Equestria Girls, Barbie, etc.). Some of these shows have mature themes for a 4 year old, like crushes on boys and fighting with your friends, but they’re not too bad.

    I second another poster who disagreed with 2 hours a day being too much. My daughter goes to daycare preschool and I work, so we have pretty busy schedules, and she only ever watches 20-30 minutes on those days. However, on weekends or days that I am home with her, she will possibly get in up to two hours (like the other poster said, a little here and there).

  • guest

    When my niece was 7, my sister and brother-in-law let her watch all kinds of movies, including V for Vendetta. At 7. Seriously. I couldn’t believe it. But, she is now 16, and is SUCH a great kid. She is very kind, reliable, and pretty much everything I would want my kids to be. So, it obviously didn’t screw her up or anything. Her dad liked to watch those movies, and she liked to do whatever he did, and so they watched them together. They never scared her, and she loved them. So, whatever. My eldest daughter is now 8 and has been watching the original Star Wars movies since she was 5 or 6. I left the kids with my husband for a bit while I went out one evening, and came home to find him watching Star Wars with her (our then 2 year old was in bed). It apparently wasn’t the first time, and she loves it. I was super excited for her to see the new one, but after seeing it in theaters, decided we couldn’t take her to see it. There is the scene where they torch the village, and that’s a little too graphic for her, even at 8. We will let her watch it at home where we can skip that part. But I know lots of friends who took their kids and they didn’t have a problem with it, even the ones with younger kids. Those just aren’t my kids. I mean, my mother took my kids to see Zootopia, and my 5 year old had nightmares that night. But, seriously, I sometimes think we way overthink tv content these days. I mean, we grew up watching shows where they dropped anvils on people’s heads and blew each other up on a regular basis, and we all turned out just fine. I would just encourage you to keep an eye on the amount of time he is watching tv. My friends and I all experienced the same thing with our kids around 4-6 where, one day, it started affecting their behavior. In my daughter, if we let her watch tv during the school week, she CANNOT listen afterwards. She’ll get in trouble at school for talking, and just overall doesn’t listen. So, we went from letting her watch a couple short shows every day to absolutely nothing during the school week, and nothing after about 5pm on Sundays. So, if you find suddenly your kid’s behavior tanks, try skipping tv time for a few days and see if it makes a difference.

  • tadpoledrain

    So, I (a girl) am the oldest of four kids, and I grew up watching horror and action movies with my dad. I think I was 5 or 6 the first time I saw a rated R movie? There was only ever one movie we stopped watching partway through because it was too scary (It’s Alive! Not any scarier than anything else I ever watched, so don’t ask me). However, it was a Punky Brewster episode where the kids got lost in a cave that scared me so much I never watched that show again. To this day I’m afraid of dolls, but that’s because of a scary story my cousins told me, not because of a movie or show. So… kids are unpredictable? The stuff you think will affect them might not at all, and vice versa. And my dad did have some standards. I wasn’t allowed to see Silence of the Lambs. My little brother (much littler) was allowed to play first-person shooter games, but only the ones where you were shooting at monsters, not other humans. I guess my point is that my dad used judgment, but it was his judgment. Also, he knew what we were watching/playing, usually because he was watching/playing with us. Also also, while I and my brother loved watching all that stuff, our other two siblings did not at all, and always watched more normal, age-appropriate stuff. They had the same options we did, they just chose what they liked. And in the end we’re all fine. None of us ever fought or got in trouble at school or with friends. But my dad was paying attention. That’s the important part. You’re paying attention. If what your son is watching starts to impact his behavior, you’ll know, and you can stop letting him watch the stuff that’s causing it.

  • Gabrielle Seeber

    I love commonsensemedia because it gives details as to WHY a show/movie has a rating and can give you a heads up for conversations that may need to occur. I have a 5 year old who is scared of everything (last week he ran out when we were watching Ratatouille- absolutely terrified of the scene of the rat traps – didn’t want to watch anymore and stayed upstairs with my husband instead… he similarly freaked out at Secret Life of Pets at the drive-in, but it’s hard because we have 4 kids and G rated new movies are few and far between). I have a 4 year old who isn’t scared by much. We limit screen time a bit more (many days not even turning on the TV), but mostly stick to PBS shows for TV because they have quality programming.

  • Tiffany

    I think you just have to be honest about what your kid can handle. My 5 year old can cope with stuff my anxious 8 year old can’t. I’ve worked with kids whose parents will tell me all about how much their 4 year old loved Deadpool or Suicide Squad or whatever…..And then have no idea why the kid spent all morning pretending to behead or shoot his classmates. Just because they weren’t “scared”, doesn’t mean they’re ready for it, and you can always let them watch something later, but you can’t un-watch anything.