We have hit that stage of parenthood when prescreening movies may not be a bad idea.
A good friend recently invited our son to a movie at the Virginia Theatre with a group of other sixth-graders.
It was “Christmas Vacation,” which I’d never seen, but some classic scenes from the other two movies in National Lampoon’s 1980s comedy series did come to mind.
Clark Griswold’s crazed driving around the traffic circles in “European Vacation.” Dead Aunt Edna strapped to the roof of the car in the original “Vacation.” Clark falling asleep at the wheel and the car crashing its way into a parking spot at a motel (“Well, we’re here!”).
“Christmas Vacation” was rated PG-13, but in that fuzzy way adults have of forgetting everything pre-children, I didn’t remember any particularly risque moments — say, a lingerie saleswoman stripping off her swimsuit. Or assorted F-bombs.
Our son gave a wide-eyed review when he got home: “Mom, that movie was kind of inappropriate.” My apologetic friend reported lots of nervous “this-is-funny-but-I-know-we’re-not-supposed-to-be-laughing” giggles during the show.
At the risk of sounding Nixonian, I am not a prude. But as our kids get older, they’re naturally exposed to more things that require, at least, a serious conversation.
It was easier when they were younger and the choices were all G-rated. Even then some judgment was required (i.e., Bambi’s mother).
I failed miserably at my first test. My son’s first movie in a real theater, at age 3, was “Finding Nemo.” What could be scary about a cute little fish?
Let’s just say the first 15 minutes nearly scarred his movie-going for life. As we sat in the dark theater, watching Nemo's dad and Dory terrorized by Bruce the shark (named, in one of those Pixar inside jokes, for the mechanical shark in “Jaws”) and assorted other sea monsters, I kept praying for a break in the action.
And recently, a friend wasn’t sure what to think about her son’s third-grade classmate who had seen “Red Tails,” the new movie about the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II. It’s a story I’d like our children to see, but I’m not sure they’re ready for the violence of war.
Associate Professor Aaron Ebata, family life specialist at University of Illinois Extension, has grappled with these issues. He’s heard the “so and so gets to watch it” line from his own sons, one of whom has a fondness for zombie movies.
“They’re going to be exposed to stuff before you think they should be. We just have to be ready to deal with that.”
Research has suggested that early exposure to certain stimuli through TV, movies or video games can affect brain development or desensitize children to violence or sex, Ebata says.
In a popular “TED” talk,  pediatrician Dimitri Christakis shows how overstimulation from frenetically paced children’s TV shows can dramatically increase a child’s tendency for attention problems later in school. Violent shows are even worse.
But managing how kids watch movies and television is important, too, Ebata says, and he has some realistic advice:
— Boundaries are different for every family. As parents, you need to figure out what you’re comfortable with and what approach you’ll take. Are you going to have strict rules? If so, you need a rationale for them, which is especially important as kids get older. It forces you to reflect on the values that are important to you.
— Preview movies, or research them online. Websites like Common Sense Media  or Kids-in-Mind  rate movies for violence, sexual content, language and other factors and give detailed descriptions of questionable scenes. Some even suggest an appropriate age level (Christmas Vacation? Age 13).
— Not all violence is created equal. Even kids who like swords and fantasy violence aren’t ready for slasher movies at age 10.
My son loves all things “Star Wars,” where there’s plenty of bloodless killing from light sabers and blasters. But he was traumatized when he saw “National Treasure II,” which opens with a scene of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
“Why would they show that?” he asked, knowing it was all too real.
Ebata had a similar experience with one of his sons, but says it shows they know the difference between fantasy and reality and aren’t “completely desensitized.”
“I almost prefer that they see something that portrays violence in a way where the terrible consequences are real clear,” he says. “There are some war movies that really get at the cost of war. I think that’s helpful.”
— Watch movies with your kids. Movies and other media are a great opportunity to talk about things “on the edge” that they’re going to experience anyway, whether it’s violence, sex, crime or racism, Ebata says.
Researchers have studied families who watch shows together and found that if parents don’t say anything about questionable content, kids take that as implicit approval of what they’re seeing.
That includes television, which gets racier every year. And don’t get me started on the commercials shown during sporting events. (Dear TV producers: Kids watch football games, too.)
It’s important for parents to voice concerns or, alternately, point out when a character does something admirable, he says.
“It’s great to say, ‘You know, all of this swearing really bothers me. I hope you guys don’t act like this when you’re out there.’ At least you know your point is getting across,” he says.
Staff writer Julie Wurth writes and blogs about family issues and covers the University of Illinois for the News-Gazette. You can reach her at 351-5226, jwurthnews-gazette.com or Twitter.com/jawurth.
- Rates movies on sexual content, language, violence (including peril and tension) and messages (such as substance abuse). Suggests an appropriate age level. Offers comments on areas of concern and potential discussion, and comparisons to other alternatives. You also can view ratings by parents and children.
- Designed to help adults use their own criteria to determine whether a movie is appropriate for their children. Scores movies in three categories (sex/nudity, violence/gore and profanity) on a scale of 1 to 10. Offers detailed explanation describing scenes from the movie, a list of discussion topics and the messages the film conveys.
- For a $25 a year subscription, you can get comments on 15 areas of interest to parents — major concerns (drugs, sex, violence), concerns for younger children (bad attitude, frightening music, tense family scenes) and topics to talk about that could be stimulated by the film. A free version contains an overview and ratings (none, minor, mild, heavy) in the 15 areas.
- UI Extension’s Parenting 24/7 website includes those resources and others (search for “movies”)
Top: Chevy Chase looking out a frosty window in 'National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation' File publicity photo
Middle: Bruce the Shark sneaks up on Marlin, left, and Dory, in Pixar's 'Finding Nemo.' AP Photo/Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar
Bottom: Jedi Master Yoda defends the Jedi in a scene from 'Revenge of the Sith,' the final installment of the six 'Star Wars' films. Lucasfilm/Twentieth Century Fox/AP