I clearly remember the first R-rated movie I ever watched.
I was in fifth grade and spending the night at a friend’s house. Since we were sleeping in her parents’ basement, we had enough privacy to pretty much do what we wanted and my friend asked if I wanted to watch The Breakfast Club. We knew it was probably forbidden, but we were good girls and this was about as rebellious as we were going to get.
So we watched the 80s classic and I fell in love with a film that my innocent and naïve 10-year-old brain could not possibly fully understand.
And I lied to my parents when they asked me what I had done the night before. They had strict viewing rules and R-rated films didn’t fall under the list of things we were allowed to do.
It wouldn’t be the last time I would hide my pop culture exposure from them.
It was one of the few rebellious actions I allowed myself. When parents weren’t around, my sisters and I watched Beverly Hills 90210, MTV, and occasionally soap operas (I’m embarrassed to admit that our soaps of choice were Guiding Light and Passions). I watched movies at friends’ houses and conveniently forgot titles. Around parents there were fairly strict viewing guidelines around arbitrary movie ratings and parental viewing guides. My parents were honestly doing their best to protect our hearts and minds but kids will always find a way (sorry Mom and Dad).
A lot of what I was watching I was probably not developmentally ready for. I was a naïve kid and then a naïve teenager who didn’t have nearly the “worldly” experience of many of my peers. As a child of the 80s and a teenager of the 90s, when I look back at a lot of the sexist and inadvertently racist messages that were being passed along to us as children, I have to ask what I was internalizing at such a young age.
That only becomes more obvious when I, the parent, decide to watch some classic film that I loved as a child with my own children. A couple years ago we decided to watch the Back to the Future trilogy with our kids (who were about seven and nine at the time). We loved the trilogy when we were kids. I watched the second and third in the theater with my dad (although I distinctly remember the second one making my father incredibly uncomfortable as he watched the dystopian version of Marty McFly’s life with his 10-year-old daughter). It wasn’t the language that was so grating to my senses; it was the sexism and the near rape of his mother Lorraine, something that the child Sarah clearly did not understand but the mother Sarah wanted to stop so I could have a detailed conversation with both my son and daughter about the importance of consent.
It wasn’t the last time we have been shocked by more aware viewings of our childhood favorites.
Television and movie ratings are there for a reason, as are modern versions of parental entertainment guides. They help identify what might be issues for parents and guardians and allows them to walk into a movie theater or sit down at home with some awareness of what they may be watching with their children. It allows parents to decide what must be previewed and what can be safely watched with their kids, depending on their ages.
But we have also tried a different approach with our kids. We don’t use ratings as the guide to what we will and will not watch with our children. We know our kids better than anyone. Better than our parent friends. Better than movie ratings boards. Better than those writing the parental viewing guides. We know what our kids are ready for and what they aren’t. We know what their maturity can handle and what they just aren’t mature enough for. We know what we want to still protect them from and what realities we feel they are both ready for and need to be exposed to.
And we don’t let them go it alone.
We don’t always get it right, and sometimes we might push it more than we should. But even then it opens up conversations with our kids that just don’t naturally happen. That was the case when we recently sat down to watch the first couple seasons of Cobra Kai with both kids. With teenage violence in the form of rogue karate, teenage drinking, and occasional sexual references (although I would argue less so than the “innocent” 80s films that I watched for years as an impressionable pre-teen), there were a lot of questions. But there were also a lot of important answers: No, drinking alcohol doesn’t mean you will always get sick and throw up (a belief that I had for years) but it will probably cause you to do stupid things that you won’t be able to take back. No, we never want you to hide if you think you are in trouble and please know you can call your parents if you are uncomfortable or in danger; your safety is more important to us than whatever stupid mistake (including drinking) you made. Bullies are often the victims of bullying, so choose your friends wisely. And integrity matters.
When they ask if they can watch something or our son asks if he can play a video game, we are careful to avoid a blanket “that’s inappropriate” as our response. Usually, we respond with “you’re not old enough for it yet.” For years our son thought there was something seriously wrong with Fortnite because we told him once that it was too old for him. When we told him a couple months ago that he was now probably old enough he was shocked that we would let him play with his friends, but we just wanted him to understand that we would help him navigate what he was ready for and what he wasn’t ready for. We finally felt like he was ready for it.
I don’t want my kids to be hiding even more away from me than they already do and will. I don’t want them to be exposed to pop culture without any kind of parental guidance or reasonable adult feedback that goes beyond “that’s so inappropriate.” I don’t want to shy away from the hard conversations that come up when our kids see something on TV that opens doors to those hard topics.
That doesn’t means letting them watch whatever they want and watching things before they are truly ready. And there is absolute truth to the idea of garbage in, garbage out. I want to raise discerning kids who love Jesus and love other people and seek to say and do the right thing, but I believe that being open with them as we select what we’ll allow them to watch and listen to can be a part of that.
Parenting is an imperfect science in which we are constantly trying to replicate our own parents’ successes and fix their mistakes, only to make our own. And while each family has to make decisions about how they gauge what their children are exposed to, we should do so with the knowledge that we won’t be able to protect them forever and teachable moments can be had even as we snuggle in front of the television with our kiddos.
At least it’s a start.