We bought my son Plants vs. Zombies this morning. A far cry from the halcyon days of our no-violence rule: no violence in books, movies, or video games. We foolishly patted ourselves on the back when the kids were in nursery school. We were great parents. Our kids watched zero television. They didn’t own water guns. They were mini pacifists who eschewed even Peter Pan because that Captain Hook and his sword were too damn violent.
And then the kids started school.
And they met other kids. And other kids met them. And other kids said, “whoa, you seriously don’t even have a water gun?”
And then we started rethinking the no-violence rule. It wasn’t because we wanted our kids to fit in — I mean, we did, but there was only so far we were willing to go on that end — but we realized that we didn’t have a firm reason for the rule. We couldn’t explain it to others because we couldn’t explain it to ourselves. It wasn’t enough to ban violence in all forms simply because we didn’t like violence — I mean, truly, who likes violence? We needed a reason for why we lumped all violence into one big pile and stamped a NO across it.
I realized the rule mostly came from an inability to know what the kids could handle mixed with the idea that it’s impossible to dial it back once they’ve been exposed. You can’t un-see or un-learn things. My biggest fear was that we’d expose them to something before they were ready, and it would negatively shape their personality, turning them into violence-obsessed playground jerks.
Then again, not exposing them to any violence could also negatively shape their personality, making them quake with fear over fear itself. Plus, they would never be prepared for the zombie apocalypse if we coddled them completely.
So we started with violent books, and we started with Harry Potter. Starting with books is obvious: the page gives the reader the most distance from the violence. It exists only in description, and the story unfolds so slowly that it can be easily stopped if I sense the kids are getting scared. Harry Potter seemed like a soft landing into the world of violence. For the most part, the violence in the first few books is either in the past, or is crunched up in the last few chapters of the book.
In first grade, we moved on to movies. Again, the violence is at arm’s length — movies turns us into passive viewers — but the addition of visuals makes it feel all the more real. The twins watched arrows fly in Brave and Harry Potter fight Quirrell, and then this year, they watched all three Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit. Now, at the end of second grade, we’ve layered in video games — namely, Minecraft and as of this morning, Plants vs. Zombies. Video games place the viewer in the action, and this is where we’ve had the most misgivings. Would fighting zombie pigmen or eating brains turn them into carjacking thugs… I mean… once they’re big enough to see over a steering wheel?
Our once all-violence ban has been amended to a no-realistic-violence rule. The twins are too young to see violence depicted in real life situations — even military movies or the nightly news — but we’re okay with battling Lego-block-like Endermen and chopping the heads off of Orcs. Fantasy-based violence gives them a chance to confront the concept of violence while simultaneously keeping it at arm’s length. I mean, it can’t happen here. At least, not until the zombie apocalypse.
Which brings us to Star Trek or not to Star Trek, at least, in the theater. They’ve already seen the first Star Trek at home, with plenty of explanation thrown in beforehand and during in order to process all that goes down on the Starship Enterprise. Are they ready to see it in the theater? In the dark? At a loud volume? Without some sort of parental preview so we can prep them for when something scary is about to go down? I saw the Empire Strikes Back in the theater when I was their age, and I turned out mostly fine. I want them to have stories to share in the future (“Dude, I remember seeing the second Star Trek movie in the theater…“) but not at the expense of exposing them to ideas on Hollywood’s time schedule instead of their internal one.
I posed the question at a party recently, and I realized just how much we’re all fumbling around in the dark when it comes to figuring out what kids are ready to see. Maybe there’s something a little Vulcan about me in that I want a logical system for determining the best age for exposure. I know it’s impossible; every person is different and the level of violence they can tolerate can differ from movie to movie or game to game. Still, any barometer would be helpful as we try to figure out how to walk that line between keeping their brain in the zeitgeist and their heart in the right place.
How do you determine what you expose your child to in terms of violence in books, movies, and games?