What is the Best Age for Star Trek?

Books Entertainment Movies Videogames
Image: Melissa Ford
Image: Melissa Ford

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?

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5 thoughts on “What is the Best Age for Star Trek?

  1. When you say “first” and “second” Star Trek movies I get the impression that you’re really referring to the 11th and 12th Star Trek movies.

  2. You’re right that every child is different. I bet even your twins are different from each other in terms of personality and maturity. A rule of thumb would be, If the movie is PG-13 and the kids are under 13, I think parents should think long and hard about why the movie is PG-13 and whether their kids are mature enough to deal with the content wisely and whether they, the parents, are comfortable taking their kids to that movie. That’s the PG part. I use multiple online guides ranging from very conservative to general to identify possible concerns and to help prepare for any discussions we may need to have about language, behavior, etc.

    Sometimes my son (12) and I watch movies or TV that include language or behavior that I don’t approve of. I talk to him about those things–some people, including me, find those words offensive (and they’ll get you in trouble if you use it with the wrong person at school and sometimes it isn’t clear who that is) so it’s generally best to avoid them, or that behavior is risky or unwise because X undesirable thing is likely to result. (How’s that for Vulcan logic. 🙂 ) But I’m careful to avoid anything that includes a lot of stuff I disapprove of or that gratuitously glorifies it.

    I’ve also been known to point out stupid acts of censorship. For example, in one anime, character A (non-lethally) shoots character B in the leg. Character B falls and bleeds (no splatter, just a red stain). When it was ported to the US, they kept the shooting, but removed the blood. Perhaps they were concerned about the rating, but I want my kid to know that shooting someone will injure them and make them bleed and isn’t a good idea, so I point out the stupid censorship and talk about the real consequences.

    Personally, I wouldn’t take 2nd grade age kids to a PG-13 movie unless the movie offered some compelling benefit to the child. I don’t think talking about seeing Star Trek (especially the latest one) in the theaters when they’re in their 20s is a compelling benefit, but your mileage may vary and it’s your role as parent to make that call for your kids.

  3. I think the problem is also that not all PG-13 movies are made equally in terms of violence. They had no issues with the violence in the Hobbit (PG-13): it’s not realistic because it can’t happen. There are no wargs, no trolls, no wizards, no orcs. They don’t use common weaponry (at least, in 39 years, I’ve yet to encounter someone who owns a sword).

    Whereas Brave is PG and the violence is realistic despite it being a cartoon. The twins have done archery before and are familiar with bows and arrows. People ARE mauled by bears.

    Somewhere in the middle is Star Trek — outer space… it’s not realistic… except sort of. Terrorism… well… what the terrorists can do isn’t realistic, but then again, terrorists were able to bring down the Twin Towers.

    It definitely does need to vary from kid-to-kid, the problem is trying to decide what your child can handle before the fact when the rating system feels a little arbitrary at times.

  4. My wife and I are less concerned with the violence (although still concerned), but more concerned with the sexual situations (innuendo will go over our 5- and 9-year-olds’ heads, for now). Take Abrams’ 2009 reboot – ladies-man Kirk is briefly macking with the green-skinned cadet in their undies, interrupted by Uhura, who proceeds to disrobe – do my kids need to see that? We would never see Phineas, Ferb, or Candace in various states of undress, even if they were speaking lines to further the plot. ST:ID, Kirk jump out of bed to address an alarming situation, and the covers are pushed back by an alien female, followed by second, their prehensile tails fluttering. I’m not ready to explain the concept of ménage troi (nor the term) to my 3rd grade daughter, nor do I need to introduce my Pre-schooler to the birds and bees via xenobiology. I’m sending my kids outside to play while I can still tell them what to do.

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