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How to Find a Kid-Friendly Holiday Movie

We’ve all had that experience of being in a movie theater with our kids when something inappropriate or too scary hits the screen and you just want to melt into the floor. At least at home you can fast forward through the bad bits or hit pause and have a teachable moment, excruciating though that may be.

When my daughter was younger and wanted to go to a movie that was clearly above her pay grade, I used to tell her that she could go only if I came with her and to be prepared for me to ask the projectionist to stop the movie for any necessary explanations of, say, sexual innuendo. All the parents will appreciate it, I’d explain. She’d inevitably opt for another activity.

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As she got older, of course, I had to get savvier with my explanations, which I was able to do thanks to Common Sense Media and its superbly detailed ratings system. As James Steyer, its founder, CEO and dad of four, writes in the new parenting guide "toughLOVE: Raising Confident, Kind Resilient Kids," "both PG and PG-13 movies have been getting cruder, more explicit and more violent over the years. Some of them are much too violent and sexually graphic for most eleven- and twelve-year-olds—especially because watching a movie is an intense, emotional and immersive experience… The best strategy, with kids under thirteen, is to find out as much as you can about the movies before deciding.” He goes on the delineate where and how to find good reviews and what specifically to look for.

Of course, one of the places he suggests is the Common Sense Media site, where there are all sorts of movie-watching lists, including one I return to every holiday season—the holiday movie classics your family will most like, based on your kids’ ages. For the youngest, there’s "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and "Frosty the Snowman" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," but you’ll find some lesser-known films, too, that should become part of your family’s tradition, like the clever "Prep & Landing," the beautifully imagined "The Snowman and the Snowdog."

For kids a bit older, there are new and old classics like "Elf," "Miracle on 34th Street" and "The Polar Express." But it seems as if every TV show or animated film aimed at the 5- to 8-year-old crowd comes up with its own holiday special, and this list also helps navigate that territory. Which ones won’t put the entire family to sleep? "Arthur Christmas" fits that bill, as does "The Muppet Christmas Carol" and yup, "Kung Fu Panda Holiday."

Once you’re into tween and teen territory, the list oh-so-thankfully breaks it right down. There are film suggestions for 9-plus and 11-plus, as well as 15-plus or 16-plus. Here, we’ve found some we’d forgotten had holiday themes, including "While You Were Sleeping" and "Love Actually." We even discovered a few we never would have thought to pick up, like "Pieces of April" and "The Best Man Holiday."

Up tonight? "Home for the Holidays" in preparation for Christmas dinner for 21 at our house. Thank goodness so many of these are comedies.

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The former editor of Disney's parenting magazine Wondertime, Lisa Stiepock edited the new parenting anthology "toughLOVE: Raising Confident, Kind, Resilient Kids."