I get asked lots
of questions about parenting, and some of them are really hard to answer.
This isn't one of
I have plenty of
friends who are good parents and let their tweens see R-rated films. And while that does create some conflict in
our household when my son doesn't get to go with his friends to the
theater, I feel really confident about my position on this issue.
What we know
about the brain. One fundamental, brain-based
truth is expressed in the phrase "neurons that fire together, wire
together." That means that our experiences, which cause
neurons to fire in the brain, create associations that impact future experiences
and behavior. This is true for older
adolescents and adults as well, of course, but for an 11- or 12-year-old, there's
more danger because they aren't developmentally prepared to deal with some of
the content they're exposed to in certain movies. And once children are exposed to something,
there's no taking it back. Neurons have
fired and subsequently wired.
I'm not saying
that if preteens see a movie that, for instance, glorifies drug and alcohol
abuse, they'll automatically turn into addicts. But when they see a lifestyle that looks fun and exciting, it can
be hard not to see it in a positive light. The neurons have already made their connection.
Nuances can be
lost on young adolescents. Most tweens are
simply not socially and emotionally ready to be exposed to the sophisticated
nuances of sexual and relational situations that arise in certain movies. (Language and even violence actually worry me
less, although I know that's not the case for everyone.) The issue is that my son, for example, isn't
always going to notice that the racist character making all the jokes is being
criticized; or to see that the meaningless sex might lead to some pretty
negative consequences for both parties. Put simply, his still-developing brain just isn't ready yet to consider
issues in a larger context. In a couple
of years, things will be very different, but for now, his brain is what it is.
These are the
peak sensation-seeking years. Researchers at
the University of Missouri conducted a study that found that more exposure to
sexual content in movies between ages 12 and 14 was linked to an increase in
sensation-seeking (or risk-taking) behaviors, which included earlier sex and
unprotected sex, among other things. What's worse, the increased
sensation seeking can last into the early twenties.
can be affected now. There is also
research that shows that early sexual exposure impacts sexual preferences in
adulthood. Exposing our kids to sexual
situations that are not based on love and respect could create problems
later. If neurons have wired together
and linked up the ideas of sex and, say, abuse or mockery, a child may grow up
to be guided by those same linkages and expectations.
Saying "no" has
other benefits. Even though it
makes things difficult, it's not a bad thing for my son to see my husband and
me decide not to go along with what "everyone else" is doing. Plus, some of the parents we've told that we
don't let our son see R-rated movies might be influenced by positive peer
pressure and reconsider their position.
I also want to recommend a resource for parents: commonsensemedia.org. Here you can find detailed information and
recommendations about appropriate ages for each movie (or book or video game)
you're considering, and the information is presented in a way that's full of,
as the name implies, common sense. My
husband and I consult this site when making a decision about a movie or game to
There are plenty of
parenting issues I'm not sure about. But
on this one I feel very clear about the need to protect my son a little longer. When it's time for him to see more
adult-oriented movies, we'll watch them with him and discuss some of the
content, using it as an opportunity to talk about ethics, morality and how to
treat people. For now, he may think we're
the strictest and lamest dorks alive, but we're doing what's right for him, and
he'll know it in some future decade.