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During the darkest, coldest part of our 2020 quarantine, my husband and I turned to the movies of our youth for solace, and we shared them with our 7-year-old and 3-year-old. In a few short weeks we ran through “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Back to the Future,” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and the 1991 version of “The Addams Family.”
These are all movies that Common Sense Media — a site that gives age-range suggestions for TV and movies — rates as inappropriate for children until they reach double digits. At the time, we didn’t give much thought to a strict appropriateness scale when choosing family entertainment because there were just so many hours of each day to fill, the parks were closed and the temperature rarely broke 50 degrees.
Despite the purported unsuitability of these movies, I started noticing that my older daughter had much more insightful, analytical commentary about them than she did about contemporary kids’ movies. She certainly was thinking more deeply than I had as a child. Take “The Addams Family” (for kids 12 and up, according to Common Sense). A few months before she saw it, we watched the 2019 animated “Addams Family” film (for kids 7 and up), and while she enjoyed it, she really didn’t have much to say about it.
When we watched the decades-old live-action version, though, she had a barrage of questions from the beginning, mostly about how the characters Gomez and Morticia funded their lavish lifestyle before their fortune was stolen. “Did they have jobs?” she asked. I told her no. “How did they afford that big house and the butler if they don’t have jobs?” I wasn’t sure, I said; maybe their money was inherited. “Are they people?” she asked. Unconvincingly, I said, I think so — they’re weird people with special powers. “No, but are they people?” she asked again. Finally, I punted to: They’re independently wealthy creeps, OK?
As Halloween approaches and parents are probably thinking about whether they should let their children be terrified and thrilled by fantasy and horror classics, I’ve reflected on my daughter’s responses. I think she applies more critical thinking to older films because many of today’s movies are so polished, and so calibrated for safety, that it’s hard for a kid’s mind to grab onto any spiky edges. Why would a kid assign herself a mental book report on something that’s completely tidy?
Today’s fare often contains overtly saccharine and moralizing take-home messages, like the movie’s conclusion has been prechewed. As Katie Walsh put it in her Los Angeles Times review of the 2019 “Addams Family,” “The Addamses might look, talk and act darker and weirder than most, but what makes them the weirdest is they’re a loving, tight-knit family.” Compare that with Janet Maslin’s New York Times review of the 1991 version, which described “The Addams Family”’s humor as “dry, wicked and wholly self-contained” but noted that the film lacked any real plot.
It’s not that I’m trying to warp my kid’s still-developing mind too much. But sometimes we might overlook that they’re up for a challenge.
The idea that it’s healthy for children to be unsettled by art isn’t new. Bruno Bettelheim, a psychologist, won a National Book Award in the ’70s for “The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.” (He was later accused of plagiarism.) In that book, Bettelheim posits that the “softening” of classic fairy tales, as John Updike wrote for The Times, removed their value for children. The world is not a sunny place, Bettelheim argues, and art that reflects only sunny outcomes does not help children deal with their own dark and rude impulses, which are universal.
Since the ’70s, when Bettelheim was in vogue, children’s entertainment has absolutely exploded as a genre. As a child in the ’80s and early ’90s, before my family got cable, if I turned on the TV after school it meant reruns of the perhaps slightly too-mature “Three’s Company” or “Oprah,” “Donahue” and “Jerry Springer” — while cartoons of the Looney Tunes variety were reserved for Saturday mornings. My kids, on the other hand, have an ocean of streaming content explicitly designed and curated for them.
A.O. Scott, one of The Times’s chief film critics, told me that trends in technology and parenting dovetailed during my teen years to create this glut of glossy family entertainment. With the rise of VHS and DVD technology, movies moved into the home in a way they hadn’t before. At the same time, the ’90s saw a rise in what’s called “intensive parenting,” defined as “constantly teaching and monitoring children.”
Starting in the early 2000s, there was a market for movies that kids and parents would watch together, Scott said, which led to movies becoming more overtly moralistic. Parents wanted to think that what they let their kids watch was wholesome, maybe even edifying. He cited “Shrek” as a prime example of this kind of entertainment, with its obnoxious pop-cultural references sprinkled in just for parents, silly cartoon high jinks for the children and “a message about how everyone should love each other that’s often just pasted on. And I think that’s often to play to the anxieties of parents more than to the actual sensitivities of kids,” Scott said.
I’m not trying to be Andy Rooney-ish — insisting that movies were so much better in my day! And I recognize that the movies and TV of my youth were often more overtly racist and sexist than contemporary ones. (And I’d watch more recent movies, such as “Moana” and “Ratatouille,” on repeat, with or without my kids, because they are excellent films.)
But I do think something is gained by letting children enjoy a varied media diet, including entertainment that might challenge them emotionally, inspire them to think critically or leave them without an uplifting message. After all, I spend hours watching “Real Housewives” — why should my children be deprived of the pleasures of somewhat more kid-friendly televised naughtiness?
As Amy Nicholson, a film critic and a co-host of the “Unspooled” podcast, told me, “When movies leave space for questions, kids can fill it in with their own imagination, including how to feel.” For my oldest, that means scrutinizing the Addamses’ finances and maybe pondering a forensic investigation into what’s hidden in their vault.
Want More on Kids and Art?
Jason Zinoman, the comedy critic at The Times, showed his 7-year-old “Jaws” and he has no regrets.
Carrie Goldman watched “Schitt’s Creek” with her children and found that the spicy show provided a sense of bonding and belonging for them.
In May 2020, Caroline Paul wrote about running a free virtual art class for kids and how expressing feelings in drawing helped the children work through their Big Pandemic Feelings.
Parenting can be a grind. Let’s celebrate the tiny victories.
My toddler son requires an audience of mom, dad or even grandma on FaceTime to do certain tasks, like brushing his teeth. Except this trick didn’t work when it came to taking medicine. So I got our cat, King Tut, in on the action and now every time I pick up the medicine bottle he calls for the cat to watch as he gulps down whatever I need to give him.
— Simonia Brown, Delmar, N.Y.
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