Talking Children’s Movies With Dr. Steve Turley

In speaking with many parents about the kind of movies their children watch, I’ve found that one of their chief concerns is “objectionable content.” For younger children, “objectionable content” means toilet humor, cursing, disrespect shown to parents. For older children, “objectionable content” means nudity, violence, gore, profanity, vulgarity, obscenity, drug use, casual sex and the like. How seriously should parents take “objectionable content”? Should the level and frequency of “objectionable content” play a major role in a parent’s consideration of whether to show a film to a child? 

This is a great question and something I wrestle with as a parent as well. I think we need to be aware of three things when making these kinds of decisions:

First, we need to pray for and cultivate discernment. For example, I know of students who are not allowed to see some morally profound films that are rated R, but their parents have no problem with them watching the incessantly therapeutic ‘follow your heart’ movies of Disney. The irony is that ‘follow your heart’ for the six year old translates into casual sex and drug use for the sixteen year old. We have to remember that the Bible doesn’t conform to our secularized movie rating norms; sexuality pervades Genesis, Goliath is in effect shot in the head, etc. So we have to be aware that what initially appears objectionable may actually turn out to be morally edifying, while more subtle nuances that we overlook or deem rather innocent may be those we ought to be concerned about.

Secondly, the classical purpose of the arts is the cultivation of wisdom. And at the heart of wisdom is rightly ordered loves; in other words, the wise person loves what is truly lovely and desires what is truly desirable and thereby experiences human flourishing. The problem we are experiencing as parents in the modern age is that the moral cosmos necessary for such a vision of art has been eclipsed by a techno-industrial age. And so, cinema-graphic violence, nudity, disrespect, vulgarity, etc., have all too often been amputated from a moral order. So it seems to me that what parents need to do is determine the extent to which the supposed objectionable content actually reveals a moral order. This would be the difference between the violence in High Noon and the blood-porn in Saw. The point is that the profundity of a film’s moral vision will tend to relativize objectionable scenes to God’s economy of goods.

Thirdly, the maturity of the child is, it seems to me, an obvious factor in all of this. I have a sixteen year old that can handle far more mature content than my nine year old precisely because she has cultivated her loves.

What is the biggest gatekeeping problem Christian parents make when determining if their child should see a film?  

For me, it’s accepting as normal highly sanitized sensibilities specific to contemporary American Christianity. One of the things that is so interesting when you go into the medieval exhibit of an art museum is how frankly grisly so much of the art appears, visually centered as it is on the sufferings of the crucified Christ. This kind of Christianity is certainly not G-rated, but rather understands that God has chosen to reveal himself through the horrible violences of a tortured and dead body. If we allow contemporary American Christianity to define the terms of our children’s movie watching, I don’t think they will ever encounter the arts as a means of cultivating wisdom.

Elsewhere on FilmFisher, I’ve expressed disdain for films which aim at blowing out the senses— films like Transformers, say, where lingerie models and beefy guys battle robot alien dinosaurs and destroy the city of Chicago in 3D IMAX. Of course, there is also an equivalent for children. Films like Hugo are special effects extravaganzas filled with flashing lights, quick cuts, a billion molten colors. Do these kind of films pose a unique problem for children? Or are special effects of this kind a gift from God which play into the senses in a profound way, and should I stop being so stodgy about how extravagant the CGI is in children’s films?  

I’m inclined to invoke the ancient Greek phrase: “Pan metron ariston”: “Everything in moderation”! But there may in fact be something to your concern. It might be interesting to explore the extent to which films so reliant on eye-candy can communicate authentically a moral vision of the world. The problem is that technology and morality tend to be antithetical. Technology is organized and governed by modern scientific processes which are considered value neutral and thus devoid of moral frames of reference. To the extent that the movie characters are extensions of these technological processes, we should find them turning away from any morally-defined world and instead toward the self as the source for life, with all of its pathologies and bewilderments. Can anyone say Iron Man?

Explain the difference between sitting your children down to watch a movie and leaving the room as opposed to watching a movie with your children. If a parent watches a film with their children, what should their role be during the movie? After the movie? What do they explain? How much do they comment? What do they comment on? What kind of questions should a parent ask a child during a film? Or should a parent simply let a child alone to watch their film in peace?

This is a great question. If the purpose of art is the cultivation of wisdom and human flourishing, at some point parents have to teach their children how to watch a movie. Again, the neglect of such is one of the inadvertent tragedies I see coming out of a ‘sheltered’ approach to movie watching. The key here is getting our children to think of movies as a series of metaphors, to see the ‘movie within the movie,’ as it were. All stories embody wider stories; all characters personify some kind of archetype. By teaching our children how to watch a movie, we are opening up whole new worlds for them, which in turn awaken their moral imaginations and thereby cultivate wisdom. I’ve found that simply watching and discussing films with my kids is the best way of teaching them to do this. My analysis of Pixar’s Up is a good example of how I talk about films with my kids and students. And once you have taught them how to watch a movie, I find that they just take it from there. In fact, my oldest daughter sees things in movies now that I would never have imagined.

Thanks, Dr. Turley.

More of Dr. Turley’s insights can be found on Turley Talks.

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books, collects records and jogs to work. He and his wife have two children, both of whom have seven names. He tweets at @joshgibbs and blogs for the CiRCE Institute.

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