Q: I have been reading the Harry Potter series to my children ages 10 and 7. We’ve read the first and second book and watched the corresponding movies. Both my kids love the series and want to continue reading and watching. I’ve read a lot of varying opinions about the age-appropriateness of both the books and movies from book 4 onward. Any advice you can offer will be appreciated as I don’t want to expose them to violence and “creepy stuff” too early.
~ Moviegoing Myrtle, USA
A: Dear Myrtle,
It is wonderful that you are reading with your children and hopefully encouraging them to read to you, so you are sharing the experience and developing their skills with material that engages and excites them. Because you are reading the Harry Potter books first, then watching the movies, I am sure that your children have already noticed that the images, characters, scenes, and actions that they imagined when you read the books are different than what they later saw in the movies. How the movies are different from what they imagined is worth discussing explicitly with them, including asking them how they felt about the violence and “creepiness”. These conversations will help you answer your question about future Harry Potter books and movies and prepare your children to be healthy consumers of both print and visual media.
When they read a book, children create images of the story based on their own life experiences – they make the story their own. Movies are created and crafted by adults whose brains have developed more complex executive functions and a reliable ability to distinguish fantasy from reality; who are collectively working with a much greater body of experience and imagery (including media imagery); and who are trying to outdo previous movies to grab attention and profits. Presented to children unfiltered, these adult-created visions can be overwhelming, confusing, and frightening. You have been mindful of the effects movies can have by viewing them with your children. Observe them to see how they respond as they watch. Discuss their feelings to determine whether the benefits of their enjoyment outweigh the risks of fear, anxiety, and aggressive impulses potentially generated by what they see.
Reading with your children and viewing movies with them, then talking about their feelings will model and teach critical thinking. By building your children’s media mastery, you are guiding them to be safer and healthier in the digital world. Even questionable material that they see or read can become a learning experience if you process it with them, acknowledging and helping them to manage their fears and to respond to violence with empathy and humanity.
That said, you are right to be cautious about the later Harry Potter books, and even more so, the movies. The stories become increasingly advanced in their content, particularly around violence and frightening themes, as well as the growing sexuality of the characters. As you read the books, be sure to ask your children whether there are parts of the story about which they have questions. Respond to their questions and observations honestly and accurately. If they are not yet developmentally ready for the material, there is no harm in waiting until they are. Even if your children understand and handle the later books, preview the movies before you view them together. No one knows your children better than you do, and you may determine that one of them can manage the movies and the other cannot, or that neither or both of them can. What is important is to understand that, unlike the worlds that they imagine when you or they read the books, the world that is created for them in the movies is not of their own imagination or built on their own experience – and may take them to places for which they are not prepared. Helping your children navigate, dissect, and discuss these worlds will make for a richer, more enjoyable experience that you can share as a family.
Enjoy your magical media and use them wisely,
~ The Mediatrician®