Welcome to another Media Moment! This month, Mary Shertenlieb, a former TV and film content screener, and mother of two, shares how she utilizes her industry knowledge of media and ratings to help inform how she parents. These stories are meant to help create a village square of commiserating and co-celebrating the many ways media intersect with the lives of children. Please comment and even submit your own ‘Moment’ to share with your fellow readers.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
In a Galaxy Not Too Far Away…
I love movies.
Absolutely obsessed with them!
Which is why I worked in television with a focus on movies for a decade. Somehow, I stumbled upon my dream job – watching movies and actually getting paid for doing it! It began in college when I started working for Disney as an unpaid intern, then onto CNN for another unpaid internship – I was the gal running around searching for tapes in the massive video library. I worked two jobs while interning just to get by, but I loved movies too much to give up– I was going to stick it out and do what I loved.
Well, lo and behold! I found the PERFECT job listing. I would screen films all day and write extensive notes for the editors, instructing them on what content to remove so that the movies could go from an R rating to perfectly acceptable for prime time TV. I ended up getting the job and absolutely loving it. I had some extensive training in the arts of “censorship”. Every day I watched movies. Some of these movies required only a few edits here and there. Some movies were so downright dirty that it took me three eight-hour workdays to clean them up (I’m looking at you Kill Bill!). When I finished screening them, I would review what was left of the film and then assign a parental guideline rating: TV-PG, TV-14, TV-MA. We would add descriptors such as TV-14-L for rough language, and so on.
My little work back-story is important to my current mom story. My television career happened a good bit before I had my kids, two boys, aged 4 and 7 now. I silently thought that parents who showed their kids what I deemed inappropriate films to be “bad parents”. I was the gal giving dirty looks to the parents who brought a 4-year-old to a rated R movie (well, I’m still kinda that gal). Pre-parent, my approach to films and kids was very black and white.
Why would you show a child anything that wasn’t rated G? But even G rated films have subject matter that is a little disturbing. Why are all of the mothers missing from Disney films? And the surplus of evil stepmothers is crazy. What is up with that? Why did they have to kill off the parents in “Frozen”? So many questions! Turns out being a mom and choosing media for my boys was not as black and white as I previously assumed.
I kept TV away from my boys for as long as possible. We stuck to books. But then one day, a magical mom light bulb went off and I realized that if I let my oldest, Hank, watch 20 minutes of “Sesame Street”, I could take a shower. What a novel idea! I didn’t have to worry about him getting into the knives and such because he would sit right there while I showered away, in an Elmo-induced trance. I rationalized it this way…A) it’s educational programming B) I watched the “Street” when I was a kid and I turned out okay (I think!) C) he’s almost three, not a newborn who’s neural passageways are super underdeveloped D) moms need showers. It’s important for the whole family. If mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy, right?
So that’s how it started. And here is how I handle media and my boys’ now – I let them watch 20-25 minutes a day before bedtime. I watch with them, so I can “hopefully” answer any questions that pop up. Then we each pick a book or two. We read at least three books at bedtime, so the last thing in their sweet little heads is a book, not the screen. Don’t get me wrong, as you can tell, I LOVE movies. But I also believe in the magic of books and I like them drifting off to dream land with a book in their teensy minds.
Our daily TV ritual went from Sesame Street to Thomas the Train, now the boys watch Octonauts or something cute like that. Nothing scary at all. My boys don’t see a ton of movies in the theatre. We’ve recently seen “Big Hero 6” (Why did the brother have to die? Loved it besides that!) “Monkey Kingdom” (You can’t go wrong with cute monkey babies) and “Paddington” (A family taking an orphaned bear under their wing? Thumbs up from this gal). So we keep things clean. No “Avengers” for us. We haven’t gone “there” yet.
Which brings me to “Star Wars”.
In case you haven’t heard, there is a new one coming out in December. My husband and I are both big “Star Wars” fans. My husband definitely more so than me. But, I haven’t let Hank, my 7-year-old, watch any of the movies yet. He has some books about “Star Wars”, and we’ve let him see a few scenes…mostly really innocent harmless stuff like Ewoks dancing around singing and Yoda dispensing his yoda-ish wisdom. The thing that’s interesting is that I’m pretty much following Hank’s lead here. He seems interested in it, but hasn’t asked to watch the movies.
But then the new trailer for the new “Star Wars” came out. Rich and the boys watched the trailer FIVE times. Hank seemed really into it, but kept talking about the “scary Darth Vader mask”. There’s a quick clip that teases a battered Vader mask on the ground. Hmmm. That image seemed to really stick with my Hankster. It wasn’t even a fighting scene. Just the Vader mask.
I love my high-school sweetheart husband and we really do agree on just about everything, (except he loves heavy metal and it’s truly not my bag. At all.), however Rich really wants to bring Hank to see “Star Wars” in the theatre this December, and I’m still on the fence. Rich says that Hank will always remember seeing it on the big screen. But does that mean that Hank needs to see all of the other “Star Wars” films to truly appreciate the new film? It’s directed by JJ Abrams (I was a HUGE “Lost” fan) and so I have this feeling it will be done really well. And appreciate that it will be an experience that Hank will probably always remember. But is it necessary? Will Thomas and his friends and the gang of sweet Octonauts be a thing of the past? Will media on par with “Star Wars” only entertain Hank or will he still love the “little kid” shows that are still age appropriate for his brother? And how will he react to the “Dark Side” – will it be too scary? These are questions that I’m wrestling with.
I’m waiting and reading a lot about the rating. Will Abrams deliver a PG or PG-13 rated film? That’s what I’m waiting for right now. The studio has yet to announce the rating. Honestly, if it’s PG-13, I don’t think I will bring Hank. He’s just not used to seeing violence and it might be too scary for him. PG, I think we’ll go together. With my television ratings background, I know for a fact that the ratings are there for a reason. Someone has put a lot of thought into it and I trust the system. But even watching a PG version, I think we will be saying a little goodbye to babyhood and a hello to boyhood. I guess it needs to happen sometime – I want him to grow up loving movies and I want to be by his side for as many of these big movie experiences as possible. (I can’t wait to watch “E.T” with him!) But I don’t think he’s ready quite yet…or maybe I just don’t want him to see me cry!
It’s obviously SO complicated.
I may have seen hundreds of movies, but I’m still figuring it all out. In the words of the wise master Yoda himself, “Much to learn you still have…my old padawan…this is just the beginning!”
~ Mary Shertenlieb
(fingers crossed on a PG “Star Wars” rating!)