I get asked lots of questions about parenting, and some of them are really hard to answer.
This isn’t one of them.
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 along when his friends head to the theater, I feel really confident about my position on this issue.
Here are my reasons:
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.
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 that fun and exciting, it can be hard not to see it in a positive light. Neurons have fired and subsequently wired.
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.
Adult sexuality can be impacted 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 impacted by positive peer pressure and reconsider their position.
Before I close I 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 buy.
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.