Thursday, June 25, 2009

Should Kids Be Allowed to Watch Sad Movies?

Last weekend, our family saw the new Pixar movie Up. We’d seen the trailer, and it looked like something the kids would actually sit through in a theater. (With three kids ages seven and under, we don’t often make it to the “big screen”—we usually wait for movies to come out on DVD.) But my fastidious husband had collected enough Coke points for four free movie tickets, and he thought it would be a fun Father’s Day treat to see a movie with the whole family.

As I always do before our kids watch a movie (especially ones rated PG), I checked a few parent review websites (such as to make sure the movie was okay. Satisfied that it was suitable for our kids, we made plans for our Father’s Day movie excursion.

I happened to mention to a group of mom friends that we were taking the kids to see Up, and one of them responded, “Oh, I would never take my kids to that movie. I heard it’s sad.” A few other moms nodded in agreement. “I heard it even makes you cry,” one mom explained.

I was surprised at the number of online reviews for Up that mirror my friends’ opinion: “This movie has some sad themes, so it’s not suitable for children.”

Really? Sad movies are not suitable for children? What about Miracle on 34th Street? Bambi? Or for that matter, any of the Disney movies? (A friend once pointed out that in almost every Disney movie, at least one character dies. Think about it: The Lion King [Mufasa], Beauty and the Beast [Gaston], Sleeping Beauty [the witch], Cinderella [her parents], etc.)

As a kid, I remember bawling so hard while reading A Taste of Blackberries that I could barely make out the words. And when we watched Where the Red Fern Grows at school, even though I had read the book and knew the ending, I still cried for the rest of the day, so sad for Billy and the loss of his beloved dogs.

It got me thinking: in this helicopter-parenting age, have we possibly overprotected our children to the extent that we’re not allowing them to understand the full spectrum of life? Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying we should tell our young children all the sordid details of adult situations. But have you ever sat down and explained to your children what it means when a person dies, or miscarries a child, or experiences a broken family? These kinds of things are happening to your kids’ friends (or perhaps even to your own children). Are you taking the opportunity to explain these situations to your children in a gentle, age-appropriate way? Or do you ignore or avoid them, trying to protect your children from things that are sad?

Maybe it’s because Brett is in the ministry, so when we pray together as a family, we often pray (without specific details) for members of our church who are experiencing health issues, the loss of loved ones, or other sad life events. Our children join us in praying for God to heal our friends’ broken hearts and help them experience His comfort and peace. And maybe it’s because our family has experienced our fair share of sad life events, including miscarriage, the death of loved ones, and even the death of a beloved pet. When these kinds of things happen, Brett and I explain them to our children in an age-appropriate, Christ-honoring way.

And yes, we have allowed our children to watch sad movies. We’ve cried together over Old Yeller and mourned the death of Matthew Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables. And when our oldest daughter recently read a book about the Titanic, she cried when she discovered the ending that we know, but she didn’t—not everyone made it to the life boats. It was a great opportunity for us to talk about the importance of giving your heart to Christ and the urgency of sharing the gospel, because even “the ship that couldn’t sink” did, and none of us is guaranteed tomorrow.

So what do you think: is it okay for younger children to watch sad movies (or read sad books)?

If so, why? If not, why not?


  1. Wow, Jennifer. Great article!

    I am the father of four grown children and I remember struggling with this issue. I wish there were clear-cut rules telling parents when to sheild their children and when to be with them as they experienced life as it really exists. But, because each child is a unique creation, no one set of rules will suffice. Therefore, each parent must decide what is best for his or her child, recognizing that even children living under the same roof have different needs.

    Finding the correct balance for each child is not unlike walking a tightrope. It requires intense focus and constant adjustment. On the one hand, I wanted them to enjoy childhood as long as possible; after all, real life will hit children soon enough. On the other hand, I knew that shielding them from all things unpleasant would leave them unprepared for inevitable hardship and heartache.

    Eventually, I discovered that art, expecially in the form of literature and drama, can offer marvelous opportunities to talk about death and dying BEFORE someone close to them passes away. By reading and watching alongside my children, I could gage their responses and pounce on teachable moments. I could guide their thinking as they wrestled with real life problems. And I could do this while those problems remained safely fictional. Art became, as it were, a gymnasium of the heart.

    How tragic for a child who must come to terms with sad realities with no preparation whatsoever. How devasting for a child who must wrestle with the ultimate questions of life and death while grieving the loss of someone close.

    Fortunately, I never had to look into my children's eyes and answer the question, "Daddy, why didn't you tell me?"

  2. Jennifer,

    I would say in general it is fine to have them watch something that is sad as long as it is still appropriate. BUT I have 3 adopted kids who had to watch their mother die so I am really careful with them especially. I think that you have to know your kids. My bio son can watch Harry Potter and we can talk about how we can apply it to life and that there is evil and yet there is power within us in the formof Jesus. But my adopted son accidentally saw DARTH MAUL and it reminded him of an old story he heard from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church about demons and satan...etc. It took weeks to remind him how he could battle those evil things by saying CHRIST"s name etc...SO I really think you have to know your kids and be general I do think our kids are too insulated. We have little league rules not allowing the other team to make toomany runs...we don't allow chattering at baseball games or heckling we are too sensitive too...but we have to be careful too not to be insensitive....great post..

  3. What great insights, Mark and Deanna! I really appreciate your wise advice as seasoned parents (not to mention gifted authors). Brett and I do need to consider the individual needs of each of our children as we strive to parent them in a God-honoring way.

    Come to think of it, my older daughter is very sensitive to emotional issues--perhaps because of her God-given gift of mercy, or perhaps because she has been through so many hospitalizations and surgeries. So she is deeply moved by and emphathizes with people who are sick or suffering.

    However, our younger daughter is distraught over things that are violent or scary. (Our kids don't watch scary movies, but even little things upset her... for example, I still have to fast-forward through the dog-fight scene in "Lady in the Tramp.") Of our three kids, J.J. is the most likely to have nightmares or worry about whether scary things might happen. (In fact, before the previews started, the movie theater showed a picture of their fire evacuation routes. That totally freaked her out; she was convinced the theater was going up in flames. It took all the way through the previews, with Brett and I constantly reassuring her that it was simply a precaution, for her to be able to relax and enjoy the movie.)

    When I wrote this blog, I was thinking about helping kids understand and deal with sad life events, like the death of a loved one (as in the movie Up). But you are right: what works in our family may not work in other families.

    May God give us all wisdom as we seek the best ways to bring up our children to His glory. (And may God continue to use seasoned parents like you to give us such wise input!)