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How Young is Too Young for Zombie Pigmen?

We gave in to the Wolvog’s running monologue and allowed him to buy himself Plants vs. Zombies.  For long time readers who have known the Wolvog since he was a binky-sucking, just walking toddler, you know this is a far cry from the halcyon no-violence days of babyhood.  Remember back then when we said no violence in books, movies, or video games?  We patted ourselves on the back a lot when the twins were in nursery school.  Look at us: our kids watch no television!  They’ve never played with a water gun!  They’re mini pacifists who eschew Peter Pan because that Captain Hook and his sword are too damn violent!

Oh, and then the kids started school.

And they met other kids.  And other kids met them.  And other kids said, “whoa, you seriously don’t even have a water gun?”

When the kids were in kindergarten, we started rethinking the no-violence rule.  It wasn’t because we wanted the twins to fit in — I mean, we did, but there was only so far we were willing to go on that end — but we realized that we didn’t have a firm reason for the rule.  We couldn’t explain it to others because we couldn’t explain it to ourselves.  It wasn’t enough to ban violence in all forms simply because we didn’t like violence — I mean, truly, who likes violence?  We needed a reason for why we lumped all violence into one big pile and stamped a NO across it.

I realized the rule mostly came from an inability to know what the kids could handle mixed with the idea that it’s impossible to dial it back once they’ve been exposed.  You can’t un-see or un-learn things.  My biggest fear was that we’d expose them to something before they were ready, and it would negatively shape their personality, turning them into violence-obsessed playground jerks.

Then again, not exposing them to any violence could also negatively shape their personality, making them quake with fear over fear itself.  Plus, they would never be prepared for the zombie apocalypse if we coddled them completely.

So we started with violent books, and we started with Harry Potter.  Starting with books is obvious: the page gives the reader the most distance from the violence.  It exists only in description, and the story unfolds so slowly that it can be easily stopped if I sense the kids are getting scared.  Harry Potter seemed like a soft landing into the world of violence.  For the most part, the violence in the first few books is either in the past, or is crunched up in the last few chapters of the book.

In first grade, we moved on to movies.  Again, the violence is at arm’s length — movies turns us into passive viewers — but the addition of visuals makes it feel all the more real.  The twins watched arrows fly in Brave and Harry Potter fight Quirrell, and then this year, they watched all three Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit.  Now, at the end of second grade, we’ve layered in video games — namely, Minecraft and as of this week, Plants vs. Zombies.  Video games place the viewer in the action, and this is where we’ve had the most misgivings.  Would fighting zombie pigmen or eating brains turn them into carjacking thugs… I mean… once they’re big enough to see over a steering wheel?

Our once all-violence ban has been amended to a no-realistic-violence rule.  The twins are too young to see violence depicted in real life situations — even military movies or the nightly news — but we’re okay with battling Lego-block-like Endermen and chopping the heads off of Orcs.  Fantasy-based violence gives them a chance to confront the concept of violence while simultaneously keeping it at arm’s length.  I mean, it can’t happen here.  At least, not until the zombie apocalypse.

Which brings us to Star Trek or not to Star Trek, at least, in the theater.  They’ve already seen the first Star Trek at home, with plenty of explanation thrown in beforehand and during in order to process all that goes down on the Starship Enterprise.  Are they ready to see it in the theater?  In the dark?  At a loud volume?  Without some sort of parental preview so we can prep them for when something scary is about to go down?  I saw the Empire Strikes Back in the theater when I was their age, and I turned out mostly fine.  I want them to have stories to share in the future (“Dude, I remember seeing the second Star Trek movie in the theater…“) but not at the expense of exposing them to ideas on Hollywood’s time schedule instead of their internal one.

I posed the question at a party recently, and I realized just how much we’re all fumbling around in the dark when it comes to figuring out what kids are ready to see.  Maybe there’s something a little Vulcan about me in that I want a logical system for determining the best age for exposure.  I know it’s impossible; every person is different and the level of violence they can tolerate can differ from movie to movie or game to game.  Still, any barometer would be helpful as we try to figure out how to walk that line between keeping their brain in the Zeitgeist and their heart in the right place.

How do you determine what you expose (or will expose in the future) your child to in terms of violence in books, movies, and gamesAt what age were you allowed to start seeing violence in movies, or watch the nightly news?

Cross-posted, mostly, on GeekDad


1 Catwoman73 { 06.04.13 at 7:29 am }

My parents had virtually no violence filter. I was watching Friday the 13th movies when I was a small child- probably around age 7-8. And somehow, I managed to grow up to be a law abiding citizen!!! I think they just did a wonderful job of reminding me that violence on TV is not the same thing as violence in real life.

My daughter is about to turn four. We have allowed her to watch cartoons with violence, and violent sports like boxing (read: we don’t turn it off if she happens to come in the room when it’s on the TV- she doesn’t actually sit and watch boxing!). So far, nothing we have exposed her to seems to disturb her, nor has it altered her behaviour at all (she tends to enjoy rough-housing already).

Our plan- and I use the word loosely, as we aren’t ‘planning’ types- is to let her be our guide. If she wants to see a movie/play a game that contains violence, we’ll let her, but we’ll be there as her guide. If we see that she’s scared, or that it’s altering her behaviour in an unfavourable way, the movie or game gets turned off. We’ve already had to leave one movie because it was scary for her. I don’t see a problem with allowing kids to experience some violence, as long as the proper parental supervision is in place.

2 Tiara { 06.04.13 at 8:24 am }

Dude, I DID see Wrath of Kahn in the Theatre (the 1st release!) & had nightmares for WEEKS all based around that scene with Chekov & the Ceti eel…it still makes me shiver!

How am I going to determine what & how much & when I’ll let E be exposed to violence? I HAVE NO IDEA!! I flip flop so much!! Initially I swore she wouldn’t watch any TV until she was a teenager, but quickly realized how hypocritical that was since I am a TV-oholic…& now I am THAT mom that pops on Wonder Pets in the morning so I can have 20 minutes to get myself dressed & ready knowing she’s occupied. When it comes to violence, I think I’ll try to shelter her as long as I can, but think you make a good point that once they start school, a bubble is burst so to speak. To be honest, for the most part I think I’m gonna wing it…& hope you parents who go before me come up with the ultimate Right Way for me to follow, lol!

3 a { 06.04.13 at 8:35 am }

I think it truly depends on the kid. I was watching horror movies and such at a young age, but it wasn’t traumatic for me. I understood the ideas that it was all fiction and that suspense was exciting. However, my daughter is much more freaked out by simple stuff, so she doesn’t want to watch things like The Wizard of Oz. I watched it with her once, but the witch scared her. However, I still think she needed to see it to get the cultural references. 🙂 But then, I took her to see Wicked, and she really enjoyed that. Stage vs movie is a big difference, I suppose. Anyway, I asked her if she wanted to watch The Hobbit with us, but she thought the Gollum was too scary, so she didn’t. I think she would actually have liked the movie, since it has a lot of cool effects, but she’s pretty good at determining what creeps her out.

On the other hand, she watches us play Halo, with no apparent ill effects. She would probably like Plants vs Zombies too.

All in all, we don’t really worry much about violence. We try to shield her from reality somewhat (we don’t watch much news), but all the fictional stuff is more or less open. And when she says “But stuff like that doesn’t really happen, does it?” I answer honestly with “Sometimes. But Mom and Dad are here to try and make sure it doesn’t happen to you.”

4 Alexicographer { 06.04.13 at 11:05 am }

Oh gosh, lots to think about here. As I remember things, I always watched (or was allowed to watch) the nightly news, but I also *definitely* remember that one knew the nightly news program was over when Walter Cronkite said, “And that’s the way it is…,” and I do not think the news of the early 1970s was comparable in its inclusion of portrayals of violence (particularly close-to-home violence) to today’s. Though that’s an empirical question and one I haven’t examined, so who knows? I’d have been too young to have been watching the news when e.g. the Trang Bang photo was taken (though in going to look it up I’ve just learned the story of what happened to its central victim who, astonishingly, survived and now lives in Canada, mother to two sons), and of course it was a photo, not a moving image (gosh — listen to me. You know, what kids today call “videos.”). So.

When it comes to news today, we don’t have a specific general rule, but mostly get our news on the internet (individually) or via Rachel Maddow, who comes on after bed time. I have managed to shield my son completely from video of Sandy Hook, almost completely from ditto of the Boston bombing (he did see a bit of video showing the explosion, but all he saw/noticed was the smoke), and more coincidentally ditto from the tornados (except the funnel clouds themselves, those he has seen — but not their aftermaths much, and to my knowledge no aftermath involving people who were injured or killed). I worry less about the tornado coverage — the damage and outcome is equally horrible, but their sources, being natural forces, somehow feels less troubling (well, except the existence of public schools in OK without tornado shelters — but I digress). I don’t know that when you said, “violence,” you meant natural forces and certainly I am not worried my son will turn into a tornado (his occasional resemblance to same notwithstanding), but for nightmares, tornados could work just fine. He is, however, to date far more chill about such stuff (scary things generally) than I was as a kid.

One problem I run into is the seemingly near-ubiquity of tvs in the restaurants we frequent when eating out with our kid. Maybe we need to go a bit more upscale (or downscale: do McDonalds have TVs?).

Certainly DS has been exposed to plenty of cartoon violence (think Looney Tunes), but, eh. He is clear and often comments that there are cartoon laws of physics (and behavior) that are distinct from those of our world.

And. So much more but I am going to stop here for now. Really interesting and puzzling topic, for sure.

5 Shelby { 06.04.13 at 11:27 am }

As of now, my kid can hardly watch any Disney movie because he deems it ‘too scary’. And you know what? He’s right. There’s a lot of violence out there hidden in what seems to be innocuous sources (like Disney). Most of our television/movie viewing is educational…however, that’s only going to last so long. Once he’s in elementary school, the picture will get muddied and the decision won’t be as clear. I was exposed to a lot (whatever rated R movie my parents were watching) and while I am not a serial killer, I think it’s wise to be more selective for my kiddo.

Except (and don’t demonize me!) he (as in my 3 1/2 year old) LOVES to play plants versus zombies and is really good at it. He’s a really tender, sensitive kid who will not tolerate anything even nearing aggression and that’s why PvZ is so good. It’s literally zombies (who, imho are adorable) trying to eat cute, fluffy plants like sunflowers and pea pods. There’s even opportunities to cultivate a ‘zen garden’. The only part I have reservations about is that, yes, the plants are defending themselves by lobbing things like peas at the zombies, but it is so incredibly far from realistic, it’s almost endearing and I find Disney flicks that most kids are regularly exposed to at his age far more disturbing.
For those of you not familiar with Plants versus Zombies, I invite you to see how adorable these graphics are (ha!):

6 Frozen OJ { 06.04.13 at 12:02 pm }

I think it totally depends on the kid. I was watching Rated R movies basically since I was born, but Cops was banned in the house because I couldn’t handle it. I plan on doing it kind of like my parents did. They can read/watch/play whatever (well violence wise, nudity is another story) as long as one of us is in the room at least the first time. Have an ongoing conversation about fiction vs reality and what kinds of violence are or are not okay in real life. If they start to get freaked out in a bad way turn it off and try to deduct what about it freaked them out so we don’t read/watch/play something like it in the near future. Of course all this seems simple to me now while I don’t actually have any kids, I’m sure I’ll change my mind a lot once I actually do!

7 Sharon { 06.04.13 at 12:45 pm }

Interesting post. My husband and I differ in our views on how much exposure to TV, and certain content in TV, is appropriate, for our sons (now 16 months old), and there is not a lot of clear guidance out there. Most of the research just says something like “Too much TV isn’t good” or “A little TV hasn’t been shown to do any harm,” without any specifics about what was watched or what ages.

I am adamant that any news programs that might depict violence or “adult themes”–so pretty much any news–be turned off while our sons are awake, and my husband’s attitude is “It’s just CNN.” I don’t want my sons seeing something that will scare them or that they won’t understand. We stay innocent for only so long, and as you say, we can’t un-see or un-learn something.

8 Amy { 06.04.13 at 1:06 pm }

L just turned 4 in April. We’ve taken her to see Jurassic Park in the theater. She’s watched War of the Worlds (we were flipping channels and she wanted to watch the “alien” movie. I think it’s also how you spin things when they ask…like for Jurassic Park, the end scene, we spun it as the T Rex saved the day…instead of T Rex eating all the other dinos. And War of the Worlds was spun as the aliens were sick and throwing up, which caused her to fall into a fit of giggles. I didn’t let her watch all of War though, I happened to “bump” the remote during some scenes to change the channel, much to her dislike. She also watches the news sometimes. The Boston marathon was spun as someone did a bad thing and hurt people, but look at all those police and people who are helping. Always look for the helpers (Thanks Mr. Rogers!)

But I let her lead on things. If she seems afraid, we turn it off. If not, we try to spin things in a positive light.

9 Shana { 06.04.13 at 1:32 pm }

Like many people have commented, I think it depends on the child. My older son (just turned 5) cannot tolerate any kid’s programing where a parent dies (yeah, just watching the preview of Chimpanzee was Traumatic ) A show like that might have no visual violence but the subject matter is too much for a sensitive kid. On the other hand, he is fine with the old 1960s Batman and Robin cartoons (thanks youtube) which have more violence, but the subject matter is good guys protecting the world from bad guys so he can tolerate it without getting upset.

10 Shana { 06.04.13 at 1:40 pm }

Here is another article that I like a lot, written by one of my favorite feminist parenting bloggers. I could relate to a lot of what she had to say about violence and play:

11 Cristy { 06.04.13 at 5:40 pm }

Wow, now that’s a loaded question. I have zero advise for how best to approach this situation (honestly, it sounds like you’re doing an awesome job as it is). When I was growing up, my parents strictly adhered to the movie ratings, meaning i was forbidden from watch PG-13 movies until I was 13 yrs old and R movies until I was 17 yrs old. Frankly, I think it was actually a burden as it excluded me from my peers and it encouraged lots of seeking around and lying to my parents. Hence I think honest conversations about the material they’re watching is a great idea, as it will give you the opportunity to analyze with them what they’re seeing, reading, actively interacting with. So many things to think about though, so thanks for the topic!

12 Audrey { 06.04.13 at 8:10 pm }

Yeah. Most people give us the hair eye because my kids, who are 2 and 4, watch Jurassic Park. All of the Jurassic Parks, actually. They love them. it started when my son was 2, he loved dinosaurs, he saw the dvd case and was all “dinosaurs dinosaurs!” and he’d already seen the actual animated movie Dinosaurs with it’s G rating. I thought..well..he probably should learn that dinosaurs are not actually going to be adopted by primates. They don’t talk. They don’t want to be your friend. They want to eat you. And so we watched it, keeping a close eye on him. He loved it and requested it every day for several weeks. Never had a nightmare once and the dinosaur pretend play became much more realistic – except when the grasseaters decide they’re going to eat ME. Cus I am totally not filled with chlorophyll, people. Trust me on this. It’s probably, then, not a surprise that he plays and loves Plants vs. Zombies. I consider it a gardening lesson. “you have to catch the sun so you can buy seeds..you have to plant the seeds so they can grow and kill the zombies.”

13 nicoleandmaggie { 06.04.13 at 10:10 pm }

I guess we’re those other parents… we never really thought about it much. When he was 4 and the kids at camp (a year or two older) were talking about Star Wars, we tried to have him watch it, but it was too scary. (Somewhat before then he saw How to Train your Dragon in the theater and spent much of it in his daddy’s lap and his head hidden in his daddy’s chest. Afterwards claimed to love it.) Next year at age 5, clutching his teddy bear, he loved it. He’s also enjoyed pretty much every dinosaur documentary on netflix.

14 GeekChic { 06.04.13 at 10:55 pm }

I have very early memories of watching the news when I was quite young and discussing things with my Dad. I also watched scary movies at around 10 or 11 and they didn’t bother me (again, with my Dad present to ensure I wasn’t overly disturbed).

TV shows and books were vetted by him for content (violence was not the only thing he was looking for) but I was usually allowed to watch or read what I wanted so long as I discussed things with him (I can only recall one book that he held until I was older).

That said, I lived a violent life as a child (severe physical abuse from my mother until her parental rights were terminated at age 9) so I’d already been exposed to the horrors of it anyway. Watching a “scary” movie wasn’t really all that scary in comparison.

15 Chickenpig { 06.05.13 at 6:33 am }

Like everything else, it depends on YOUR kids. I have one son that saw Return of the Jedi this year (I thought 7 was a good age for Star Wars) who cried inconsolably when Darth Vader was killed because he turned out to be a good guy in the end. My daughter on the other hand, at 4 is curious about all kinds of morbid things and takes violence in stride. I have been very slow to introduce any kind of violence to my kids because of my son’s reaction to movies. On the other hand, he may be able to take a book without pictures a little better. Next up, Harry Potter!

16 Aerotropolitan Comitissa { 06.06.13 at 11:01 pm }

Master is against pirates because they are thieves and thugs. The other kids think this is ott. We have has similar situations with Peter Pan. But you know what? When he’s frustrated he still tries to hit people. They can come up with this shit on their own and I have had to rethink, too – because a few morality tales about violence can go a long way. And yes, school, where the other kids taught him about guns. But I don’t know about that other stuff yet – he finds the biohazard exhibit at the science centre too scary so I guess it won’t be an issue for a little while. But I guess generally I favour letting them have experiences (at their request/assent) but under parental guidance, so I can be in control of any discussion surrounding issues like violence etc. I hate to think I’d miss that opportunity, thus passing it by default to the kids at the back of the bike shed.

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