Tuesday, May 14, 2002

Spider-Man and Kids
by Nell Minow
Special to the Chicago Tribune
May 14, 2002

Battling Spider-Man’s nemesis, the Green Goblin, is a piece of cake compared to battling Spider-Man’s fan, when you are a parent and the fan is a six-year-old who wants to see the PG-13-rated movie.

Is there that much of a difference between the intensity of the violence in the PG-13 “Spider-Man” and the upcoming PG-rated “Star Wars” movie? Probably not. The last “Star Wars” movie kept its kid-friendly rating by having most of its violence directed at robots, not people. These distinctions seem awfully fine when the ratings board is sorting through dozens of categories of material that can be troubling to kids – and their parents. Is the death of a parent more disturbing than a scene with children in prolonged peril? Will kids in the audience be more rattled by a parent calling a teen-age girl “trash” or by a scene in which her soaking wet shirt becomes very revealing?

PG-13 is the toughest rating to try to figure out. Are the extended jokes about bodily functions and injured private parts in the PG-13 “The New Guy” more appropriate than seeing a man in bed with two women in the also-PG-13 “The Scorpion King?”

It is especially frustrating when a character that is popular with children appears in a movie designed for teenagers and young adults. Many parents who remembered the Doctor Dolittle character from the Hugh Lofting books and the Rex Harrison movie were very uncomfortable with the raunchy humor of the PG-13 Eddie Murphy remake.

So what is a parent to do when Spider-Man becomes all but inescapable? Normally, I advise parents not to give in to an “everyone else has seen it argument.” In the first place, it is not usually true. “Everyone else” often turns out to be one child whose older brother told him all about it. But more important, we don’t raise children by lowest common denominator. One of the greatest gifts you can give a child is the principle that we do what is right for us, and not what everyone else does. If you can be swayed by an “everyone else does it” argument or if your kids see you trying to do what everyone else does, then when they get older, and everyone is experimenting with alcohol or shoplifting, they will not have the resources to say no.

Once in a while, though, a cultural phenomenon comes along and that may be time to weigh competing considerations more carefully. On one hand, “Spider-Man” is scary, with some vivid violence (people get vaporized and we see their skeletons crumble into ash, there are many explosions, a character dies from a gunshot wound, another is impaled). On the other hand, most kids are just getting started in figuring out how to talk to each other, and being able to share “Awesomes!” about movies like “Spider-Man” can serve as training wheels for developing social skills.

As parents weigh this decision, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, no matter what your child says, he might be looking for limits, not permission. As always with kids, parents have to give them deniability – make sure they know that they can blame you if they do not want to see the movie but do not want to let their friends know that they are worried that it might be too scary.

Second, if the child really does want to see it and you have decided that your 7-11 year old can handle the movie, make it clear that this does not mean that any PG-13 movie is now fair game. You will make your decision about each movie based on its merits, so elicit ahead of time a commitment that there will not be any nagging or use of this movie as a precedent.

Third, prepare your child for what is in the movie and how it might feel to watch it. Talk about the difference between “fun scary” and “scary scary” and about options like holding your hand or leaving the theater to get some popcorn. Finally, after it is over, watch your child for reactions to the movie, even if they do not seem directly related. You may see some more violent play than usual, as kids work through their fears by re-enacting some of what they have seen. Or your child may seem less sensitive to the feelings of others, a common reaction to violent material. Talk to your child about the feelings of the characters in the movie: Peter’s regrets about what he said to his uncle, the way that Peter encourages MJ to follow her dreams, why it is hard for Harry and Norman to understand each other. If you can use “Spider-Man” to help you connect to your child when it comes to talking about rules, feelings, and growing up, he might just become a super-hero even a parent can love.

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