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In the U.S., we use ratings systems, print and broadcast warnings to inform parents and guardians about materials that various authorities deem too offensive, disturbing, violent, scary or adult for young children to listen to, read, watch, or play.

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When I was a staff member at The Clearwater School, especially in the early years, there were several school meeting discussions about whether PG-13 and R-rated movies, and M-rated video games should be allowed at school. (Clearwater’s philosophy is that students are responsible for choosing their pursuits and how they spend their time, as long as their activities are safe and do not infringe on someone else’s freedom.)

Parents were initially the ones who raised questions about exposure to mature-rated media. Their concern focused on whether students knew the difference between fantasy and reality (they did), whether violent content would normalize violent behavior (it didn’t), and–because the school enrolls people from ages 4 to 19–how  young children would be protected from inadvertent exposure to content that was too scary or disturbing for them. Students were adamant that being able to play the games they wanted to play and watch the movies they wanted to watch was a matter of free speech and free thought. Since they were responsible for their lives and education, they believed they should be the ones to decide what was okay to watch or play.

The issue of appropriate content was raised by older students, too. On one occasion, a group of 12- to 15-year olds, mostly boys, watched a series of horror movies over a period of a couple of weeks. A handful of young children (4- to 6-year-olds) knew the boys were watching scary movies. The little kids wanted to test their courage and satisfy their curiosity by exposing themselves to bits of the movies. (I suspect they also enjoyed bugging the older kids in the movie room for the attention.)

The younger students would frequently open the door during the movie, and peek or dash in for the thrill of seeing something scary, however briefly. The older students found the interruptions extremely annoying and some were also concerned about the little kids seeing something that was too scary for them. Several times they asked the little ones to stop, to no avail.

The teenagers brought the issue up at a weekly school meeting and proposed that kids under 11 or 12 not be allowed to watch scary movies that were either PG-13 or R. The debate was eye-opening. Students who were between 10 and 12 years old spoke convincingly about the injustice of someone else telling them they were too young to watch movies they might want to see. They, in turn, proposed a minimum age of 7-9 years old. The little movie interrupters vigorously objected to anyone proscribing their movie watching.

A 6-year-old, who was guilty of disturbing the peace of the movie watchers, spoke up and said that she certainly knew when something was too scary for her and no one should be able to prevent her from watching movies because of her age. She went on to say that it was probably a good idea to protect 3- and 4-year-olds from watching scary movies at school. (There were no 3- or 4-year-olds enrolled at Clearwater at the time.)

The debate was lively and thoughtful; each point of view was considered and taken seriously. In the end, everyone agreed that limiting scary movies by age didn’t make sense. There was, however, a decision that the young students’ frequent, distracting interruptions infringed on people’s freedom to watch movies in peace.The little offenders agreed to either stay in the room and watch or leave the viewers alone.

What was interesting to me was that students sought to protect those who were younger, yet everyone was adamant that no one other than themselves should be able to limit their exposure to materials they wanted to engage with. And students did limit themselves. There were plenty of kids of varying ages who were not interested in watching scary movies, or absorbing any other content they were not ready for. Like the movie watchers, they knew themselves and what kinds of exposure they wanted.

One of the important things I learned from that discussion was that children, even quite young children, have the capacity to make smart, rational decisions, and that part of respecting children is to pay attention to what they know about themselves and what they want to experience. It is easy to presume that we have a window into a child’s inner life, based on their age, their personality and what we see on the outside.

It is vital to children’s lifelong well being and self-determination that adults understand that, like an iceberg, the depth and breadth of a person’s inner life is so much greater than the glimpses we get on the surface. Although we try to shield children from experiences we find harsh or troubling, they actively seek ways to explore those things safely, most of the time. That exploration is what helps them develop knowledge, resilience and strategies for coping with the vicissitudes of life.