When I was four, I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark at the drive-in. My parents figured my older sister (then six) and I would just fall asleep. We didn’t. This may or may not be why I still won’t watch the face-melting bits, but I don’t remember any nightmares.
My daughter was perhaps nine when Sleeping Beauty came out on DVD. I was talking to her for her birthday, and I offered to pass on my VHS copy. She asked me very solemnly if it was scary, and I conceded as how it could be in places. She said that she probably wasn’t interested, thank you all the same.
Kids are different. Even within families. I don’t know if it’s nature or nurture that made my daughter so adamantly against anything scary for so long (I didn’t raise her), but she wasn’t interested in plenty of things I loved, because she didn’t want to be scared and had a low threshold for it. Her brother is a little too young for comparison; the only thing he seems interested in right now is Sesame Street, and he’ll even wander away from that.
It is a thing I’m starting to think about, though. He’s already seen Raging Bull, because at four months old, he was too young to know what was going on. He didn’t even watch the screen yet, and as I recall, he fell asleep anyway. But I wouldn’t do that now; he’s at the age where he does start picking up on things. Not words, yet—his first speech therapy appointment is this afternoon, because unless you count saying “whee!” at the park day before yesterday, he still hasn’t said a first word at almost twenty months old—but he does now have an awareness of what’s going on. This is going to add a new challenge to the Library Project, since he’s home all the time and in the room with me most of the time.
I don’t fetishize his innocence, the way I’ve seen some people do. For one thing, you can’t protect them from everything. I was much more traumatized by my father’s death than by anything I saw on a screen, and while doubtless my parents would have loved to protect me from that—especially my dad—there was nothing that could be done without totally overhauling my dad’s health. In that sense, I’d even argue that kids today are a lot more innocent than their counterparts of a hundred years ago. They may play violent video games and watch violent TV shows and what have you, but their mothers are less likely to die in childbirth. Their classmates are less likely to die, come to that. I only personally know one person of my son’s generation who has even had measles (he was four months old and went to Disneyland), and he’s fine.
Even beyond that, you can’t know what’s going on in a kid’s head. Stephen King talks about finding a dead cat with a bunch of his classmates when he was in elementary school and how they avidly watched the cat’s decay. And you say, “Yeah, but that’s Stephen King,” which is true enough. But the other kids weren’t. They were young boys who were fascinated with the process of What Happens After Death. Heck, in fourth grade, my friends and I went through a V. C. Andrews phase, back when she might even have still been alive!
Actually, it’s interesting to me that some of the people I’ve known who most want to protect their child’s innocence are also unlikely to protect their kids’ health by vaccinating them against preventable, lethal diseases, the ones that I think of as harming kids’ innocence a hundred years ago. I think this is where nostalgia comes in for both cases. When these people think of measles as a harmless childhood disease, they think of a kid getting a week off from school, not the depressing graveyards of the nineteenth century with all those child graves. They don’t think of Stephen King and the dead cat or me and V. C. Andrews. They think of the kids from the Betsy books I used to read, all sweet little girls with hair ribbons.
I do believe there is such thing as age appropriate. I did an independent study contract on banned books in college, and the things I absolutely supported were decisions like “taking Deliverance out of a junior high school library” or “taking It out of an elementary school library.” And maybe your kid is ready for Deliverance in seventh grade or It in fifth, but probably most kids aren’t. A school library should focus on acquiring age-appropriate offerings for the grades it serves, and I was fine with that. And, of course, less-than-fine with anyone assigning Deliverance in an actual seventh-grade class!
But “age-appropriate” is a kingdom with fuzzy borders. I did read all those Betsy books, pretty avidly, only a couple of years before V. C. Andrews. I don’t remember ever having my reading censored by my mother, and the only limitation I remember from an outside force was a librarian who insisted that I shouldn’t read below my reading level. Mom did kick us out of the house once because she’d rented an R-rated movie (no, I don’t remember what it was) that she thought was inappropriate for us, and she’d been unable to stay awake the night before to watch it. So she made us go play in the back yard. But that’s the only limitation I remember.
What I do remember is being absolutely terrified by a short film of “The Gold Bug,” by Edgar Allan Poe. Now that I think about it, yes, that is the only time I remember being scared by a movie in my life. I remember absolutely nothing about it other than a sense of dread that lasted long after the film ended. I saw it for Friday afternoon films at my local library, presumably because the projectionist wanted a break from all the Laurel and Hardy shorts. My best friend, who went to the movies with me, wasn’t scared at all. I don’t remember how old we were, but maybe second grade?
What’s right for one kid isn’t right for others, and the important thing is to know the kid in question. It doesn’t have to be your kid, though obviously custodial parents or guardians are more likely to know a kid’s preferences and limitations than anyone else. But I did know about my daughter and the scary movies, and I generally talk to her for any length of time once a year. When my son gets old enough to express preference, I’m sure there will be other adults who know when he’s old enough to watch Aliens. We tend to see “children” as a single monolithic entity, all either the way we were as kids or the way we want “childhood” to be like, and they aren’t. I will say, though, that I’m a lot happier when a kid finds out that they don’t want to watch the scary movie after all when they’re at home, not sitting behind me in the theatre.