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My godson is soon having his first birthday. I think that's too young to start putting him in front of the TV to watch films (although he does appear to enjoy toddler TV like Bumba with healthy amounts of laughter), but I'm interested to know what would be an appropriate age.

On a related topic: I've discussed this abit on the SciFi SE chat, and some people said that there are certain Disney films that were made during a time of different morals that would give a wrong impression to a developing child. An example is the racism displayed against the Native American tribe in Peter Pan. How should you handle the films with that kind of content?

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AAP does recommend to avoid TV before the age of 2 aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-health-initiatives/Pages/… –  the_lotus Aug 28 at 18:09

5 Answers 5

TL;DR: whenever they're ready, and when you do let them view it, watch it with them and help them find different ways to think about and address the more qustionable/uncomfortable themes.

Longer, more nuanced answer: Honestly, the age when they're ready for it depends on the child. My daughter wasn't able to grok anything other than 10-15 minutes of a movie at a time until 4, and my son (who is in the middle of the Terrorist Three's) isn't there yet.

We (my husband and I) view any media consumption as an opportunity to communicate our thoughts and values with our kids, and hear what they think about what they see. So, we watch these things together with them, so we can explore the themes that are displayed and how we feel and think about it, and why they think the writer/author/director/company/whatever thought it was important to say or show or do. This is one of the things we feel as parents that is vital to their maturation: the ability to think critically.

As for the questionable themes, I look at them as an opportunity to discuss what we're seeing, why I disagree with what we're seeing and hearing, and ask them what THEY think and then how they'd handle the situation differently/how they'd treat that person/etc. For example, my son right now is all about the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (for which I hold a debt of gratitude, since MM got him over the potty-training hump). My daughter and I often discuss the roles the different characters play in the show. We talk about the active vs. passive roles the characters take on (why is Daisy waiting with the sheep while Mickey, Donald, Goofy and Pluto do the searching and rescuing?), why she thinks things are like that, why I think things are like that, and what she'd do differently.

To be honest, I do skip some of the more loaded Disney movies (not sure I'm ready to discuss Stockholm syndrome with a first grader), but as they age we will explore them both for cultural reference (when every other kid is talking about this princess or that, I'd at least like her to know what they're talking about, even if ours are NOT princess-loving children) and to talk about the more questionable themes.

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+1 Great answer. Avoiding movies because of outdated or questionable content misses an opportunity to explain what is wrong with those concepts. Let's face it: our kids are going to be exposed to these things eventually. It is preferable, imo, to be there to help put things in proper perspective when it happens. –  Beofett Aug 28 at 12:14
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+1. Also important to note is the opportunity to discuss how societal views have changed (and improved) over the years. It can be used to impart a very basic sense of agency, even at that young age. A seed that can grow into a general belief that the world can always get better, and that they have the power to bring about that change. –  Nicholas Aug 28 at 14:41

It really depends on the movie.

Our 3 year old loved Cars since he was 2, and was happily watching Planes at 3. He was not interested in Horton Hears a Who - too much dialogue even if the content is age appropriate in my opinion. I would wait a bit with letting him watch The Lion King (too scary) and Bambi (VERY scary).

I recommend the site commonSenseMedia.org, they have age recommendations and detailed reviews with what sort of language, questionable content, scary stuff etc. you can expect for the movie. Each category also has a rating, such as positive messages, violence, consumerism and so forth.

I find it much more detailed and useful than MPAA (or BBFC) ratings. Even if you don't agree with the age rating, you can usually find something +/- a couple of years and determine if it is appropriate for your family and your child based on their descriptions.

For instance, they rate Cars for 5 years olds, and their review reads:

Parents need to know that the car characters do some pretty raucous racing, careening off walls, trees, and each other. A group of The Fast and the Furious-style vehicles briefly threaten another car. Cars argue with one another, lose their tempers, and look sad or lonely. There's some innocent flirtation between boy and girl cars. Some mild language -- at least one use of "hell." At 116 minutes, it's on the long side for animation and may be too much for some really little kids. But stick around for the closing credits!

In addition, there are parents comments, that can lend you insight.

The site also reviews games, apps, websites, books, tv and music.

Edited to add: I really love the detail of this site, for while optimally you should watch everything you let your child see first, realistically it is just not possible. This helps a lot.

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+1 for CommonSenseMedia.org; I now have a new resource! –  Valkyrie Aug 29 at 11:03

A couple quick things to get out of the way

Just like every "what is the appropriate age" question, there isn't one. Age is a pretty decent approximation of the physical and emotional maturity of people, but its margin of error is very high. While some things have laws that put lower bounds on them (drinking, violent movies, staying home alone) the truth is that many people below that threshold are ready, and many people above the threshold are not.

So the notion of what age do you need to be to watch Disney films is a very misguided premise. Instead, we should be focusing on the physical and emotional attributes of the child to make the determination of if they're ready. Age is just one of these attributes, and isn't nearly as important as it might seem. I would also like to say that as the child's godparent, it's possible you don't have enough exposure to the child to really make the determination, and regardless of what criteria we come up with here, it remains the parent's decision. That's not to say you shouldn't care, because you totally should and clearly do - just remember to be patient and kind if the parents disagree and/or you're overruled. After all, being a good role model for disagreeing respectfully (a form of conflict resolution) is one of the best things you can teach a child!!

Attention span

Okay, with those more abstract topics out of the way, let's talk about movies. The first criteria I would mention is attention span - is the child able to watch it for an entire hour and a half? My first child couldn't. Not with the distraction of toys, the outdoors, her sister, etc. It took her until she was about 3 before she could actually watch an entire movie. Once she was able to watch a movie in a room with distractions, we took her to see a movie in the theaters. She had been watching movies before, but only if she were being cuddled the whole time. But, that doesn't mean we didn't have movies - it just means she wandered around not always paying attention to the movies we had on. My second, however, was able to sit through a movie much earlier, probably around 18 months. I don't think it's so much that she has a higher emotional maturity than my eldest, just that she seems to enjoy them more and is less distracted by things.

Comprehension

The next criteria is comprehension - is the child able to actually know what's going on? If the child can't at least parrot/mimic some of the things they see in the show, it's probably not sinking in. At 1, I would not expect them to be able to do this, but that doesn't mean it can't happen. However, my children have been watching TV since long, long before they hit their first birthday. We've gone through enough Baby Einstein DVDs that we should have invested in their company! We also had a few DVDs of nursery rhymes which have a number of useful benefits (and just maybe we're prepping our children to play music with us some day and exposure to basic chord patterns at an early age is part of a grand master plan. Maybe.)

Okay, so far we have.. are they able to physically watch it for that long? And if they are, are they reasonably expected to gain anything from it? And I would say this applies to any film, not just Disney films. A big hit in my family is nature shows, and I would say the same criteria applies there.

Disney specifically

Specifically with regard to Disney films, if we are to truly love our children we must be willing to filter the content they see. Whether it's film, books, friends, we have a duty to protect them. One of my wife's favorite movies as a kid was Cinderella, and as wonderful of a movie as that is, there are some concerns with it that my daughters just aren't ready to handle but they certainly need to someday. Should Cinderella's measure of happiness be that she gets married to a prince? Is it expected that someone who remarries is going to hate her step-children? Why are the mice saying "leave the sewing to the women"?

These are not simple questions, and they do not have simple answers. My two year old doesn't even have the necessary vocabulary to try to tackle these questions. My four year old probably does, but doesn't have a broad enough life context for it to make any sense. And she's at such an impressionable age any conversation we did have with her is likely to simply impress upon her my wife's and my views as opposed to her reaching her own conclusions, which is something we can't avoid entirely but would like to at least try to not make her a cookie-cutter version of us.

Conclusion

To make a long story short, you need to make sure you know why the child is watching the movie. It's really not much different than introducing anything else to a child through the years, whether it's brussel sprouts, swimming lessons, stand-up comedy, or beer. Once you've identified your objectives (which could be as simple as getting him acclimated to movies!) find an appropriate movie and try it. When you're done, see if you met your objectives.

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It depends on the child, the film, and quite a bit of pure chance.

My son, who is now nearly four, although he loves Disney films, still finds aspects of many of them scary. Until a few months ago he found the climax of Frozen very scary, but enjoyed the rest of the film. Tangled, which I'd personally rate roughly equally with Frozen on the scariness scale, he never had much of a problem with.

Conversely both kids really love the Wallace and Gromit films, especially A Matter of Loaf and Death, howling with laughter during the murder scene at the beginning. (Though I don't think they quite understand the character is supposed to have died - as far as they know he was just knocked on the head with a rolling pin and landed face down in some dough.)

Just make sure you're sitting with them to reassure them over anything they find scary, and explain anything they're confused about.

With regards to worrying about the morality of and attitudes displayed in older Disney films, it's probably a matter of watching them first on your own to pick out any potential issues, and then deciding on their appropriateness. I re-watched Peter Pan a couple of months ago for the first time since I was a child and was, like you, struck by the way the Native Americans were portrayed. I was also surprised by the sexual overtones in the way Wendy, Tiger Lily, and Tinker Bell compete for Peter's attention. Rewatching The Little Mermaid as an adult I was struck by how Ariel gave up her family, her life, and literally her voice, to impress some guy she's never even met. Overall I'd suggest that anything from this century ought to be fine, and from the 20th century Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Mulan, are reasonably progressive (there may be others I've missed).

That said, a year old seems to young to watch any feature-length film regardless of the content. Most toddlers will not have the attention span to sit though 90 minutes.

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JM Barrie's "Peter & Wendy" is pretty overtly sexual in the way girls vie for Peter's attention :) –  warren Sep 2 at 21:41
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Yes, of course the relationships between Peter and the girls in the film are lifted from the book. I'm not trying to suggest that Walt Disney thought "this children's story doesn't have enough sex in it, let's sauce it up a bit!" I was merely surprised that they didn't seem to tone it down very much. –  tobyink Sep 3 at 0:09
    
it wasn't a "kid's movie" .. it was a film adaptation of a story aimed at an older audience :) –  warren Sep 3 at 2:42

I agree with a lot of what has already been said but I wanted to add a piece that I think is missing. When dealing with very young children, be aware that just because something is incomprehensible to them (they can't follow the dialog, don't realize the actions they see are "bad" or "dangerous") it is still very easy for them to be frightened by certain imagery. This can be particularly hard for adults to "guess" correctly for some things that don't look very scary to us at all may frighten them.

Two examples, my under 2 toddler really enjoys Sesame Street and loves songs and music. So my wife started showing him Fraggle Rock episodes which also use Jim Henson "Muppets" and have lots of songs (and are shorter than full Sesame Street episodes). He liked most of the show but was scared by the large "monster" puppets on the show. I am not sure why (they don't seem that different from Big Bird or Snuffleupagus) but they are "the bad guys" in the show and have more confrontations with the "fraggles" than you see on Sesame Street. We no longer watch Fraggle Rock with him.

A second example, my 3 year old niece watched Despicable Me 2 at her daycare. She came home saying that she did not like the movie because of the "scary man". I think she was referring to "Gru" the main character, who is supposed to be the good guy in the story.

So my point is just because young kids may not understand the themes or objectionable content of some shows/movies, keep in mind for really your kids find some things scary that we (as adults) don't consider scary (it may not even occur to us).

When reading a book about sleep issues in children (Nighttime Parenting: How to Get Your Baby and Child to Sleep) written by pediatrician Dr. William Sears, he argued that seeing these "scary" images in various media puts these images in their mind and can lead to nightmares at earlier ages. When they are left to use their own imagination they basically don't imagine something so scary it actually frightens them. Sure they may talk about monsters or something but just imagining monsters does not stick in their mind in a scary was as much as seeing the scary image a Hollywood makeup artists makes for a "monster". Not sure there is much hard data or science behind this, but the book has written by a doctor (FWIW).

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