Last week we went as a family to see a film.

Quite apart from the fact that it was awful (in my opinion), both daughters (4 1/2 & 7 1/2) were troubled at various times by the silly slapstick violence (i.e. big rock falling on dogs).

Afterwards, I tried to explain that it's not because it looks real that it is real, but that's a pretty hard concept to get across. I'm thinking about trying to make our own video with 'special effects', but wondered if anyone has other tips/experiences related to this.

5 Answers 5


Honestly.. I find watching the "Making of" and the extras on the blu-rays or dvd's really puts it into perspective. They show the actors when they aren't in character and how the CG is done. I have found it very helpful for explaining

  • Good idea. Maybe it's age, but I increasingly find that the "Making of"'s are more interesting than the actual film. I'd pay money to go and see a feature-length "making of Avatar".
    – Benjol
    Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 14:28
  • Yeah it really annoys me that Redbox has started stripping all the extras out of the discs.. If I like the movie I will watch every minute of extras the disc has :P
    – Tony
    Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 14:45
  • @Tony: You, sir, have far too much time on your hands. Get some kids and forget about the bonus disc -- you'll be glad to see even the actual film once in a while :-) Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 8:47
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    @Torben, I have 3 :) 9yr, 8yr, and 2mo. Hands are full, I didn't say I get to do it all the time :P Just when I can and they are available I do it. I like doing it with the kids especially when it is a movie that seems really realistic and their lines of whats real may be blurred.
    – Tony
    Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 14:00

Scientific Foundation

Any attempt on explaining some things as fiction depends on the children's ability to actually grasp that concept, so let's focus on that first: The general consensus seems to be that children can differentiate between fiction and reality (see e.g. a study from the University of Texas or research from the Max-Planck-Institute Leipzig (German); a study from Yale even suggests they can even separate multiple fictional worlds). The age of which this is possible ranges from 3 to 7 years, so you have a good chance that your children "can get the difference".


The cited studies also show two things, which I would agree with based my personal experience and which we can use to help them:

  1. Children use the context of stories to infer whether they are real or not.
  2. Children tend to accept fictional stories as true if there are links to their own lives (e.g. tooth fairies).

That means:

  • Avoid tie-ins into real-life (e.g. merchandise toys).
  • Consistently explain cinema and TV as fiction, so your children learn that everything in that box is not real. Admittedly, this is kind of hard if they also see documentaries or home-videos.
  • Avoid too realistic-looking content. Specifically for the smaller children, that is why animated movies are so appealing for me as a parent - they look unrealistic.

Showing the magic behind the tricks by way of making-ofs or even producing your own special effects video is certainly worth a try for your older one, but I don't think will help with your younger.


My daughter had difficulty with this up until age 5 or so. It was fairly easy to explain to her that animation ("things that look like drawings") was not real but CG special effects in live action footage were much harder for her to grasp. What we finally did was open up Photoshop, took a picture of her, and composited in a firework in the sky above her. After seeing us change the picture of an event she remembered she was able to accept that things she saw on TV or in pictures weren't necessarily real.

If you don't have Photoshop, GIMP is a free alternative that could be used to a similar effect (although maybe overkill).

If you happen to have OS X and a webcam, the Photo Booth app can do some rudimentary green screening type effects that could also help drive the point home.

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    Good idea, I had also thought of something like this (it will be Paint.NET).
    – Benjol
    Commented Nov 6, 2012 at 6:04

These experiences stick with kids a lot more than most (American) parents believe. Here is a true story: a friend of my son, about 13 at the time, was undergoing emergency surgery for a broken appendix that had been going on for way too long. This was a scary life & death situation. So it's a 3am in the morning, they are getting ready for the surgery and his mother and the doc talk through his fears and concerns. One of his main concerns is: "Will they put marbles in my belly during the operation", and the doctor answers: "Sorry, it's the middle of the night and we are totally out of marbles so we can't put any in and you don't have to worry about this". The mother is utterly flabbergasted and has no idea what this is about so she asks the doctor. Apparently he gets this question all the time and has a well rehearsed answer for it. There is a particularly nasty horror movie where a guy gets tortured by cutting his belly open and filling it with marbles. This seems to make a very lasting impression on many kids, at lasting enough that it's a frequent concern for belly surgery.

I think the story illustrates that kids are actually not particularly good in separating fact and fiction. Some of these experiences can really stick and bubble up in emotionally challenging situations. So a certain amount of control of what they are watching and exposed to is a really good idea. The amount to which is this advisable will heavily depend on country and culture. I raised kids in the US and in Europe and the US is particularly bad at this. According to this http://www.csun.edu/science/health/docs/tv&health.html website the average kid has seen 8000 murders on TV by the end of elementary school. Some of those will stay with them for a long time.


I don't think there's any resources for this, it's simple life experience. The most important thing they learn isn't that it is not real, but how to distinguish. It's about them learning that what they see on TV and in movies isn't always appropriate and often should not be emulated.

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