PEG 2.0

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A quick thought about age appropriateness (particularly but not only within the context of Christianity)

A syllogism:

  • Christ and the Church teach us that the Word of God is also addressed to children. 
  • The Word of God includes stories of murder, rape, prostitution, war, masturbation, mass murder (particularly of children). 
  • Therefore, stories of murder, rape, prostitution, war, masturbation and mass murder (even of children) are not inappropriate for children.

No?

I mean, I’m serious. Dutiful Christian parents take their kids to church every week, where they will hear about Lot’s daughters and David’s “taking” of Bathsheba but won’t let them watch a movie where there’s heavy petting. The story of the woman taken in adultery is a pretty fundamental part of Christian morality.

"What’s adultery, Dad?" God wants you to tell your kids.

Two things in particular are commonly held to not be age-appropriate: death and sex.

Death, it seems obvious to me, is very age-appropriate. Death is a part of life! Things die! Even if young children don’t experience deaths in their family, they will see the death of pets, or of animals, or hear about it. Anyone who has observed kids play will know that they will play-act killings routinely. Kids have no problem with the concept of death. It’s parents who do. They project their own anxieties onto their kids. Kids have no problem with the concept. Really. Christian parents, in particular, shouldn’t have any reluctance to talk to their kids about death since they believe in a Savior who has defeated death.

Sex is, if it were possible, even more age-appropriate than death, since the time before puberty is the only time where human beings can think and talk about sex in a detached way. Two things are commonly agreed upon or should be: a) parents should talk to their kids about sex; b) once they hit puberty, kids only listen to their hormones and certainly not to their parents. 

This is particularly true in today’s sex-drenched world, where, as soon as they hit puberty, minors will be buffeted by numerous, overpowering forces. The combination of hormones and culture is a very potent one, and it seems to me to be common sense that the only defensive walls that matter are the ones that are put up before the attack. 

This is true regardless of your views on, say, pre-marital sex. Even if you think it’s totally fine that your 16 (15? 14?) year old will have sex, he/she will still face important moral choices. If it is unproblematic to consent to sex outside of marriage and before majority, is it unproblematic to consent to a sexual act (or anything else) because everyone else is doing it? If it is unproblematic to consent to sex outside of marriage and before majority, is it unproblematic to lie to get laid? (Something pretty much every male teenager would do in a heartbeat.) These are conversations that need to be had, and they need to be had before puberty. This is true of all parents but particularly parents who adhere to a traditional morality.

Note that most of our traditional fairy tales are highly preoccupied with death and sex. That’s all that The Little Red Riding Hood is about; the plot centers on a stranger attracting a girl to bed. 

The other reason why we’re told that some content is age-inappropriate is not so much because of a category of content in itself (sex, death) but because some content might be traumatizing.

But this only begs the question of why it should be traumatizing.

My experience is that it’s essentially impossible to predict what will or won’t be traumatizing. It’s a fact that plenty of kids can watch really violent movies and not be traumatized by one iota. Conversely, I remember being traumatized by the Weathertop incident in The Lord of the Rings—ostensibly a children’s novel. I was also traumatized by the heart removal scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which is not exactly a children’s movie, but is a rollicking comedy-adventure film and not any sort of snuff movie.

It also seems to me that trauma will occur. Every kid was traumatized by something, and it’s also almost never something the parents or any outside observer expected. Kids are funny that way.

If trauma is both inevitable and unpredictable, it seems that trying to avoid it and predict it is futile.

Another point, of course, is that one of the reasons why we might be easily traumatized by something is if we haven’t been prepared for it. Can we not imagine a 30something who has led a very sheltered life and is deeply traumatized upon seeing, say, Jaws? Or a Hitchcock movie? Surely we can. Would this person’s parents have done her a service by sheltering her from anything potentially traumatizing?

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to take this too far. Even if we agree trauma is unpredictable, we can also agree that there are things that carry greater odds of trauma. I obviously wouldn’t show my kids, say, Irreversible

But I think all this calls for, to put it juridically, a reversal of presumption. The common attitude, it seems to me, is to presume that any movie which contains sex or violence is inappropriate for a certain age—and for many parents, this presumption is basically irrefragable.

I think it would be better for kids if we reversed that, and presumed that all material is appropriate for kids until proven otherwise, and that this proof should be ad hoc—that is to say, it is not enough to overturn the presumption that it contain violence or sex or death, but there should be something specific about the portrayal of those things that is age-inappropriate.

Notes about this post from the Tumblr community:

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    Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry A syllogism: Christ and the Church teach us that the Word of God is also addressed to children....
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