We overheard a group of Mormon teenagers ahead of us in the box office line at the movies, trying to decide which film to see. One of them was worried about a title that implied sex and drugs, but another kid said, "Well, it's PG-13, so it's OK." The rest nodded their agreement, and they all bought tickets.
As we understand it, the movie rating system started with Jack Valenti and a few of his cohorts in the Motion Picture Association of America answered the public demand for some kind of rating system by developing a formula involving a few things that could be quantified and counted, like how many times the f-word was used.
Not to be judgmental, but from what we know about Jack Valenti, he is not the person we would choose to make the determination of what movies our kids ought to see.
What we hate about the system is that it does not take into account the purpose or the message or the moral of the movie. Thus wonderful movies with powerful moral messages and true heroes like "Schindler's List" or "The Shawshank Redemption" or the current "The King's Speech" get rated R; while amoral and deeply offensive movies that "call evil good" or that ignore moral questions altogether (or make fun of them), such as the current "Little Fockers," get rated PG-13. Most of us can think of (and perhaps have walked out of) PG-13 movies that were nothing but random violence and recreational, amoral sex and which "humorously" implied that "everybody does it."
The most dangerous thing to our kids is not immorality, but amorality. Immorality, when it is portrayed accurately, becomes a warning in itself, as in scripture and in good literature or storytelling or movies that depict the struggle of good and evil. Amorality, though, which is often disguised by comedy and implied commonality, can have a deeply destructive effect on our kids and on ourselves.
Adultery, for example, when accurately (but not graphically) presented as an element in a drama, complete with its dilemmas and consequences, can have a positive effect on its readers or viewers, inducing thoughtfulness, caution and sensitivity. But casual, experimental, recreational sex, portrayed as completely thoughtless and often as something to be joked about and to be tried out on every level and as part of being "normal" can have a devastating, desensitizing effect on those who see it.
The point here is not to justify R-rated movies. It is to caution parents as well as kids about PG-13 movies. There are places we can go to find out about the story lines and the messages of movies. One of the best is the Catholic movie rating website at www.usccb.org/movies.
And oftentimes, just watching a preview or a trailer (which we can all get online now, as easy as Googling) usually gives you a pretty good idea of the tone and the vantage point the movie takes.
And if all else fails, and if you have suspicions, go see the PG-13 movie yourself before your child sees it.
Kids themselves can become pretty good critics if we have the right kind of conversations with them. President Gordon B. Hinckley encouraged us over and over again to choose entertainment that is inspiring and uplifting. A thoughtful discussion with your kids about that can help make them into pretty good critics. They can understand the difference between immorality and amorality. They can discuss the intent and the message of movies and can respond to questions like "What is wrong with this picture?" Watch the trailers together, and have a discussion. Turn your kids into people who make judgments for themselves and who can see both the real good and the real bad in the world (and the movies) around them.
The Eyres are the founders of Joy Schools and of valuesparenting.com and the authors of numerous best-selling books on marriage, parenting and family. Their mission statement, developed while presiding over the England London South Mission, is FORTIFY FAMILIES by celebrating commitment, popularizing parenting, bolstering balance and validating values. Their next book is "5 Spiritual Solutions for Everyday Parenting Problems," and their blog can be found at www.deseretnews.com/blog/81/A-World-of-Good.html.