© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

The Relaxed Parent Film Festival

Our Friday night tradition started sometime last year. Every Friday we get a Papa Murphy’s pizza the size of a Buick and a family movie.

By family movie, I don’t mean “family movie.” I mean a movie that our whole family watches together, which believe you me is not often the same thing. And here’s where it gets interesting. It’s my job each week to choose the film. Here’s the audience:

MALE, 44, WRITER. Enjoys philosophical themes; unpredictable, non-linear narratives; line-crossing humor.
FEMALE, 41, EDUCATOR. Enjoys chick-flicks, ro-coms, foreign films. Has never seen a movie without crying.
MALE, 11. Enjoys science fiction, sports, fantasy, adventure. Hates everything he loved at ages nine and five.
FEMALE, 9. Enjoys character-driven dramas and comedies. Gets lost in non-linear narratives, requiring frequent paternal trips to the pause button.
FEMALE, 5. Enjoys an amazingly wide range of flicks, from Pokemon to war movies to comedies to space epics. Can’t read, so captions are out. Hides eyes whenever the music turns minor.

Okay now…find us a movie.

Wait wait, a few more things you should know. Neither of the parents will sit through anything numbingly stupid. Nothing that looks like That’s So Raven, and nothing of the Pokemon/Yu-Gi-Oh ouevre. If it’s animated, it pretty much has to be Pixar, which means actual plot and characters. And we’ve seen all of those, 4-20 times each.

As for parental concerns — well, our guidelines might strike some parents as reckless. I prefer the word relaxed. And that relaxation comes straight out of our worldview.


Conservative religious denominations often teach that humankind is inherently sinful — that beneath a thin veneer of civility lurks a boiling depravity, just itching to stretch its legs. We must erect all sorts of protections and precautions to avoid opening the floodgates, lest we crack each others’ heads open to feast on the goo inside, or worse, turn gay. “If not for the seventh commandment,” I once heard a Veneerist proclaim in a debate, “there would be NOTHING to keep me from walking out the door to cheat on my wife!” Nothing? Not love? I wondered. Or commitment? Or simple human decency? If you say so.

Most depressing of all was his wife, nodding like a bobblehead in the front row.

I don’t buy this for a minute. Though we humans do occasionally screw things up rather royally, most of the time most of us behave well, especially if we feel loved and supported by those around us. It’s yet another gift of evolution. Populations with a tendency toward self-destruction would quickly lose the selective advantage to cooperative ones. The outlook that my kids are evolutionarily inclined to be good changes almost EVERYTHING about my parenting, especially compared to those who see their kids as simmering pots of potential felony and monitoring the flames beneath them as the most urgent parental task. It allows me, among other things, to focus on drawing them out instead of beating them in.

I don’t have to psychotically protect my children from scratches to their protective layer. I want to immerse them in the colors and contrasts and confusions of the world — gradually, yes, but definitely. I believe this fearless approach is ending me up with some pretty remarkable, multifaceted, complex, wonderful kids. You should meet them. I think you’d agree. So, dinner on Thursday, then?

I once had a student, a college freshman, who had never seen a non-Disney movie. It was the standard her parents had developed to protect her from certain ideas, images, and themes — call them “colors” — that could have scratched her veneer, damaging the porcelain doll beneath, or worse yet, letting loose the she-wolf within.


As a result, she hadn’t seen The Wizard of Oz. She hadn’t seen E.T. Is there a Disney film that deals with the longing for home as beautifully as those two?

Since we began our movie tradition about forty Fridays ago, my kids have been exposed to a fantastic variety of themes and ideas, cultural touchpoints they refer to over and over. Yes, we’ve seen Flicka and Flipper, Over the Hedge, Little Manhattan and The Karate Kid. But then there are these:

Pleasantville • Edward Scissorhands • Cool Hand Luke • The Great Escape • Jesus Christ Superstar • Rain Man • Big Fish • Empire of the Sun • Life of Brian • Groundhog Day • Walking with Cavemen • South Pacific • Raising Arizona • Intimate Universe • The Truman Show • Walking with Dinosaurs • The Pursuit of Happyness • Stranger than Fiction • I, Robot • About a Boy • Brian’s Song • Parenthood • Bridge on the River Kwai

In addition to the Gs, they’ve seen a lot of PGs, plenty of PG-13s, and a few carefully-chosen Rs (like Rain Man). That means once in a while our kids hear a good solid swear or a reference to actual human sexuality, and have somehow avoided the plunge into foul-mouthed promiscuity.

I think this kind of low-key, normalized exposure makes it less likely they’ll gravitate toward these behaviors. If instead we hide these things, we make them powerful, attractive…forbidden fruit. When a Veneerist jumps for the remote at the first deep kiss or angry curse, he underlines the message that something truly magical is afoot.

Veneerist readers will naturally suppose that I’m advocating porn and slasher marathons for toddlers. Silly Veneerists. Non-Veneerists know there’s something between Little House on the Prairie and Debbie Does Dallas — a great big juicy wonderful and textured middle. My kids have been there, and they’re all the richer for it.


In less than a year, the five of us have explored the importance of honesty (About a Boy, Liar Liar), felt deep compassion and empathy (Brian’s Song, Pursuit of Happyness), learned to care deeply about those who are different (Rain Man, Edward Scissorhands), admired courage and perseverance (Empire of the Sun, The Great Escape), contemplated the meaning of humanness (I, Robot), challenged smiling conformity (Pleasantville, Life of Brian, Big Fish) and questioned our assumptions about reality itself (The Truman Show, Stranger than Fiction, Groundhog Day, Big Fish). We even stood with Judas as he took Jesus to task for neglecting the less fortunate as he pursued his own fame (Jesus Christ Superstar), traced our origins (Walking With Cavemen) and learned never, ever to build a bridge for the enemy, even if your craftsmanship makes you proud (Bridge on the River Kwai). Can’t tell you how many times that lesson has come in handy.

My kids have cried with empathy for people who initially scared them.


Most important of all, they’ve learned that a man really can eat fifty eggs.

50 eggs

Yes yes, fine, Charlie Babbitt [Tom Cruise] says “fuck” about a dozen times in Rain Man. He does so because he’s an arrogant, selfish jerk — and arrogant, selfish jerks don’t say “boogers” when they’re mad. My kids didn’t want to be like Charlie Babbitt, so why would they emulate his language? Instead, they marveled at how his selfishness slowly transformed into first tolerance, then selfless love for his brother — something underlined by his changing use of the full palette of the English language.


About the tenth time Charlie cussed, Erin shot me a look and said, “Boy, you can tell what kind of person he is.” She had a chance to handle it, process it, and put it in perspective in our living room rather than on the schoolbus.

Best of all, they’re developing a taste for the unique, the creative, and the offbeat, for imaginative narratives and complex visions of the world.

Sure, sometimes I cringe and leap to the remote when a scene heads a little further than we’d expected. But it’s worth the risk. So next time you’re thinking about a film for the whole family, reach beyond G and PG. Let them engage the messy, fascinating world out there while you’re in the living room with them. They can handle more than we give them credit for.

GREAT RESOURCE FOR PARENTS: Netflix’s Parent Advisory feature in the left margin of the page for each film. Click on the “more” link for a terrific, detailed run-down of elements to help you decide what’s appropriate for your kids. You might care more about profanity, while I like to avoid people with their insides on their outsides. The advisory feature gives us each what we need to know. Here’s an example of the parent advisory page for Big Fish, a family favorite of ours. And here’s the advisory that helped us to green-light the R-rated Rain Man.



This was written on Monday, 28. May 2007 at 21:30 and was filed under My kids, Parenting, sex. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. Great ideas for movies. I’ve never understood why people are more upset over swearing than violence. I was once watching “Con Air” with some family members, but it had been recorded from television. Right after some people had gotten killed in the movie, one of the adults literally made the comment, “It sure is nice watching this on TV so they take all the cursing out.” Yes, because watching people get violently murdered could become something sordid if you also had to hear the f-word. Oy.

    Comment: zthomas – 29. May 2007 @ 1:54 am

  2. One of our many cultural inheritances from the Puritans, who gleefully burned people but wouldn’t even say ‘damn’ if they saw a beaver’s home. Along the same lines: We accept 30,000 gun deaths per year in the US. but do cartwheels of outrage at the brief sighting of Janet Jackson’s nipple. Europeans have the polarity reversed: They edit movies for violence and leave in the harmless swearing and nudity.

    Comment: Dale – 29. May 2007 @ 9:15 am

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    Pingback: Parenting Beyond Belief Goes to the Movies « Cocking A Snook! – 29. May 2007 @ 10:12 am

  4. Along a similar thought…
    I was driving with my kids and a childless friend this weekend. My six-year old, Zack, asked me why my cousin Tyler doesn’t live “at home” anymore. I explained that he has his own place now. Zack asked if he lived with Ashley (girlfriend) and I said yes. Zack asked if they were married, “no”. He then asked a bunch of questions about marriage that led to “well now can they kiss each other?” and “can they kiss each other naked, in their bed?”. Now, I’m not positive where he came up with this idea, but he’s mentioned it once before. So I figured I should address it. My girlfriend was turned looking at me the entire duration of this conversation. I stopped for a sec and thought that I could shut down the trail of the conversation as he’s only six. I could lie about anything I thought wasn’t age appropriate, or I could just tell him what I thought he should know as he grew up. He’s never asked any “where do babies come from type questions so we haven’t touched on this subject too much”. So I said, “Some people do do that. They are grown ups”. Later in the weekend I heard him telling his little friend that he can get married when he’s a grown up and then he will live with his wife. It was a matter-of-fact statement and sounded pretty healthy and non-glorified too.

    My point is, that I think that if we choose to face matters head on with our kids, rather than shelter them or deny them, they will have a very healthy reaction to the subject when we aren’t around to guide them. Imagine the shock of a college freshman who has only watched Disney movies? And I can think of all sorts of things that I had to use my imagination for as a child as my parents didn’t discuss things with us. I actually thought that when a baby was full-term, the mother’s stomach just opened up and out came the baby.

    Comment: Amanda – 29. May 2007 @ 10:39 am

  5. Amanda wrote “If we choose to face matters head on with our kids, rather than shelter them or deny them, they will have a very healthy reaction to the subject when we aren’t around to guide them.”

    DING DING DING DING DING! Well said, Amanda! My thoughts exactly. This is SUCH an important point.

    Comment: Dale – 29. May 2007 @ 11:22 am

  6. We’ve loved movies by Hayao Miyazaki. They are all wonderful, creative, meaningful, and appropriate for all ages.



    Comment: mfreedman – 04. June 2007 @ 2:47 pm

  7. I’m so glad you included Big Fish! If you hadn’t, I would have recommended it. Not sure if your son or the 5 year old would like it, but you might consider Harold and Maude…one of my favorites, and it has a great soundtrack. I would also recommend Stand By Me and The Secret of Roan Inish.
    I plan to follow my dads movie rules. He said as long as he knows that I understand that movie violence is make believe, and that bad guys are bad guys, he’s trusts me to watch violence. As long as I live in the real world, he trusts me to hear swearing and not repeat every word in front of my grandmother-which I heard quite a bit from him anyway! As long as I was a human being who had a naked body, and knew that boys had different parts, he was pretty sure that was natural and normal. The only thing he drew the line at was “adult situations”-graphic sexual scenes.

    Comment: matsonwaggs – 05. June 2007 @ 6:35 pm

  8. I have a movie suggestion. Defending Your Life
    Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep
    It’s an interesting take on the “afterlife.” I always enjoyed it.

    Comment: npittard – 06. June 2007 @ 8:32 pm

  9. Ohh, I’m lovin’ this thread. Keep the suggestions coming! I’d forgotten “Defending Your Life,” which I’ve now wedged into our queue behind Tootsie and Young Frankenstein (our next two). And I adore “Harold and Maude.” I’m sure Connor will love that, though Delaney would be too freaked out by the fake suicides. “Secret of Roan Inish” actually kicked off our Friday video tradition last year — the very first thing we rented from Netflix.

    Comment: Dale – 07. June 2007 @ 12:05 pm

  10. How about Christopher Guest’s classic “mocumentaries”:

    – This Is Spinal Tap
    – Waiting For Guffman
    – Best in Show

    Your (good!) choices of “Groundhog Day” and “Tootsie” also reminded me of some other Bill Murray favourites:

    – Meatballs
    – Caddyshack
    – Scrooged
    – Ghost Busters
    – What About Bob?
    – The Royal Tenenbaums
    – Lost in Translation

    Some others, in no particular order:

    – Fletch (and Fletch Lives)
    – What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?
    – Benny & Joon
    – Chocolat
    – Amelie (doesn’t deserve the R-rating, because it’s European!)
    – Run Lola Run

    More to follow!

    Comment: Theo – 08. June 2007 @ 9:07 am

  11. Great list! You are clearly a person after my own heart. Some on that list (Scrooged, Ghostbusters) we’ve all seen, some just my wife and I have seen. Several others are going straight to the Q!

    Run Lola Run, for the record, is one of my all time personal top five. Watching it with my 9-year-old, though — the one who requires straightforward, linear narratives — would be a nightmare of pause-and-explain. Only Memento would be more confounding for her at this stage.

    (One gasp-inducing admission of my own: I still haven’t seen Spinal Tap!)

    Comment: Dale – 08. June 2007 @ 9:40 am

  12. I’m a real movie nut, so I loved this thread!

    I notice you, generally speaking, don’t have very many older movies on your list.

    How about the Marx Brothers? I would think kids would love them.

    I’m going to introduce my kid to all the oldies (at the age appropriate time):

    Film noir like “Double Indemnity” “The Maltese Falcon”
    Old gangster movies like Scarface (the Paul Muni one, not the Pacino one!)
    Screwball comedies like “Bringing up Baby”
    Preston Sturges films
    Ray Harryhausen moves:
    Jason and the Argonauts (1963)–kids would love
    King Kong–(the old one) would be great for kids!
    Clash of the Titans

    How about The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T?

    Anyway, good thread!


    Comment: betelnut – 16. June 2007 @ 4:00 pm

  13. Pokemon isn’t really the best standard on which to judge all Japanese animation. Anything by Studio Ghibli would be a good movie for you to watch with your family.
    I recommend:
    -Kiki’s delivery service
    -My Neighbor Totoro
    -Spirited Away
    -Howl’s Moving Castle
    -Whisper of the heart
    –Porco Rosso
    -Naussicaa of the Valley of the wind
    and if you’re in the mood for something heart wrenching and sad, Grave of the Fireflies

    All these have solid plots and characters and are not cookie cutter animated movies. They are funny, romantic, cute and even scary. They touch on topics such as love, death, war, honor and family. You should give them a try. 🙂

    Comment: smoerke – 19. June 2007 @ 1:51 pm

  14. Oh goodness yes, I don’t mean to give the impression that I’m lumping all Japanese animation in with Pokemon! We’ve seen Spirited Away, and it’s lovely. I’ll look for the others as well.

    Susan — yes, Jason and the Argonauts is on our list!

    Comment: Dale – 19. June 2007 @ 4:50 pm

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