How to Choose the Right Movies for Your Kids

If you've ever carried a terrified child out of a movie theater or covered your kid's eyes (and ears) during a particularly steamy love scene, you know how hard it is to find age-appropriate movies. Adding to the challenge is the fact that trailers for big blockbusters are "leaked" online way in advance of the movie release and, along with TV ads, are viewed by kids even when the movies in question are geared for older audiences. It's tough to stay up to speed and make informed decisions when your kids are begging to see some movie you've never heard of -- or something they swear all their friends have seen or are going to see.

The MPAA rating is where most parents start. But "G," "PG," and "PG-13" don't offer enough information, even with the accompanying rating reasons. Guess right, and everybody has a good time. Guess wrong, and you might end up having to explain some really sketchy stuff to your kids.

There truly is a better way. It starts with understanding what content isn't only age-appropriate but also developmentally appropriate for your child. After that, you can determine what's OK based on the things that matter to you, like your kid's interests and individual temperament. What's scary to one 7-year-old may be fun and action-packed for another.

Here are some things to consider when it comes to choosing the right movies for your kids:

  • What age is the movie aimed at? Sometimes a movie's target age group is obvious -- for example, when it has characters your child already knows and loves, like The Little Mermaid. But things get tricky when seemingly age-appropriate characters are put in scary situations, as in Transformers, for example (the toys are marketed to young children, but the movies are decidedly more mature!). You'll need to make a judgment call based on what you think is right for your kid, taking into account many of the factors described in more detail below.

  • Quality. Yes, quality can be subjective -- and certainly your kids will like stuff you don't -- but look for benchmarks. Does the story line make sense? Are the characters well-rounded, or do they rely on one-dimensional stereotypes? Is the dialogue believable? Does it engage kids on a meaningful level? Is it well paced? Does the movie use music, special effects, and strong production values to amplify the meaning -- or does it simply go for cheap laughs? There's a big difference between a mindless giant doll commercial such as Bratz Super Babyz and the beautifully animated Tinker Bell and the Secret of the Wings.
  • Educational value. This is especially important when you're looking for movies for younger kids. It's perfectly fine to choose movies solely for their entertainment value, but if kids can learn something, too, then why not give it a shot? A perfect example of this type of "edutainment" is the Ruby's Studio series, which uses stories, crafts, and songs to impart lessons on safety, feelings, and friendship.
  • Messages and role models. Media messages really do affect kids, so it makes sense to choose movies that reflect the kinds of values you'd like your children to absorb. Younger kids are more literal and do better with direct messages, like the ones in Sesame Street: Ready for School. But for older kids, movies with slightly ambiguous messages -- like Holes -- provide an opportunity for you to discuss your own views and values. Also consider the characters. Are they people you'd like real kids to emulate? Are adults present and responsible? Are the characters realistic and relatable -- like the unlikely animal pair Ernest & Celestine -- or shallow and stereotypical, like the ones in Baby Geniuses? Are there consequences for their behavior?
  • Violence, sex, and language. Although movies for younger kids don't have graphic violence, sex, or language, many push the limits. It may be cartoon violence instead of realistic violence, kissing and flirting instead of full-fledged love scenes, and gateway words like "heck" and "jerk" (or all-purpose made-up swearing substitutions like "smurf") instead of four-letter curses. All these aspects intensify as movies move up the age range. Common Sense Media offers expert guidelines for the level of violence, sex, and language that's developmentally appropriate for every age, but you may need to make a judgment call for your own child, based on your own values. Don't mind a few F-words? Then The King's Speech is probably fine for your older tweens and up, since language is the only iffy content. OK with some big, boomy violence if it's in a context that makes sense and has consequences? Then The Avengers might be your perfect family movie night pick.
  • Consumerism. Did you hear about the $1,600 Frozen dress -- for kindergartners? Product placements (think Coke in the fridge, a BMW in the driveway), fast-food tie-ins (action figures in kids' meals), and merchandise (hello, Lego Movie!) all are part of movie marketing. Consumerism in a movie doesn't disqualify it from being worthwhile (and, honestly, it's pretty hard to avoid entirely), but it's an important aspect to keep in mind and to talk to your kids about. Train them to be on the lookout for it, and they'll learn some valuable media-literacy skills.
  • Drinking, drugs and smoking. The presence of these substances in movies is sometimes crucial to the story line (for example, in Malcolm X), essential for historical accuracy (as in Hitchcock's The 39 Steps), or related to a key character trait (as with Captain Haddock in Tintin). But there are plenty of examples of gratuitous drinking, drugs, and smoking (in the Hangover movies, for example) being portrayed as humorous and relatively consequence-free. We offer guidelines for what's developmentally appropriate for every age, and you may need to make a final call for your kids based on what amount you're OK with. Any time that substance use or abuse comes up, take the opportunity to discuss the issue with your kids.
  • User reviews. Sometimes it takes a village to figure out which movies are right for our kids. If you're on the fence, see what other parents -- and even kids -- are saying. Although our user community's ratings are based on personal opinion rather than developmental guidelines, they do rate movies using the same tools our editors do, with icons to flag areas of concern, stars to signal overall quality, and a target age to help you decide.

The bottom line is that it's up to you to do your research, and Common Sense Media makes that easy by providing detailed written and video reviews, so you know exactly what to expect. We've done the hard work for you -- you just have to apply it to your family and remember to check the ratings (and maybe check out a trailer) before showing a movie to your kids. And don't forget: If you're not comfortable with what's on the screen, you can always walk out or turn it off.