Reading Time: 6 minutes

[Continuing the reruns during my busy weeks. This one first appeared on May 23, 2007, so adjust ages etc. accordingly.]

Our Friday night tradition started sometime last year. Every Friday we get a 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.

(As of this reposting, we are 47, 44, 14, 12, and 8. The 14-year-old now hates everything he loved at 11, and the 8-year-old reads better than I do, but still hides eyes when the music says to.)

Okay now…find us a movie.

When it comes to parental concerns on movie night, our guidelines might strike some as reckless. I prefer the word relaxed. And that relaxation is a good fit with our worldview.

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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.

Not a Veneerist myself. 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 us 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.

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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 and PGs, they’ve seen 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.

Readers who tend toward Veneerism will naturally suppose that I’m advocating porn and slasher marathons for toddlers. 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.

TSIn 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.

edscissorhands

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

50 eggs

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.

rainman

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.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.