“Can I Watch a Movie?” Ensign, Dec. 1991, 29
“Mom, Jennifer invited me to her birthday party and a show. Can I go?” It was our fourteen-year-old daughter asking.
“What is the movie?” was my wife’s predictable response.
“I don’t know—just a show,” was our daughter’s equally predictable answer.
“Well, you can’t go unless I know if the movie you are going to see is acceptable.”
“Oh, Mom, I won’t watch anything bad. Don’t you trust me?”
This conversation led to some tense moments between mother and daughter as my wife struggled within herself to know what to do. Our daughter made a phone call, under protest, to her friend to find out the movie’s title. My wife then searched through the paper to find a review of the film. Though it wasn’t R-rated, it did not meet the standards we had set for our family.
Now my wife was faced with the dilemma of wanting our daughter to feel accepted and at the same time wanting to teach her that living gospel standards ultimately brings greater happiness than attending a questionable movie with her friends. There was also another worry; the girl’s mother was an active member of the Church, yet she was letting her daughter and friends attend this movie as part of the party. Am I too prudish? my wife asked herself. Are the standards we set for our daughter that different from the standards of other families in the Church? With some trepidation, my wife picked up the phone and called the other girl’s mother.
This anecdote has a happy ending. The girl’s mother had been under time pressures and had not checked the appropriateness of the movie. She thanked my wife for being a concerned parent, and a different movie was chosen for the birthday party. Despite the outcome, however, our daughter was embarrassed by the episode.
We have found that the pamphlet For the Strength of Youth can help our family avoid little crises like this one. Its introduction tells us: “The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve have reviewed, accepted, and endorsed this pamphlet, which is printed at their request and with their approval for the information, guidance, and blessings of the youth of the Church.”1 Though the scriptures give us guidelines concerning modern problems, this pamphlet provides needed reinforcement in dealing with specific questions of our day.
My wife and I know that our children are more willing to accept Heavenly Father’s standards than they are the “old-fashioned” principles of parents who, they believe, grew up in a time just prior to written history. Now, when there is a question in our family about Church standards, we read together: “Don’t attend or participate in any form of entertainment, including concerts, movies, and videocassettes, that is vulgar, immoral, inappropriate, suggestive, or pornographic in any way. Movie ratings do not always accurately reflect offensive content. Don’t be afraid to walk out of a movie, turn off a television set, or change a radio station if what’s being presented does not meet your Heavenly Father’s standards.”2
My wife and I enjoy going out to view a well-produced, entertaining movie in a theater with a big screen and a good sound system. It is one of our first choices for a date together. In our family, we also enjoy snuggling together at home, with a big bowl of popcorn, to watch a rented video. Fearing that I may like this form of entertainment too much, I try to limit my watching of TV and movies to a selected number of hours a week; I was delighted to read in the biography of President Spencer W. Kimball that he took his family to the movies weekly in Thatcher, Arizona, and even after his call to the Quorum of the Twelve, he would go to the movies when time permitted.3
But movie standards have changed since the Kimball family used to attend movies in Thatcher. It seems more and more difficult to find a movie or a video that does not have elements contrary to Latter-day Saint standards. In our lives, we recognize that many of the Lord’s laws, such as the prohibitions of the Word of Wisdom, are concrete, and it is easy to judge whether or not we are keeping them. It isn’t quite so easy to make judgments about whether a motion picture is appropriate. Perhaps we should give up the struggle as some have done—throw out the television and never see another movie. But I do not believe this is the solution. How I can prepare my children to face the world’s challenges by pretending that there are no such things as television and movies?
Because of the combination of moving, stunningly colored images, powerful music, and realistic sound effects, modern movie-making techniques create an illusion of reality. Each year, new advances in the art are aimed at making the viewer feel as if he or she is witnessing a real event, or even participating in it.
During a well-produced movie, the viewer can experience a wide range of human emotions. I have found myself laughing heartily in a theater while viewing a comedy, or hoping the lights will not come on before I wipe the tears from my cheeks after viewing a tender moment on the screen. I remember leaving a particularly fast-paced movie, jumping into my car (which, it seemed, had been magically transformed into a jet fighter) and roaring off down the road for a block or two before I broke the spell of the movie. I know of a person who became so engrossed in a movie that he stood up in the middle of a packed theater and hollered at the “bad guy,” while his girlfriend tried to make herself as small as possible in the seat next to him.
If movies and videos can influence us emotionally, they can certainly teach us good and wise principles. Nearly thirty years ago, I viewed the film Man’s Search for Happiness, which was produced by the Church for the New York World’s Fair. Even many years later, as I remember that movie, the emotional impact of the scene where a kewpie doll was dropped and broken still contributes significantly to my philosophy of life. I wasn’t just told; I saw and felt that the material things of this life are transitory and of little worth when compared with eternal values.
Movies and videos can also teach us negative values. For the Strength of Youth offers this warning: “Whatever you read, listen to, or watch makes an impression on you. Public entertainment and the media can provide you with much positive experience. They can uplift and inspire you, teach you good and moral principles, and bring you closer to the beauty this world offers. But they can also make what is wrong and evil look normal, exciting, and acceptable.”4
Concern about movies and videos often overshadows the need for care in selecting appropriate books and magazines. Perhaps we parents are so pleased when children turn off the television to read that we are not as concerned as we should be with what they are reading.
With all of the media now available, how can we as parents give guidance to our children? We will not always be present when the television is on. We will not be able to preview all of the movies, books, and magazines to which our children will be exposed.
The tenet taught by the Prophet Joseph Smith—teach correct principles and let them govern themselves5—is an ideal to strive for in teaching our children. Then we hope we can be confident that they will not watch or read that which is contrary to the family’s ideals.
Teaching correct principles requires constant reminders and repetitions. One reading of For the Strength of Youth will not be sufficient.
My wife and I show interest in our children’s reading material by giving them books for Christmas and birthdays. We take them to the library when they are young and help them pick out books to read. Since some of my happiest childhood memories are of my mother reading to me and my brothers before she tucked us into bed, I was happy to find that my wife enjoyed reading to our children at night just as my mother had done. The thought that a father could also read bedtime stories never occurred to me until a co-worker told me how much fun it was for him to read to his children. My youngest ones and I have now read many delightful books together.
When I visit with my teenagers in their room, I make it a point to look at the books and magazines they read for school and for enjoyment. I thumb through the books and read a page or two; I can learn a great deal about a book by doing that. We discuss the literature they read, much as we discuss the movies they watch. I notice that sometimes they read the Friend, the New Era, and other materials written by Latter-day Saint authors who are attempting to provide alternatives to materials that may be questionable.
In school, however, our children will inevitably, at some point, come into contact with books and magazines that do not reflect Church standards. Some of these may even be listed by teachers as suggested or required reading. How can we guide our children in these instances without being heavy-handed?
First, we as parents must believe in and abide by the principles we seek to instill in our children. The Book of Mormon speaks often about the “traditions of their fathers.” (See Mosiah 1:5, for example.) Our children, like those of the Nephites and Lamanites, are most likely to reflect the standards and ideals they see their parents live.
Teenagers especially are repulsed by hypocrisy. Elder James E. Faust taught this principle in a conference address: “When parents try to teach their children to avoid danger, it is no answer for parents to say to their children, ‘We are experienced and wise in the ways of the world, and we can get closer to the edge of the cliff than you.’ Parental hypocrisy can make children cynical and unbelieving of what they are taught in the home. For instance, when parents attend movies they forbid their children to see, parental credibility is diminished. If children are expected to be honest, parents must be honest. If children are expected to be virtuous, parents must be virtuous. If you expect your children to be honorable, you must be honorable.”6
Shortly after buying a videocassette recorder for our home, my wife and I rented a video whose cover looked good. The children wanted to watch it with us, but we were not sure of its content, so we told them we would watch it first and then decide whether they could see it. We were gripped by the exciting story but dismayed at the profanity and at one of the scenes. Afterward, my wife and I felt hypocritical. That kind of movie, we agreed, did not belong in our home. We would strive to find videos we could watch as a family.
Second, in addition to honestly living according to the standards we teach our children, we as parents should learn all we can about a movie’s appropriateness before we watch it or allow our children to watch it. In our family, we use several methods to determine the content of a movie before we see it.
Movie Ratings. It is no secret that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating system is a poor guideline for determining whether or not a movie or video is suitable for family viewing. But it does help eliminate many from consideration. If the permissive MPAA rating restricts some segments of the population from seeing a movie, then as a parent I know that my family and I should not see it. Some will argue that a particular movie is rated PG-13 or R because of violence or “just one scene,” but that otherwise the film is excellent. What that means is that some excellent movies should not be viewed by those who are striving to live the standards outlined in For the Strength of Youth.
Movie Review Books. Each Christmas we buy a movie review book for our family. I have found as many as seven different books at one time at local bookstores. All of them print a brief synopsis of the movie and the reviewer’s personal rating, from excellent to poor. The books most useful to our family are the ones that tell why a movie received its MPAA rating—i.e., “rated PG for light violence and brief nudity.” It also helps to know when the movie was produced and the names of the cast members. Rather than browsing through the video store, we have used our book to select movies we are interested in renting. Unfortunately, however, most of the movies currently playing in local theaters will not be listed in a movie review book until the next edition is published.
Newspaper reviewers. We are fortunate to subscribe to a newspaper that publishes weekly reviews of the movies playing in our area. Most if not all metropolitan papers have similar review sections. The reviews in our newspaper are helpful in making decisions because the critic warns the viewer of violence, sex, nudity, profanity, etc. However, we must recognize that many reviewers have standards different from our own; therefore, a movie receiving high critical acclaim may be offensive to us.
While writing this article, I became aware of a new bimonthly publication that warns of objectionable language or scenes in current movies. The publication seeks to avoid passing judgment about whether the movie is good or bad, but after reading the review of a current movie, we can know exactly what to expect before going to the film.7
Trusted Friends. Perhaps the best way to determine the appropriateness of a movie is to talk with friends who have standards similar to your own. If they have seen the film in question, they can offer valuable guides about what your family may find acceptable.
With all our effort to keep the filth of the world out of our homes and our lives, there will be times when we are surprised. What then? “Don’t be afraid to walk out of a movie, turn off a television set.”8 There is usually a good teaching moment when children see their parents turn off the television or the VCR because questionable material is suddenly shown.
Our original question—“Can I watch a movie?”—may be more difficult to answer affirmatively in the future. But Latter-day Saint parents and youth are not left without guidance. We can be thankful to be led by modern prophets who help us know the standards the Lord would have us keep in a world where, as prophesied, Satan is raging “in the hearts of the children of men.” (2 Ne. 28:20.)