Sometime between the moment my son covered his eyes at the sight of a waterlogged corpse missing an eyeball, and when he woke the entire house with a night terror at 1 a.m., I began wondering if I’d made a terrible mistake.
It had been months since he first asked when he’d be allowed to watch Jaws. I still can’t explain where he got the itch for a 1975 horror film about a homicidal shark set in a fictional beach town that looks suspiciously like Martha’s Vineyard. But he’d kept after me enough that I’d asked other parents about whether they’d let a 7-year-old see it. I don’t think any of them said yes.
But one Saturday afternoon in July, after many more requests and with nothing else to do, I opened a binder of DVDs, popped in Jaws, and sat next to my son for the next two hours and four minutes.
I would’ve been a hypocrite to deny him: I love the movie, and thirtysomething years ago I was an elementary schooler at the video store, persuading my parents to take home the VHS cassette with a tombstone-looking shark on the case. It wasn’t rated R, so they didn’t fuss. (I’ve questioned my parents’ methods a lot over the years, but here, I found myself following their example without hesitation.)
Many parents worry about indecencies in the media our kids consume — the brazen profanity on a Spotify playlist, fatalities in a video game, terror in a PG movie (before the invention of the PG-13 horror movie) — out of some vague fear that we might ruin them forever. My rebuttal: Hey, we found that kind of stuff when we were young too, and we’re basically OK now, right? What’s to say we can’t hold our kids’ hands while they push the envelope, and let them delight in transgression? Maybe in doing so, the high-strung parents among us can relax a little.
At least I thought it was that simple, until I spoke with Alan Kazdin, a psychology professor at Yale University. It turns out my son is in the age range — roughly 5 to 7 years old — when monster and bogeyman fears are at their highest. Such worries are normal and temporary, Kazdin says, adding, “There aren’t too many 40-year-olds who say, ‘I can’t sleep in the dark because there’s something under the bed.’”
But individual identity complicates my approach. My son has more of an inhibitory than an excitatory temperament, to use Kazdin’s terminology. Essentially, this means he’s more introverted than extroverted, more likely to have greater reactions to things that provoke anxiety, and more vulnerable to having irrational fears stick around longer. “For [inhibitory] children, I would be more hesitant to test their limits,” Kazdin says.
Hearing this, I remembered the 5-year-old me freaking out at the library phantasm near the start of Ghostbusters, and I silently acknowledged that I might have misread whether my son was really ready. A sign that Jaws might have been too intense: that night terror.
But Kazdin acknowledges a brutal truth of our modern technological age. “There’s no limit on what a child can be exposed to, and a parent, in fact, can’t control it very well.” Most children in the United States acquire their first smartphone before their 12th birthday. “Once a child gets that, it’s all over — you have access to everything,” Kazdin says, alluding to children who easily bypass parental controls intended to block profanity, violence, and pornography.
Off-screen, grim realities — the psychic toll of active shooter drills, the pandemic, the wildfire smoke that compelled me to talk with my kids about the ill planet they’ll inherit — intrude with regularity and without permission. By comparison, a mechanical shark chewing on a beer-chugging, blood-gushing fisherman seems quaint. (Scary movies might even help in tough times: One study suggests horror movie aficionados were less overwhelmed during the early days of COVID-19.)
But living with calamity isn’t license to show your kindergartner The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. If you’re going to push your kids’ limits, Kazdin says, first ask yourself: Are you doing this for you, or are you doing this for your child? Then, start with low doses and less intensity, ideally without violence. (Before Jaws, I’d seen my son handle The Empire Strikes Back, Rocky IV, and other PG movies well enough.) And even if it’s hard to find where to draw the line, remember that it exists. No matter how many times he’s asked since seeing the iconic Scream mask at CVS, my son is not watching that movie anytime soon.
As for Jaws, he was gleefully scared. Combined, we’ve watched the movie and some of its sequels at least five times. At his initiative, we’ve also seen bits and pieces of documentaries on bull sharks and hammerheads, and the great whites off Cape Cod, and he’s heard me blab about why sharks prefer to seek their calories from seals rather than swimmers.
One day, as I scrambled off to work, my neighbor, a mother of four apparently well-adjusted young adults, waited with my kids for a late bus. When she saw my son’s Jaws shirt, she said, “I think Abby was about your age the first time she watched that.”
Whether or not I’d made the right decision, at least I was in good company.
Jeff Harder is a writer based in Connecticut. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.