1.) Introduction / 2.) Ratings, Censorship and Negative Criteria / 3.) What SHOULD Children See? / 4.) What SHOULDN'T Children See? / 5.) Children and "Adult" Drama

Children and "Adult" Drama

Virtually all of the above applies equally to choosing a play for a child audience and to deciding whether to take a child to see a play intended primarily for adults.  Children should not be taken to the theatre "to be seen," even if their parents are going primarily for that reason.  If the child will not be able to appreciate a play--if she will be bored by it, or will not understand it--she shouldn't go.  Children do not need any help deciding that the theatre is boring and they would rather play Nintendo.  However, if a play, regardless of its intended target audience, meets the criteria I have mentioned above--or if it meets most of the positive ones and violates few of the negative--children can attend with good results.  Fortunately it is usually the case that children viewing "adult" theatre do so in the company of their parents and other adults, who have presumably made a considered decision about whether the individual child is ready for the play.  Furthermore, children in the company of mostly adults don't respond negatively to some of the things--like sexuality and language--that can cause problems if children are surrounded by their peers.  Frequently it is only these automatic embarrassed/delighted responses that keep children from understanding and appreciating "adult" stories.
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An important ingredient here, as indeed in any kind of theatre, is the need to talk to children about what they will be seeing and about what they have seen.  Since practically any kind of story (other than the extremely violent) that children can understand and process in a healthy way is "appropriate" for them, it is obvious that discussing the plot of a particularly complex story beforehand, or having an open dialogue about sensitive issues before seeing a play about them can make an otherwise "inappropriate" play appropriate. After viewing a play, if children know they are allowed to ask questions and talk about their concerns, they will bring to parents' and teachers' attention issues that have disturbed them or that they don't understand.  The responsible adults who make choices about what children should see need to be informed about the precise nature of the plays, films, television shows and video games in question.  That's another reason that applying positive, rather than negative criteria is crucial.  One cannot use positive criteria without a real understanding of the nature of a piece of entertainment.  When an adult really understands the issues and content of a play or film, and its structural and stylistic characteristics, it almost doesn't matter if he makes the "right" decision about whether to allow children to see it, because he will be well equipped to deal with questions and concerns that may come up.  It is almost impossible for a child to suffer permanent trauma while viewing an entertainment in the company of a caring adult who acts appropriately towards her.
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On the other hand, adults can also make perfectly appropriate material inappropriate by reacting to it in the wrong way.  When a teacher or parent becomes hysterical and starts condemning a play or film children are watching or have watched--condemning it in earshot of the children--the children can come to believe they have been injured, even when they have not been.  This applies to an equal or greater extent when the children are the performers. I once directed a Middle School production of Li'l Abner.  (Actually, I've done that several times, since it's a particular favorite of mine, but I refer to one particular production.)  The experience was an extremely positive one for everyone involved, and the children felt proud of their achievements, and, more important to me, they developed a strong and trusting bond with some caring adults (my colleagues and I) in a school where this ability had been much challenged lately.  But a member of the School Board--whose children were not even in the school system, but home schooled--reached the (in my opinion bizarre) conclusion that the play was "inappropriate" for Middle School.  He said it was "rife with sexual innuendo," and that the adults who had chosen it had acted irresponsibly and had put the students in danger.  No one else I ever met agreed with him--certainly not the rest of the School Board--but unfortunately a reporter got hold of it and gave it front-page play in the local newspaper.  (It was a slow news week.)  Suddenly children who had been proud and happy with their success, and who had finally found some adults they could love and trust, were told that their performance had been "dirty" and their teachers had harmed them.  It was patently absurd, but that didn't prevent them from believing it, and an experience that should have been totally positive was forever tainted.  Even if the complaints had had grounds, I think both the Board member and the reporter acted irresponsibly.  I should have been approached privately, and censured if necessary.  (As it happened, the affair never created any trouble at all for me personally, because the parent community and the rest of the School Board rose up in my support, and letters to the editor made it clear where the fault lay, but by that time it was too late to totally save the experience for the children.)  Adults whose true concern is children--and not some particular political agenda--approach the issue of "appropriateness" with children's interests always paramount.
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I realize that my idea of what is "appropriate" is in some particulars at odds with the opinion of most parents and many teachers.  I don't claim to be a messiah, or to have all the right answers.  But I think it is important for everyone committed to the welfare of children to challenge their set ideas about issues such as this, and to explore, experiment and research these questions for themselves.  Some will still disagree with most of what I say, and virtually all will disagree with at least some of it--the question of "appropriateness" is and always will be individual and subjective.  But the more we really understand our own attitudes, and the less we let other people or algorithmic "ratings boards" tell us what is good for children, the better we will serve them.

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Copyright © 1999 by Matt Buchanan

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