Bringing up parents at the movies

Finding age-appropriate movies to attend as a family is so frustrating, but recent events show that perhaps I err too much on the side of caution.

I took my parents to Kingsman: The Secret Service and was surprised at the level of violence and mature language they were able to handle.

Over coffee post-screening, we had a wonderful conversation about the lengthy fight scenes and subversion of the typical spy thriller stereotypes, leading to a vague promise that we would sit down and watch the equally violent and cheeky Kill Bill series one day.

I know that my parents are mature adults able to debate, satirise and discuss matters from the national budget to sexual stereotypes yet, for family movie outings, I usually pick a G- or PG-rated comedy or cartoon with minimal blood shed or bodices ripped onscreen.

This comes from a painful childhood memory of watching Jurassic Park 22 years ago with my hand captive in my mother's. She yelped and crushed the little bones above my palm every time a dinosaur grinned toothily, only very late into the movie giving up and covering her eyes and ears. (My brother sat on her left and says he still bears the physical scars.)

Then there was the parental refusal to watch the movie adaptation of Interview With The Vampire even though I insisted the scariest thing shown would be Tom Cruise in make-up. My parents bought me the entire set of Anne Rice novels and left me to enjoy it with friends instead.

That one decision of theirs to relax with a mindless Bollywood movie instead of an interminable, over-wrought fable of the sort perfect for a 15-year-old who spent her free time scribbling dark poetry ("gloom, doom..." can I fit in "loom" and "broom"?) somehow became equated with the idea that "mum and dad are shy and oldfashioned".

Ridiculous, given that it was my mother who held me in place firmly and gave me the birds-and-bees talk while I squirmed and wondered how long it would take to chew off my arm. My father once saw me reading the torrid romance Legend Of The Seventh Virgin by Victoria Holt at age 12, asked me whether I was old enough for the material, did I have any questions, then left me to it.

I realise that I am lucky. Last Tuesday, Yale-NUS College held a panel discussion about What Children Shouldn't Read, an offshoot of last year's "Penguingate" controversy, when the National Library Board removed certain books from the children's section over claims that they had homosexual themes.

Among the panellists was Jeanie Okimoto, co-author of one of the controversial books, The White Swan Express. A story about adoption, it featured a lesbian couple and a single mother among other prospective parents. The author, a grandmother herself, was understanding about why her book might worry some readers, saying that parents might find it hard to talk about sexuality with their children.

The reason, she added, was that a child's maturing emotionally and physically is a powerful signal that the parent is no longer the centre of that child's universe, that the child is becoming a person separate from the family unit.

An audience member then made the equally striking point that it is children, with their new awareness of themselves, who might find it difficult or disturbing to go to their parents and guardians with questions about life and love.

I'm living proof of this. It was my paternal grandmother who explained in a matter-of-fact manner why the actors in soap opera Dynasty were taking off their clothes and discussed whether this was appropriate; it was my maternal grand- father who explained terms such as "eunuch" as I read Mary Renault's Alexander The Great trilogy when I was 10.

I would have bitten my tongue off before asking because I was embarrassed, because I was a young know-it-all who wanted to be cool enough to hang around with the adults I loved and admired most, sharing their entertainment and conversations. The adults around me knew this and paid attention: they noticed that I had questions, that I might be confused, and did their best to help me assimilate new knowledge.

The contested books in the National Library are back on the shelves in the adult section. I hope more parents and guardians will read them with their children, guiding them through new thoughts and ideas. It will set a precedent that allows these children to foster open and healthy communication with their own progeny in turn.

The next movie I watch with my parents will not be chosen first with an eye to the censor board's rating, but with an eye to material that will interest all of us. However, I refuse to follow the example of a friend who is taking her father to watch the Fifty Shades Of Grey movie.

It has nothing to do with the sexual content of the film and everything to do with the fact that the film treats complex issues naively. We'd rather catch Chappie and spend hours debating machine intelligence versus human maturity.

akshitan@sph.com.sg