Every Friday we settle in on the futon with a bowl of popcorn or ice cream and watch a video with the kids. This is “movie night,” which is really a 30- or 40-minute video or portion of a feature length movie. (We’re not sitting in front of the tube for a full 90 minutes until we can’t avoid it anymore. Plus, our backsides can take only so much futon.)

Like every other parent, we care about content but lack the time or desire to screen every single video for violence, general stupidity and other offenders. We choose our Friday night fare based on suggestions from friends, comments online and the standardized movie rating system. Which means we’re sometimes surprised by the things that pop out of the cute little mouths on our flat screen.

We limit movies to those with G ratings, but there’s one thing (other than general stupidity) that escapes the raters’ red pens. Meanness.

Take this past Friday. Lacking any Reading Rainbows from the library, my husband perused the kids’ movies on Netflix and chose a 2005 movie with a sweet premise, Racing Stripes. A stranded baby zebra (aww…) is taken home by a down-and-out farmer/widower (sniff…) whose daughter (motherless!) takes the stripy, wobbly-kneed orphan under her wing. The zebra, Stripes, discovers a racing track (next door to the farm, as a matter of fact) and vows to become a racehorse. Our kids loved it. The animals talk, the action moves along and two fast-talking flies are so funny that we can’t even hear their lines for the cackling.

The movie is cliche but would be cute, even more than passably cute, if it weren’t for the fact that everyone is mean to everyone else. The crusty pony who coaches Stripes is a gruff old guy with nothing but insults for the other beasts (though Dustin Hoffman is one of my favorites). The antagonists, two thoroughbred racehorses, taunt the hero over the fence. The flies throw nonstop barbs at each other. Stripes himself throws around an “I’ll show them” attitude in almost every line.

The last time I came face-to-face with a meanie in real life, I was being cussed out through my windshield. I told my mom about the pedestrian, shaking his fist and yelling at me because my car was in the crosswalk (the light changed while I was waiting to turn right, okay?). She told me about two people who screamed at her for minor driving mistakes over the past couple weeks.

She lives in a more densely populated area, so I suggested tempers are topping out as traffic gets worse. She disagreed. “Politicians yell at each other, talk show hosts goad the public. I think we’ve turned into a society of yellers.”

Have we? Have we forgotten the truce of an upraised palm when another driver waves “sorry”? Have we forgotten all the times we’ve neglected to turn on a blinker or ended up a foot past the line at a stop sign? Are we poised to fight?

Yesterday, my husband turned down the music in the car so we could hear how a conversation in the back seat would turn out:

Daughter (6), to son (3): You know, people are not good and bad. They just make good and bad choices.

Son: Yeah.

D: Like, here’s a bad choice: stealing!

S: And smoking! Blech!

D: Yeah. *pause* And war!

S: Yeah…

D: War is like when one country says segregation is okay and the other says it’s not and then they fight about it. *pause* But I don’t think Santa has a good and bad list.

You know it always comes back to Santa, who leaves a tin of raspberry candies even in the stockings of chain-smoking, warmongering thieves. Well, dang. If Santa can be generous to a wretch, so can I. And I can also marvel at this: despite my sometimes Hannigan-esque exasperation at home, my oldest is showing a capacity to understand that right and wrong are not, like Stripes, black and white. And recruiting her brother, to boot.

Movie makers: kids understand nuance. You don’t have to rely on a snarky line for a laugh or a character with an attitude for emotional impact. Kids understand backing out of a fight, making up after you’ve misspoken and a panorama of choices that go beyond fight or flight.

Self: pay close attention. Don’t be afraid to turn a video off if it’s not working. Take a deep breath when that man yells at you and say to the kids, “Honey, I don’t know why his face is purple,” instead of pinging half-voiced, petty jibes back at him from behind your closed car windows.

And double check those movie ratings. Racing Stripes? It’s–oh. It’s rated PG. That explains it some, though I think older kids could handle some nuance and kindness, too.

Photo courtesy of wwarby (Creative Commons).