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We rumbled through the darkness, catching glimpses of wildlife on either side of the vehicle. Then it happened. The carnivore seemed to come out of nowhere. My guide's warning cry got lost amid an ear-splitting roar, a blinding light and the toothy grin of a voracious dinosaur. Had I wanted a record of my startled expression, 8x10 glossies were available in the gift shop at the end of the ride.

I didn't need a photo. Or a T-shirt. Or a key chain. That event from my family's trip to Walt Disney World in the fall of 2006 left its own lasting impression, in part because it reminded me of my obligation to make sure that what looks like fun to my kids is a smart choice. I learned three things at the amusement park that also apply to media discernment:

1. The height requirement is merely a starting point.
You know the drill: You must be as tall as the cartoon character's hand to ride. Well, my 9-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son both met the 40-inch height requirement for Dinosaur. But as a dad who'd rather make memories than calm hysterics, I figured I'd better check it out first. My warp into the Jurassic period told me the experience would be too intense for my little guy, but that my daughter would be OK, provided I rode beside her, preparing her for the lurches, shocks and jolts. Aware of what was coming, she had a blast.

If you think about it, that measuring stick at the turnstile is a lot like the rating on a movie, TV show or video game—an arbitrarily assigned threshold of appropriateness. Should children hop on every ride they're tall enough to board? Of course not. Likewise, teens would be unwise to watch PG-13 movies indiscriminately simply because the MPAA ratings board thinks they're old enough. A rating is just a starting point. With a little additional effort, we can improve on a good experience, or spare them a bad one.

2. The glimpse you get may not reflect the entire ride.
When we strolled past Splash Mountain, about all we could see was the log flume's climactic five-story drop. That's just a small part of the ride. It's mostly a winding, lazy-river visit with Brer Rabbit and friends as they cavort to the strains of "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah." Similarly, Test Track offers a peek at its crowning, Autobahn-style drive at breakneck speed, but not the less dynamic factory tests leading up to it.

In other words, glimpses of the coolest parts of entertainment don't necessarily reflect the product as a whole. Slick promos for a network TV show. A cleverly edited movie trailer. A single song from an artist's CD. Once again, we need to gather enough data to make an informed decision about the entire venture.

3. Don't rely solely on someone else's positive experience.
As we approached the roller coaster known as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, my wife noted that our 4-year-old niece had loved the careening mine train so much that she rode it over and over again. Piece of cake for our kids, right? Wrong. Both were traumatized, though my daughter would be quick to point out that after a rough maiden voyage it became one of her favorite attractions.

Meanwhile, I stepped off the train, readjusted the vertebrae in my neck and realized that being thrown violently from side to side by tight turns had taught me two things. First, my niece is one tough customer. Second, age is less important than wiring when it comes to a child's tolerance for being bounced around—physically or otherwise. In the media realm that "bouncing" could be emotional, psychological or even spiritual when content takes unexpected moral or thematic turns.

Entertainment takes our children on a journey. A ride. Before you let yours climb aboard, find out what's in that movie, video game or CD, including all of the twists, shocks and thrills. You may decide that sharing the experience together will be enough to smooth out any rough spots. Or, after checking things out yourself, you may exit rattled and a bit queasy, yet armed with enough details to explain why it's a journey they shouldn't be taking.

Published September 2011

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