One Mom's Crusade to Make Cinema Safe for Young Tots

New preschool rating could guide parental choices

Jacqueline Sears, a young Massachusetts mother, has decided she can't take "no" for an answer - her children are at stake.

As a result, Jack Valenti, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), will be hearing from her again. And if Ms. Sears has her way, he'll also be getting letters from tens of thousands of parents.

Her goal: to convince Mr. Valenti that preschoolers deserve a special movie rating.

She admits she's no child-development expert. But like any parent, she watches her kids closely. And several years ago, Sears didn't like what she saw. Some so-called children's movies were terrifying her toddlers.

She started reading and found that many child-development experts agree: The increasing violence and sexual innuendo in some children's films, such as "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast," are just too much for young kids to take.

"When Belle is getting chased through the woods by angry wolves, and they're bearing their fangs and biting at her cape, that's just too scary for a two- or three-year-old," says Sears, who started a lobbying group called MOM, Mothers Offended by the Media.

Last year, she single-handedly collected more than 6,000 signatures. She sent them off to Valenti asking him to create a preschool rating. At the time, she was expecting her third child and working full time.

When her phone rang one night, her husband picked it up and said, "It's Jack Valenti." At first, she didn't believe him. "I said, 'It's not funny, don't fool around,' but sure enough, it was him."

Sears was delighted. She thought her cause made so much sense he would, of course, want to help.

Instead, Valenti politely, kindly, and very firmly told her the current movie-rating system works just fine. He points to a long-running, annual public-opinion survey conducted for the industry trade association he heads. In 1996, 80 percent of parents said they found the current rating system either fairly useful or very useful.

Like the television industry, which recently agreed to a ratings format similar to the one Valenti helped develop for movies, Hollywood opposes changes to the rating system. It argues that revisions would bring higher costs and amount to a form of censorship, infringing on the creativity of producers.

"He was unmovable," says Sears, who shortly thereafter had her third child. With her work load increasing, she decided to throw in the towel.

But over the past year, she continued to receive letters from parents who were just as upset by some G-rated movies. Many interpreted the "G" for "General audiences" as "Good" for families.

So last month, Sears began a national letter-writing campaign, quickly enlisting the help of a half dozen national organizations.

"Jackie doesn't give up," says Whitney Vanderwerff of the National Alliance for Non-Violent Programming in Greensboro, N.C. "This issue really could make a meaningful difference for parents across the country."

The MPAA is less than enthusiastic about the new push. It has consistently stated that the rating system is only a general guide and it's up to parents to take responsibility for what their children watch. "The system works very well as it is and out to be left alone," says Barbara Dixon at the MPAA.

BUT many child-development experts disagree. The National Institute on Media and the Family (NIMF) surveyed parents in 1996 and found that 61 percent think the current movie-rating system does not provide enough information for them to make "good decisions." And 89 percent say they'd like more detailed information.

"Children 6 and younger are particularly susceptible and sensitive to the profound impact media can have," says NIMF president David Walsh. "Parents need to know when something may not be appropriate for young children."

Some studies have tied violence in the media to what's called the "mean-world syndrome." Researchers say that young children don't easily distinguish between fantasy and reality.

Children should see media appropriate to their stage of development, says Diane Levin, a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston. "Two- and three-year-olds ... need to know: 'Is the world a safe place so I can separate from my parents?' "

If Sears succeeds, parents may get a system that allows them to separate toddlers from unsavory "G" movies.

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