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Not suitable for all audiences

Parents advised to see 'Passion' before deciding if kids can

Based on the first reviews, it's a no-brainer: Mel Gibson's R-rated movie, "The Passion of the Christ," which opens today, is so graphically violent that it is not tolerable for children. For devout Christian parents thinking of ignoring that advice in the expectation that the movie has redeeming religious value, even Christian leaders urge thinking again. Their recommendation, and that of child psychologists, is for parents to see it first before deciding whether a child can handle it.

The movie, which focuses on the last 12 hours of

Jesus' life, has created controversy over its relentless violence and the fear it could stir up anti-Semitism. In one scene, Jesus is whipped with metal hooks that rip out the flesh on his back, then rolled over to be flayed on his chest. In some parts of the country, church groups have rented theaters for screenings and invited older children to attend. A church in Overland Park, Kansas, is sponsoring three showings later this week, including one for families with children 11 and older, and one for teens, who need parental permission to attend. The West Coast Christian Center in Vista, Calif., will have a screening Sunday morning; the pastor advises parents to see the movie first, then decide if a child can handle it.

Locally, the Rev. Dr. Stephen A. Macchia, president of Leadership Transformation in Lexington, does not encourage parents to allow children to see the film. "I'm the father of two. For one child, it's a definite `yes' -- he's 18. For the other, a definite `no' -- she's 14," says Macchia, who is also on the faculty at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton. He saw the movie in January at an event for pastors.

Child psychologist Bill Maier, vice president of Focus on the Family, a Christian evangelical ministry founded by James Dobson, has seen snippets of the movie and is unequivocal in his advice. "There's no reason to rush out and take our young children to a film that may cause nightmares or trauma," he says. "I know there are a lot of parents with a strong Christian faith who believe this would be a wonderful experience for their child to understand the sacrifice Christ made on our behalf. Wait for the DVD." Even then, he would err on the side of caution.

At the heart of the issue is the way children process graphic and violent images.

It's only at 11 or 12 that they begin to understand abstract concepts, Maier says. Before then, they are concrete and literal in their thinking. Most children under 12 won't get past the blood and gore because it is so prominent, says child psychologist Joanne Cantor, the nation's preeminent researcher on the impact of scary media images on children.

Older children are less vulnerable, but don't think they won't be affected just because they've seen lots of screen violence. "The scourging scene goes on for 45 minutes," Macchia says. "Nothing can protect them from this."

Indeed, the movie holds a triple whammy for children. First, of course, there's the over-the-top violence. Second, children who see it will be doing so with parents' permission.

"That translates to an endorsement of the violence, and also of the hatred" of Jesus by the Jews in the film, says Harvard psychologist Susan Linn, associate director of the Media Center at Judge Baker's Children's Center. She urges parents whose children see the movie to have conversations with them afterward. Otherwise, children will be left thinking that their parents think it's OK to use violence to solve problems, and that it's OK to hate other people because they think, look, act, or believe differently.

"One thing we know about children is that they learn racial and ethnic stereotyping really early," Linn says. "To let the portrayal of Jews as Christ killers go unremarked is to allow that to stand in a child's mind."

Third, for children in the Christian faith who think of Jesus Christ as a benevolent, loving figure, "watching this movie will be as if you are watching your parent tortured and murdered," says pediatrician Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital.

Macchia agrees. "It's one thing for children to hear stories about how Christ died," he says. "It's something else to see graphic visual images of it."

Rich predicts an increase in anxiety, fear, sleep disturbance, and nightmares for children of any age who see "The Passion," while Cantor speculates "The Passion" might have an unexpected backlash. "If [Christian] children are traumatized by the brutal scenes, their fear may become associated with all thoughts and images of Jesus," she says. "It may actually turn them off to their religion." For parents who ignore the advice and take children to see it anyway, she offers three suggestions: (1) Don't hesitate to take a child out of the theater during the movie. (2) Don't send a child to see it with a church group unless you go, too, and can sit next to him or her. (3) Talk about it afterward, using open-ended questions: "How did the movie make you feel? Were you scared by anything you saw?"

Cantor wouldn't be surprised if a child's nightmares or worries center around fears about a parent's well-being. "Reassure them that . . . we have laws and rules that outlaw this brutal behavior" she says.

After a film this violent, though, reassurances may fall far short.

"Movies like this can cause nightmares that go on and on and on, even from a brief exposure," she says. "Preventing them from seeing it in the first place is a lot easier than trying afterward to undo the damage."

Barbara Meltz is the Globe's parenting columnist. Contact her at meltz@globe.com.

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