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6 tips for helping children navigate challenging books, movies and plays

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'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf'
This theater image released by Jeffrey Richards Associates shows, from left, Tracy Letts, Carrie Coon, Amy Morton, foreground, and Madison Dirks during a performance of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which opened Oct. 13, 2012 at the Booth Theatre in New York.
Michael Brosilow/AP

Before taking his two teenage children to a new Broadway production of Edward Albee's play, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," New York Times critic Dwight Garner wondered whether they were ready for it. 

He wrote

"All parents want to find a happy medium, to make our children feel, as A. O. Scott, my wise colleague at The New York Times, has written, 'both adventurous and protected, comfortable and sophisticated.'"

Garner joined The Daily Circuit Thursday, Nov. 29 to talk about introducing kids to different cultural experiences. Ty Burr, film critic for The Boston Globe, also joined the discussion.

We've compiled some tips to help parents navigate difficult cultural material with their children:

1. Err on the permissive side and let children find their own way

"Don't force feed art to children; you have to lead them to it," Burr said.

Garner said it's important for parents to be open about new cultural experiences and push them to learn about complex topics.

"In my own childhood, I think my parents were perhaps overly protective of us kids and sort of shielded our eyes and confiscated books that we were reading," Garner said. "Looking back on it, it's always the stuff your parents take away from you that you want to read and see the most... We don't throw things at them that we think are absurdly above their age level, but if you don't push them I think that's a mistake."

2. Treat your children as individuals with differing abilities to handle tough topics

"You have to be aware of your kids and the differing personalities and what they're capable of," Burr said. Balance your child's interest in a particular movie or film with your understanding of what they can handle.

3. Think about the tough themes in the art as a potential inspiration and source of deeper learning

A caller in Minneapolis ended up choosing a career path based on an early movie experience.

"When I was 12, my mother unknowingly took me to Rent," she said. "I think she had just known it was a Tony-award winning musical, I don't think she really knew it was about ... Some people would say that was inappropriate, but after seeing Rent I went on through middle school and high school and became an AIDS and HIV educator through the Red Cross ... Other kids might have taken a different thing from that, it became a passion for me. If you can give your children those experiences and teach them rather than let things be scary or dangerous."

4. If you think you're shielding your children from something, they likely already know about it

"Kids are generally ahead of where we think they are in their observation, if not knowledge, of the adult world," Burr said.

Films or books that bring up these adult topics are often an opportunity for kids to open up about what they are thinking about. 

"We tend to have safe houses where we don't talk about things kids see because they feel uncomfortable talking about it with their parents and parents feel uncomfortable talking about it with their kids," Burr said. "I do know that when you take your kid to see a movie, sometimes you can spark these absolutely incredible conversations that come out of their experience of seeing it. It prompts them to start talking about stuff they've been thinking about already and the movie almost gives them an excuse to lay it on the table."

5. The book kids want to find themselves is the one they should be allowed to find 

"It's the book that you carry in the back pocket when you're a kid I think that's going to make you a real reader," Garner said.

6. Don't be surprised if your child is upset by something you didn't suspect

"Emotional traumas can be more difficult for kids to process than visual things," Burr said.

One caller said he loved "Braveheart," but had a lot of trouble processing the scenes of death in "Titanic."

"For a young mind, that's a big idea to wrap your brain around," Burr said.