I know what you're thinking when you read that title: 'Oh, not another censorship post. Children can handle more than you think, blah, blah, blah.' But this post isn't about whether kids can handle violence and dark themes. That discussion has already rounded every corner of the internet, and I'm just as sick of it as everyone else.
My question isn't "Are they old enough to handle this work?" Instead, what I'm asking is "Are they old enough to appreciate it?"
One example: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I was eight years old when it first aired, and it was one of my favorite shows. Sure, it was scary, and it sometimes gave me nightmares, but I watched it regardless. As much as I enjoyed it, I didn't realize how awesome it was until the last few months, when I re-watched the whole series. When I was a kid, I watched the show in a pretty straightforward way: action-filled, good-vs-evil, standard high school tropes. It never occured to me that the show was innovative. Back then, I laughed at the dialogue because I laughed at anything that was remotely funny; it didn't occur to me that realisticly-awkward-while-simultaneously-witty-dialogue was unusual. And those tropes? All the allegory and even parody totally flew over my head.
Flash forward in time: I live with three children. Of particular relevance are my seven-year-old niece and my almost-six-year-old nephew. Every time I watch a Legend of Korra episode, I think about how I can't wait to introduce them to Avatar. If they're going to watch TV, I might as well ensure that they're watching good TV, rather than 20-minute toy commercials. But are they going to know the difference? Sure, they'll probably love Avatar, but will they really appreciate it? Will a seven-year-old notice the unconventional humor, or the way Mike and Bryan very openly troll their fanbase? Will they appreciate the diversity of the show and the extensive research that formed the basis for the world-building? Maybe some kids would, but my niece and nephew have yet to develop that sophistication.
Likewise, there are many books I can't wait to give them. Some of them, like Harry Potter, are very straightforward in terms of themes. These are okay. However, there are others, such as His Dark Materials, that I wouldn't give to any child under the age of twelve--not because they wouldn't enjoy the books, but because they wouldn't get the most out of them.
What do you think? Do you take a "the earlier the better" approach with introducing kids to good fiction, or do you wait for when they'd most appreciate it?