Recently, a friend of mine who has a 4yo son asked me if I’d written something about how to decide when it’s okay to take your kiddo to their first movie, and it occurred to me that I hadn’t yet covered that (although I do talk about the kid-freak-out-potential in my movie reviews). In the spirit of fairness, I figured I’d write up a longer version of what I discussed with him, since this was something that I was worried about when my kids wanted to start going to movies.
Let me preface this by saying that I love going to the movies. Seriously, I adore it. There’s something about going to this magical building where you can be transported away to some other time and place through sound and images. It’s a link with culture and the arts, it’s escapism, and it’s stories brought to life by people with incredible talent (both in front of and behind the camera). The first real opportunity dd had to attend a movie was when she was 4-1/2yo and one of her friends invited her to a birthday party at the local movie theater, to see “Hop”. Not being a tremendous fan of Russell Brand, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I dutifully took her to the theater. When other parents did the “drop-off” thing (leaving their kiddos in the care of the parent[s] in charge of a party), I stuck around and bought a ticket for myself so that I could be there for her. It’s not that what those other parents did was wrong and what I did was right, but I wasn’t sure that bringing my daughter to her first immersive movie experience and then leaving her there would’ve been the wisest move I could make.
Turns out I was quite right. During the previews (the PREVIEWS!), she had a freak-out at the violence in the trailer for a “Kung-fu Panda” movie. Having been raised primarily on The Wiggles and PBS Kids shows to that point, she didn’t see violence. Ever. And even cartoonish violence can cause massive panic. I don’t recall if I offered her my lap or if she just cuddled up with me, but she was fine by the time the feature came on. There were moments where she snuggled up close, not because “Hop” has any especially scary parts but more because – at age 4-1/2 – she just wasn’t able to process all of this information without it overloading her to some extent.
By the time ds was ready to hit the theaters, it became more apparent that the “cuddle up” message had to be made and reinforced – early and often. The “cuddle up” rule for movie-going in our family is that if something on screen causes someone to get scared, they need to “cuddle up” with the nearest parent. If I take the kids on my own, then they each get an arm (it’s only fair). For the most part, ds has been fine; he hasn’t yet needed to see an entire feature on my lap, but he did get very upset when Constantine brandished a gun at the end of “Muppets: Most Wanted”, and there were tears. Since then, he’s asked for scare-level information about each movie we’re considering, so he can decide whether he wants to see it or not. Contrast this with some girlfriends whose similarly-aged kids have seen “Marvel’s The Avengers”; not every kid hits the panic button about violence, and some of it may just go away on its own. Each kiddo is different.
We’ve been to several movies with the kids (as a complete family and one parent + one or two kiddos), so at this point I feel like we have it down fairly well. With that in mind, here are five suggestions for those who are considering taking their young child to their first movie and would actually like the experience
not to suck to be a good one for everyone involved:
1. Make sure your kiddo can get through a whole movie at home first.
If they can’t get through a whole movie at home, then attention span may be an issue. All you need is your kiddo to get bored in the theater and you’ll both be climbing the walls. Between previews and a feature, a movie experience may run 1-1/2 to 2 hours for a beginner movie; if your kiddo is unable to sit still and pay attention for that long a time, then heading out to the theater may not be the right move yet.
2. Check the ratings and reviews before heading to the theater.
I consider this the “Cars 2 Rule”. One exceptionally hot day, following an tent concert by The Wiggles that nearly made both of us melt, I took dd to “Cars 2” as a way to cool off. I made that spur-of-the-moment decision not knowing that “Cars 2” was rated PG. When the movie started out with a shootout, I realized I’d taken her to the WRONG FILM. I trusted that the “Cars” label meant “kid-friendly” and didn’t expect that it was really “kid-friendly at a certain age”. The new Planes: Fire and Rescue is also PG, so buyer beware.
3. Consider nap and meal schedules.
This one should be a gimme: if your kiddo is used to naps at the time when you want to go to the movie, consider the likelihood of a meltdown and plan accordingly. Similarly, check to see what your local theater offers for food if you’re going near a meal time. Nicer, newer theaters will often have anything from hot dogs and pizza to chicken nuggets and fries. Not every kid will eat well when you’re in a theater (sensory overload), but it may be easier to aim for a movie at lunchtime and head home for nap than to go to a mid-afternoon movie that may not exist. (Movie theaters just don’t consider nap schedules well enough when setting movie times!)
4. Use the bathroom right before the previews come on.
It doesn’t matter whether your little one is potty trained or still in diapers; odds are, if you don’t check right before the movie starts, you’ll end up missing part of the movie for time in the bathroom. That old adage of “Always go before you go” is still great advice.
5. Reinforce “the cuddle rule” right before the feature comes on.
Make sure that your kiddo knows that they should cuddle up if they get scared and that you’re there for them. Even if they don’t take you up on it, knowing that the offer is open (and reminding them to the point of having them repeat it) removes one potential source of stress for them. That way, if they do get worried or scared, they immediately start clinging and you both know that’s the signal that you need to “protect” them.
Additional things worth considering:
- Sitting on the aisle, in case you need to make a speedy getaway (either a bathroom run or just a run for somewhere that wailing is acceptable)
- Finding baby/kid-friendly movie showings, often a special program run by certain chains (such as Showcase), that have lower sound volume and slightly brighter overhead lighting
- Getting the booster from the customer service desk can make it easier for kids too small (light and/or short) to see properly from their seat; the alternate is typically that YOU become the booster seat (which you may or may not like)
When all else fails, try just renting something from Redbox or grabbing a movie off OnDemand/Netflix/Amazon Prime, popping some popcorn and springing for $1 boxes of movie theater candy at the local drug store. Really, there’s nothing to stop you from having a “movie viewing” at your house that mimics the experience well enough – but at a price tag and with amenities – that are a little more everyone’s speed.