With supersized TV screens and so many streaming options, parents can turn their family rooms into a mock movie theater without ever having to leave the couch — or put on pants. Still, there’s something to be said for the sheer excitement of going to the movies, what with the smell of buttered popcorn, seats you can slump into, and larger than life images on a screen that you watch in the dark. But if you’re wondering what is the best age to take your kid to the movies, well, it’s not an easy answer.
Case in point: Years ago, I took my then 6-year-old and my 3-year-old to see Monster House. Halloween was quickly approaching, and I thought it would be “fun” for them to watch a movie that was themed for the holiday. Big, big mistake. While my older son seemed to enjoy seeing the possessed house come to life, my daughter was absolutely petrified. It wasn’t enough to shield her eyes during the scene where Officer Landers and Lister (and their police car) get gobbled up by the house. The growling of the house were spooky, and she started crying. I grabbed both kids and we left the theater, all of us in tears (my daughter because she was scared, my son because he was missing the movie, and me because I was so stressed out from the whole situation).
So if you’re unsure of whether your child is ready to rock a flick, here’s how to know if they’re ready for the silver screen.
Assess Your Child’s Attention Span
Sure, your child might sit still for a few episodes of Bluey, but can they contain themselves long enough to make it through an entire movie? While most movies for children aren’t excessively long, they tend to run about 90 minutes or so. That’s why having success at the theater largely depends upon if your child will be able to stay put. “Knowing when your child is ready to see a movie in the theater in large measure depends upon your child’s nature,” says Amanda K. Darnley, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist. “Is your child able to sit for long periods without getting antsy and making noise?” If you answered “No” to any of those questions, you might need to wait a bit longer before having a movie day.
But if your child is determined to see the latest Disney flick, you can cut down the amount of time you’re actually in the theater. “Parents know the attention span of their children,” says Sherianna Boyle, author of The Conscious Parenting Guide to Childhood Anxiety. “Consider skipping the previews if you know your child will have difficulty sitting still for too long.” After all, previews can take up to 20 minutes or more, and that can feel like an eternity for a 4-year-old. Use that time instead to scope out the snack bar or take a potty break before the film begins.
Know Your Child’s Sensitivities
Nothing quite compares to seeing a movie you’ve wanted to watch on the big screen. That said, some of the things adults might take for granted as exciting (a dark theater or big booming surround sound), your child might see as scary. Understanding what could potentially be problematic for your kid can help you assess if seeing a movie in theaters is worth it. “It’s important to ask yourself, ‘Is my kid afraid of the dark?’ or ‘Do they get startled at loud noises?’” adds Darnley. “These are things to consider when deciding whether your child is ready to go to the movies.” When you can assess their sensitivities to sights and sounds, you’ll inherently know when is the best age to take your kid to the movies.
Consider The Content
Movies for children have certainly come a long way from the days of The Wizard of Oz (flying monkeys — shudder). Even Disney has reviewed its repertoire of films and has issued an advisory of some of their most popular titles, such as Aristocrats (i.e. racist depictions of East Asian peoples) to Dumbo (i.e. racist and offensive imagery including white performers with blackened faces and the use of the name Jim Crow). While filmmakers have become more aware of inclusivity and diversity in their films, you’ll still need to know the overall arc of the film before settling down with your snacks. “Some children are haunted by what they see on a screen, especially the mildly scary parts of a movie made with children in mind,” says Darnley. “I would watch my child to see how he or she is coping and be ready to leave the theater and distract and comfort the child, if what is seen on the screen seems to be too upsetting.”
Do A Dry Run
Although you can’t exactly replicate the sights and sounds of a movie theater, you can make a mock one at home. Offer your child some of the snacks they might find at the theater, like popcorn or fun-size candy bars. Lower the lights in the room and turn on a movie that they already enjoy, so that they’ll feel more comfortable. You might want to make the sound a little louder to get their ears acclimated to the level that they might hear in a traditional theater. Darnley agrees, adding: “The best way to know for sure is to run a test at home. It’s also a great excuse to have a movie night at home!”
Schedule The Showing Around Their Sleep Schedule
You’ve taken every precaution to ensure that your child enjoys their first film on the big screen. Except that they fell asleep in the car ride to the movies and are now screaming and miserable. Boyle advises: “Select movie show times that work for your little one,” she says. “If your child still takes a nap, then perhaps you ought to have them wait till they are older.” Or try to find a showing that doesn’t conflict with naptime. But even if you can avoid scheduling a showing around naptime, be mindful about mealtimes, too. “In addition, some movies times fall too close to dinner,” adds Boyle. “If you are in luck, you can find a time that works for the whole family.” Remember: no one is at their best when they’re tired — including you.
Know Their Comprehension Level
Most movies (even those for children) will have some sort of conflict that needs to be resolved. And if the movie your family is watching has a good guy and a bad guy, be sure that your child understands that none of what they’re watching is real, advises Sherrie MacLean, RECE and National Director of Operations at Tiny Hoppers, an award-winning international early learning center. “If you’re taking your kid to a movie with villains, make sure your child is at an age that they understand that what happens in the film is not a suitable way to play with their friends,” she says. “If you feel that your children are too young to understand this, then it’s better to wait until they are at an age they can.”
Additionally, pick a plot that’s easy for your child to understand. “A child may be too young if they are needing you to constantly explain what is happening to them,” adds Boyle. Having an idea of what they can understand (and what they can’t) can determine what type of film you should watch — and when.
Be Prepared For An Early Exit
Just because you paid full price for a ticket doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to stay in your seat until the end credits roll. If your child is antsy, upset, or can’t handle the content, you can and should take them outside for a break. “Don’t be afraid to leave if you need to!” says Darnley. “You won’t be the first person to leave the theater in the middle of a movie.” Before packing up and heading home, try taking a short break in the lobby to see if that helps calm your kiddo. If your child is completely overwhelmed, it’s absolutely okay to take them home. Yes, you might feel like you’ve wasted your money, but it’s better not to force your child to watch a flick they’re not ready for.
As a parent, only you will know what is the best age to take your kid to the movies. You might find that your toddler can handle a full-length film, while your 5-year-old fights you and wants to go home. Just know that even if your first time watching a film ends with you leaving early, it’s truly only temporary. Eventually, your child will be able to sit still and enjoy a movie — and so will you.