3 questions to answer before you bring your kid to the movies

I’ve always loved going to the movies, and since before my kids were born, I couldn’t wait to share that love with them. But once I became a mom, I quickly learned that everything is more challenging with a baby on board, including the simple act of heading to the theater. Now that I have two more little kids in tow — for a total of three, ages 2½, 5, and 7½ — every trip out the front door can rapidly spiral into mayhem.

And yet, the siren song of the cinema still calls. This summer’s family-friendly releases are particularly tempting, with reboots of some of my own favorites from growing up tugging at my heartstrings at the very mention of the titles. “Aladdin” was the first movie I ever saw with a boy (and a dozen of our closest friends). My husband and his mother danced to a song from “The Lion King” at our wedding. And what heartless monster doesn’t love the “Toy Story” franchise? “UglyDolls,” “Secret Life of Pets 2,” “Detective Pikachu,” and “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” all look good to my kids, too. So what’s a cinephile mom to do? Take every rainy-day opportunity to pack up the provisions (sweaters, snacks, diapers, wipes, snacks, changing pad, drinks, backup clothes, snacks, etc.), pile the kids into the minivan, head to the movies, and hope for the best, that’s what.

All three of my kids have now been to the movies, and each of their firsts was a completely different experience, planned in very different ways. For us, the birth-order rumors hold true: We were very deliberate and careful about my firstborn’s first movie when she was 3½, an experience which I remember clearly and can easily find pictures of. We saw “Inside Out,” which is rated PG, meaning Parental Guidance suggested “for mild thematic elements and some action,” and which Common Sense says is good for kids ages 6 and up. Despite being years younger than that recommendation, she did just fine, loved the movie, and so far, she’s developmentally on track and just lovely, in my humble opinion.

Just a few weeks later, my middle child got toted along with his big sister (and visiting grandparents) to see it again when he was just about 1 year old. We went around his naptime and had no intention for him to actually see the movie at all. But he did watch some of it before I rocked him to sleep on the side of the theater and let him nap in my arms while we all watched the rest of the film together. He didn’t actually get to see his first movie in theaters until the following year — I vaguely recall and cannot find pictures to prove. And the youngest went earlier this year on a whim, a trip that was documented with one blurry photo of him running around the lobby with his sister and brother.

How can you tell when is the right time for you to bring your own kids to the movies? To answer that, consider these three questions:

How mature is your child?

If you’re looking for a specific age recommendation, you’re out of luck; there’s no one-age-fits-all rule for the first-time movie going.

Note, though, that the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization does have official age-based recommendations for children’s screen time. Each group has its own specific guidelines, but the gist is that you should bar screens until about age 2, and then limit it to one hour a day of approved programming until age 5. Considering most movies are at least an hour and a half, strictly following these rules would dictate that your child cannot see a movie until after his/her 5th birthday.

But many people hit the movies much earlier. Based on personal experience with my own kids, friends’ experiences with their children, and online parenting groups and forums, parents often bring their kids to the movies for the first time when they’re around 3 or 4 years old.

Review site Common Sense Media offers its own age recommendations for specific movies, along with what parents and kids say are suitable viewing ages based on submitted reviews. But the suggested ranges can be wide. For example, consider one of this summer’s hottest new kids’ movies, “Toy Story 4.” Its official Motion Picture Association of America rating is G, which stands for General Audiences, meaning that all ages are admitted and the movie includes “nothing that would offend parents for viewing by children,” according to the MPAA site www.filmratings.com. Common Sense Media says it’s appropriate for ages 5 and up, but the review site says kids put the minimum age at 6 while parents say age 8.

Clearly, age is nothing but a number. More important is your child’s maturity level and whether you think they are able to enjoy the movie-going experience.

Can my child handle sitting through a movie?

Sorry, no rating system or review site can help you answer this question. But you know your child’s temperament better than anybody else anyway. And to see how they’re likely to behave at the movies, you can do some trial runs, letting your kid watch movies at home before toting him/her along to the theater.

Try mimicking the theater environment as best you can, perhaps dimming the lights and keeping them seated for as long as possible. If they can sit still for a whole movie at home — and aren’t afraid of sitting in the dark with you — that’s a good sign they’re ready to take the show on the road.

Just keep in mind that the theater will still be a different place, with louder sound systems and other factors you have no control over. Be prepared for anything, including tossing all your plans out the window. It could very well happen that your child will not make it through the whole movie, and you can either take breaks to stroll the lobby or give up entirely and head elsewhere.

Is this movie appropriate for your child?

To help determine appropriateness, you at least have standard MPAA ratings to guide you. Baby’s first movie is likely going to be rated G or PG. Along with the letter system, the MPAA ratings box also includes limited details on potential issues to watch out for, such as “mild action” or “rude humor.” For example, the new, live-action release of “Aladdin” is rated PG due to “some action/peril.” (Common Sense says it’s best for kids aged 8 and up, kids say age 6, and parents say 7.) You can search for movies’ official ratings at www.filmratings.com.

But those little ratings boxes can only fit so much information. “What these ratings mean and whether they actually can tell you what’s appropriate for your child isn’t always clear,” writes Cori Cross, pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, on the AAP site healthychildren.org. “Even movies with the same rating released in the same year can differ widely in the amount and type of potentially offensive content.”

For far more details, you can check out a number of review sites geared specifically toward concerned parents, including Common Sense Media, Kids-In-Mind, and Plugged In (which boasts a “Christian perspective” on media). For example, in the review for “Aladdin” on Common Sense Media, it clarifies details of the movie’s violence and scariness, including that — SPOILER ALERT (if you haven’t seen the 1992 animated version) — “the Cave of Wonders is scary,” Aladdin nearly drowns, and there are references to Aladdin’s parents and Jasmine’s mother being dead.

Keep in mind, too, that your personal preferences for appropriateness may go beyond typical guidelines on violence, language, and nudity. Family-centric review sites also dive into specific occurrences of substance use, consumerism, physical displays of affection, misogyny and objectification, as well as educational value, positive messages, positive role models and representations.

Doing your homework can help ensure that your movie choice aligns with your family’s values and that your child’s first movie-going experience is a special milestone to remember.

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Stacy Rapacon is a freelance writer whose work can be found on Kiplinger.com, U.S. News and World Report, CNBC and other online and print publications. She is based in the New York City metro area. You can find her on Twitter at @srapacon and connect with her on LinkedIn. Opinions are her own.

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