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When my son was 3½, he had a passion for nature videos. So when my husband and I noticed that our local IMAX theater was showing a documentary on Alaskan wildlife, we ushered our pint-sized Marlin Perkins right over. Ben thought the globe-shaped building was nifty enough. He even liked the polar bear picture outside the entrance. But from there, everything went downhill – quickly. The lights shut down, his body tensed. Unbelievably loud music thundered through the hall, Ben held his ears. Then, up on the screen, a herd of caribou (or some galloping mammal) suddenly came stampeding toward us, over us, around us. At that point, Ben became terrified and hysterical. Within 12 minutes we were out of the joint, easing his fears (and our parental guilt) with french fries.
Granted, the IMAX adventure is an exaggerated version of the time-honored movie experience, but even a traditional-size theater can be overwhelming to young kids. "Everything is bigger, brighter, louder. And unlike at home, where you can turn the video off or easily take a bathroom break, a theater can make a child feel somewhat trapped," says Nell Minow, author of The Movie Mom's Guide to Family Movies and the mother of two. Besides, she adds, it's hard for very young kids to follow the story of a feature-length film, and this can make the challenge of sitting still for two hours even greater. For these reasons, Minow and many other experts generally suggest that parents hold off taking their children to their first movie until they are at least 4 or, ideally, 5 years of age.
If you do, however, believe your under-5 child is ready for his first movie theater adventure, keep these big-picture pointers in mind:
Choose movies made specifically for very young children
Most parents can recount some scene from a Disney movie that seriously rattled their kids. That doesn't mean they're not great films, just that a child must be old enough to handle somewhat unsettling issues, such as death in The Lion King and hunting in Tarzan on the big screen. "Realize, too, that most children under 6 don't know the difference between fantasy and reality. So if they see a huge, grotesque-looking creature on the screen, even if it's benevolent like E.T., even if you explain to them it's not real, it doesn't matter. For them, seeing is believing," says Joanne Cantor, Ph.D., professor of communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of "Mommy I'm Scared": How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do to Protect Them.
Though the pickings are slim, there are some movies that very young children may enjoy in a theater, says Minow. Elmo in Grouchland and other Sesame Street features are safe bets – the story lines are simple, the characters are familiar, and there's no great dramatic tension that could make a child uneasy. Do your own research by talking to friends who have seen movies you're considering, and make good use of the Internet: A handful of sites offer parent-oriented reviews that detail what movies are about, what may be scary or disturbing to a child, and other useful information.
Prepare your child
If it's your little one's first movie outing, explain that the lights will turn off and that she'll be expected to sit for a while. Make it equally clear that she will in no way be forced to stay in the theater – tell her that there will be a bathroom just outside the door (if she's toilet trained) and a lobby with lights on, too. It's also important to explain some basic details about the movie she'll be seeing. "Go over the story in simple language, talk about the characters. This way, she will spend less of the movie struggling to understand what's going on and more time enjoying it," says Minow.
Work out the logistics
Imagine how jarring it must feel for a young kid to be raced into a parking lot and rushed into a dark theater just moments before the big show begins. With this in mind, give yourselves plenty of time to get to where you're going, purchase the popcorn, and most importantly, snag the most strategic seats. With young ones, this means choosing chairs set a good distance back from the screen and right smack on the aisle to ensure easy exits and re-entrances. Take along your child's blankie or other comfort object if he has one, as well as some baby wipes for melted chocolate messes and soda spills.
Expect the unexpected
If you take the above precautions, a child still might end up frightened or confused. "Adults look for the obvious things – monsters, ugly villains, complex plots – that might be inappropriate. But a young child's mind often works in ways we often can't conceive of," says Minow. She recalls her own son's utter confusion with a movie because he could not figure out how the "bad guy" could possibly be driving such a "good" car. Cinderella's evil stepsisters may not scare your child, but Lucifer the cat might give her nightmares. If your little one is old enough to cooperate, work out a system with her so that she can let you know when it's too much to handle, advises Minow. "Tell her if she's a little scared, she can hold your hand. If she needs a break, she can take a walk with you to the lobby. Finally, work out a code word that your child can say if she's had enough and really wants to leave. "If she says the word, you know she's not just looking to be comforted, and you should then honor her request," says Minow, pointing out that early evacuees can usually request a refund or voucher from the ticket office or theater manager.
Whatever you do, emphasizes Cantor, don't make an upset child stick out the entire show – whether it's because older siblings will be disappointed if they have to leave or because you want your child to see that all turns out well in the end. "Happy endings don't hold a lot of weight with very young children," Cantor says. "When they leave, they'll remember the monster alive and growling, not the fact that he dies in the end." As for the older sibling issue, Minow recommends the obvious: Leave the little ones at home or with friends. "It's better for them, and spending some one-on-one time at the movies is one of the nicest things you can do for and with an older sibling."
If your child was disturbed by something during a movie, follow her cues when it comes to addressing the issue. "If she doesn't mention it afterwards, let it alone," says Cantor. If the subject does come up, simple, obvious explanations work best. "There's no reason to lie – you want to offer the calm, unequivocal, limited truth that will provide the reassurance she needs," says Cantor. Instead of saying "Bambi's mommy may have been killed, but I'll never die on you," you might try, "You don't need to worry because there are no hunters around here." Even if there are loopholes in your argument, children of this age are generally not going to find them. Sometimes, it just takes time for children to get over whatever may have upset them, and it's up to a parent to patiently see them through it. It may even mean postponing movie going until your little one is a bit older.
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