Lights, Camera … Actions to Take Before Going to the Movies

Who doesn’t love a good blockbuster? Kids and adults alike anticipate the release of the latest film and spending time going to the theater. Of course, not all movies are created with kids in mind. As parents, we take the starring role in helping identify the movies that are appropriate for our children to watch.

Choosing the right movie would be so easy if there were a formula we could apply to the process: kid’s age + movie rating – cost of the movie = positive experience. Unfortunately, no such formula exists. Much of the decision-making process is subjective and based on our own personal values and belief system. However, there are a few ideas that can help guide a parent’s movie selection.

Fantasy vs. Reality
First is the concept of a child’s understanding of fantasy versus reality. Until a child is about 4 years old, he has a difficult time separating what’s real from what’s not. In the minds of young children, superheroes really do fly, Harry really does have magic powers, and cars really can transform into robots. Of course, there’s a distinct difference between live action and animated films – animated films are different and are much easier for kids to distinguish as fantasy.

Understandably, kids younger than 4 should have limited exposure to things that might confuse, upset or frighten them. I’ve always felt that the movie theater itself can be a frightening experience that borders on sensory overload – it is too loud and too dark. My suggestion is to wait until kids are older than 4 to introduce them to the world of movies.

I once had a mother bring her young child to me for an evaluation. For some reason, the youngster refused to go to the bathroom on a toilet after the child was already well on the way to being potty trained. It took some time, but we ultimately discovered the cause: The child had developed fear of the toilet after having seen a live-action fantasy movie (a “kids” film) in which the lead character came out of the toilet. Movies definitely have a different meaning for the little kids than older ones.

Flicks and Family Values
The second consideration is the values movies promote and if they are consistent with the values in the home. Maybe your kids want to see a film, but it includes themes of violence, sexuality, supernatural powers or horror. Are these concepts OK from your perspective as a parent? Language is another issue. Does the film use the kind of language you want your kids to use? These are the types of decisions that are very subjective – there really is no rule in terms of what is or is not best.

We are all familiar with the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings: G, PG, PG-13 and R. While they might provide some help in deciding a film’s appropriateness, you really cannot depend on the ratings as an accurate gauge of what would be best for your kids. Parents have to make those decisions for their own homes based on what they feel is right for their children. As a suggestion, you might consider pre-viewing movies that you have doubts about. At least then you will know first hand whether it is the kind of entertainment to which you want your kids exposed.

Consider Home Viewing
Another alternative is watching DVDs in your own home (also a good alternative to theater-going for the little kids). Being at home gives you much more control over what your kids see. In a theater, it may be awkward to get up and leave if a film offends, especially if you are at the movie with friends. But from the comfort of your own couch with remote in hand, you can fast forward through an objectionable scene, or turn a movie off altogether if it is not quite what you anticipated.

Movies provide a great opportunity for parents and kids to discuss personal values. Talk about the films you watch, identify the good things you see, ask your kids what they enjoyed. Many movies include morals or messages we can talk about and help our kids recognize. If you are caught off guard by something offensive, use it as an opportunity to talk about the things that are important to you and why.

Going to the movies makes for a fun family activity. As parents, we can make that movie-going experience even better by being informed about movies, selecting age-appropriate themes and choosing films that promote the values that are important to us.

If you have any questions about the age-appropriateness of a particular film, offers firsthand reviews from real parents, and may help you determine if a film contains more content than what was advertised in the previews.

Nicolle Napier-Ionascu is a clinical neuropsychologist at Presbyterian Hospital Rehabilitation Center and part of the adjunct faculty at Queens University of Charlotte.