I Took My 15-Month-Old to the Movies

Photo: Jackie Reeve. Hannah's First Movie, 3 months old.
Photo: Jackie Reeve. H’s First Movie, 3 months old.

Last week I took my daughter to see Monsters Universitywith my mom and six-year-old niece. They were having a day out and invited us along, so I thought we’d give it a try. I was fully prepared to leave the theater if H got even slightly upset, but she loved it.

She sat in her stroller, parked in the aisle, for almost the entire thing. She had a snack, we made a trip to change diapers, and she got bored and played with her stroller toys a few times, but otherwise she was mesmerized and perfectly content. The only time she became upset was when I was too slow getting her snack. She was so content that I wasn’t sure how I felt about the experience afterwards.

This was not H’s first trip to the movies. The Spring after she was born, when the summer movies were coming out, I made a couple of early morning trips. I planned them during her nap times, early enough that the theaters would be empty of anyone bothered by a potentially fussy baby. I bought her noise-proof baby headphones to ease my biggest concern for her at two or three months old. I also turned her stroller away from the screen and she slept the entire time.

Well, she slept through the entire first trip to see Men in Black III. When my husband came with us to see The Avengers, she made it through but woke up a couple of times. That was a much louder movie and we decided that would be the last time we tried taking her until she was a little older. Her hearing was our biggest concern.

Until now, when she’s a fully alert little creature curious about everything happening around her. My husband and I are well aware of the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that children under two avoid all screen time. The Montessori program she’s entering in the fall would also prefer no screen time. We understand that Baby Einstein is a scam and that a lot of shows advertising educational benefits offer no scientific evidence for that claim. But we are also a geek household.

My husband is an avid gamer and I am a TV and film nut. We don’t spend nearly as much time gaming and watching movies as we did before she was born, but it is still a part of our lives. One of my favorite photos is from my husband’s first Fathers’ Day, with H fast asleep next to him on the couch while he plays video games. We each have iPads, iPhones, and computers. We spend a lot of time working in front of those computers. Media is ever-present, and a complete ban on screen time until she turns two would be a monumental task. I fully commend the families that can do it.

We’ve decided that, for our family, the best approach is balance and conscientiousness. We try to be very aware of her individuality and of what she can and can’t tolerate. Balance comes from a solid family nighttime routine. After her bath and pajamas I read at least two stories to her and she helps turn the pages. My husband then tickles and hugs her before putting her down in her crib.

We go to the neighborhood playground regularly, take her to the beach, the city, the park, and go sledding in the winter. She has her own shelves of toys and fabric scraps in my sewing studio to play with while I sew, and we’ve spent hours together in there playing in parallel. We keep small buckets of toys in most rooms we spend time in for that reason.

We are completely avoiding children’s apps on our phones and tablets until she’s older, although she loves to look at picture and videos of herself on my phone. She is interested in our gadgets to the point that she will crawl over us to get a look at the screens when we’re using them and that worried us. So, we are choosing to keep them adult-only zones until we feel she can handle them in moderation.

The photos and videos are an exception because who keeps physical copies of these things anymore? Babies love looking at themselves, and our phones happen to be the place to do that. When she crawls into my lap to be nosy, I switch whatever I’m doing over to photos and videos of her.

We have never really let her watch children’s television shows. No Nick, Jr. or Disney Channel. This was hardest during the school year, when we were both at work and she went to a sitter’s house with older kids who watched TV. But her sitter was great about trying to keep her away from the TV as much as possible, and we did realize that we could not be obsessive about it all the time.

This, I think, is a reality for a lot of working moms. We dip our toes in the TV pool from time to time, but I really didn’t like the way she stared at even Sesame Street. And her response to Spongebob Squarepants, one of my all-time favorites, actually scared me a little. She stared it at so unblinkingly, and I became aware of how manic it was, that I shut it right off and decided to follow the “age six and up” guideline for that show.

We’re also trying to avoid exposing her to too many over-the-top, “buy me that” commercials for things. The programming in between the commercials, for us, isn’t strong enough to justify letting her watch even if we fast forward the commercials. I am warming up to the idea of Doc McStuffins occasionally–I like her a lot. And I was all for Fireman Sam until my husband got a look at an episode and decided it didn’t hold a candle to the original version he grew up with in the UK. I think when she’s older there could be some benefit to children’s television programming, but not now. So, what does she watch?

She watches movies. Last year I showed her some of the 2011 Winnie the Pooh film, and it was gentle and calming. She watched it, but she didn’t stare at it. She often fell asleep with it on and had amazing naps. Then we moved on to Finding Nemo, which she positively adores. She recognizes when I put it on and grins from ear to ear. She babbles and talks to the characters on screen.

I’ve practiced naming colors for her while watching. We’ve even debated getting an aquarium for her room so she can watch real fish, but this may have to wait until she’s old enough to stop trying to climb and take apart everything in sight. We loved taking her to the Philly aquarium to show her real “Nemo fish.” She even smiles if I say Nemo–she knows what that means. It’s given us a lot of interactive opportunities as a family, so we are more than happy to let her watch it. To us, that’s the best balance we can get with screen time. We’re starting to explore with some other movies that we can build on for family activities, like Happy Feet (penguins at the zoo) and the Madagascar movies (we’ve been on safari and want to take her when she’s older).

It’s not very often that she watches an entire movie start to finish. We can have movies on in short bursts, maybe ten or fifteen minutes, without dealing with the same level of hysteria that can come from fifteen minutes of a children’s TV show. I feel like movies build their storylines slowly over a feature length time, so there are more drawn out rises and dips in the action. If I want to have something on for a short treat, or so I can take a shower, or to help distract her when she’s teething and inconsolable, I can find a section in a movie that will work that’s also relatively calm.

Interestingly, she self-regulates her media consumption. I wasn’t expecting that at all, and it gives me hope that we’ve struck enough of a balance to keep screen time from being the end-all-be-all of entertainment for her. If she’s upset and we curl up on Mommy and Daddy’s bed to watch a little Nemo to calm her down, she’ll snuggle and watch until she’s feeling better, then she’ll try to escape and go play.

I am completely guilty of putting a movie on while I’m cooking or writing something, and she will watch it for awhile. But often, and sooner than I would expect, she gets bored and turns her attention to her toys and books. Or to unpacking the bookshelves or to trying to break into a bathroom to play with the toilet paper rolls. Or she’ll just come babble adorably at me while I’m working. She’ll look up at the screen occasionally, but it rarely holds her interest for the full length of the movie. I am 100% okay with this.

So what do I make of a movie in a dark theater keeping her rapt attention for a solid hour and forty-five minutes? How do I assess the experience of my six-year-old niece holding on to my mom for the scary parts while H watched without flinching? My own earliest memory is sitting on someone’s lap in a movie theater watching Kermit the Frog ride a bike. Movies were a huge part of my childhood, and I do love that H is apparently her mother’s child. I absolutely loved Monsters University and I say go out and see it with your kids if you haven’t already. But I think it’s also shown me that this is one of those individual moments we need to add to the family balance sheet for her.

She was really well-behaved (pro!), and she enjoyed herself (pro!), but she rarely took her eyes off of that screen (big con!). There was nothing else to grab her attention, which is entirely the point of movie theaters. I think I was almost hoping that she would get upset and we’d have to leave, because that would definitively tell me she is not ready for movies in theaters yet. Instead the experience told me that she’s ready, but maybe I’m not. Or maybe this is just an occasional treat until she hits that two-year-old milestone.

It was a great day out, and I’m thrilled that I got to go see a movie (so rare these days), but I will be thinking long and hard about my next trip to the theater with her.

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