I Took My 15-Month-Old to the Movies

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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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8 thoughts on “I Took My 15-Month-Old to the Movies

  1. When it comes to a lot of the kids shows: Netflix Streaming. They recently added the Disney Junior shows like Special Agent Oso and Doc McStuffins. My 3 year old son will watch shows on the iPad or on the TV and we like it better just because of the lack of commercials.

  2. I took my daughter to the movies much like you did when she was under the age of 1. I took my son when he was just two months old. I carried him in the sling and even nursed him while watching the movie. My kids are 18 and 12 and so I didn’t even think about noise canceling headphones. They’ve turned out fine 🙂

    My daughter is about to start college in the fall to study biology. My son is entering middle school and is grade advanced for both math and English. They did watch TV and movies their whole lives, but they also went to the library, museums, and parks. It’s a balancing game. Just make sure they get more of the good interactive stuff than screens.

  3. I can’t tell you the relief and the smile on my face to read this article! My husband and I are also big gaming, movie and Tv geeks. The first year of my daughters life was exhausting because she wouldn’t sleep longer than 45 min during the day and a few hours at night. I admit to becoming quite the TV zombie because I had no energy. But we have, like you, balanced her media viewing. Its crazy to read that your daughter self regulated her media consumption because that’s what our daughter has done as well. She loves her Curious George and Word Girl but she also adores her books; they are her favorite toys to be honest and she’s memorized most of her rather large library.
    Thank you so much for your honesty, and the balance you illustrated. It makes me feel so much less like a “bad mother” to let my daughter watch an hour of TV (she’s now 3) or play on my iPad.

  4. Our kids are big movie watchers at 4 and 9 yrs old. I run the debate a lot about screen time vs playtime. We have the tv on a lot as background noise. I find my kids are less drawn to it at times, vs friends who times with tv is regulated. When friends who come over and they see the tv on they are drawn to it like a moth to light. My kids are like who cares about the tv let’s go play something. In the end, it is what you make of it.

  5. Can you please help me with what Noise canceling headphones you used for your daughter? thanks! and thank you for sharing your experience.

  6. Hi Jackie, what a perfectly balanced story. I am fed up of those overly self righteous moms and childcare experts who absolutely ban this stuff while forgetting that moms are human beings who may want to watch a movie in the theatre, after a self imposed exile of almost two years. Don’t we deserve an outing that’s not just parks and play areas? Moderation in everything is the key…. And an outing once in a year to the movies will hardly have a dent on children… They’re much more resilient than we try to make them…

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