I’ve had media on my mind lately. And Finn McMissile, I’ve got my eye on you.

We took F (age 4 1/2 years) to his first movie about a month ago. It is something we’ve been talking about for over a year. He’d built up a sense of anticipation that we could have bottled. F is a focused boy. The only movie he has chosen to watch from start to finish his entire life is the original Cars. So with the news of Cars 2 coming to the big screen, we plotted our first big family trip to the cinema. F lost sleep with anticipation. He studied (and slept with) the New York Times synopsis. The NYT review, we didn’t share with him…

What age did you first take your child to a movie? Did you go because of a certain film or because the timing was right?

I’m asking because I think although there is no perfect answer (3, 4, 5, or 6), I wish our first movie had gone better. All in all, our experience was a great success in the eyes of my son, but Pixar let me down. As did Finn McMissile.

McMissile, why the unnecessary ammo?

You see, with my first-born F, restricting media was something I was decidedly good at. There were lots of other things I wasn’t (enter Mama-guilt built from “excessive” pacifier use, inability to make enough breast milk, or the slight sunburn F got on his cheeks at 4 months old when the shade from the tree was inadequate). I firmly believe TV isn’t good for our brains, particularly little ones, who are just learning how to think and learn. I subscribe to the AAP recommendation of no media prior to age 2. This belief made it easy for me to become near neurotic about restricting screen time for him. I also have been neurotic about limiting my boy’s exposure to play guns (in and out of media). I was determined to mitigate the media’s effects on F during earlier childhood. I know TV doesn’t provide opportunity for him. Because of the restriction, he doesn’t seem to crave TV or DVDs. He still watches only an hour or two of media a week and it’s all commercial free.

It’s been different with my O (2 1/2 year-old). He had some screen exposure prior to age 2 and watches more media now (a few hours/week) than his brother did at the same age. So is life of the second born…Consequently, he craves media more, no question about it.

As it turns out, I got entirely conflicted as the date for the first movie approached. We’d put it on the calendar, arranged care for O while we’d be gone. When I first heard that the main character’s name was Finn McMissile I retreated from innocent enthusiasm. What was so wonderful about Cars (1) is that besides a scene with a growling turbine chase scene, the movie is sweet. Not syrupy in my book– but rather a bit endearing and a view into loving characters finding true friendship and making good choices.

McMissile, by definition is something altogether different. And, about 2 months ago I pulled up the trailer for the movie on YouTube.  F watched it with me on my computer at the kitchen counter. He was quiet about it, not buzzing and brimming with excitement like I would have expected. But here’s the reason: when F senses danger or threat, his innate distaste for threat surfaces. And he felt it. This Cars 2 has some blow up scenes, a torture scene (that I don’t think he understood), and significant violence. It was loud. Furthermore, so much of the movie reeks of merchandising. Yes, there is a bit of wisdom (lost) about the environment and a tour of international locations, but it’s lost in all the noise.

In a distilled summary, the movie experience was a hoot. The really frustrating part was the awkward branding (before the movie started we endured ads for chicken nuggets in the shape of Lightning McQueen) and we got a glimpse into what looked like the perfect first movie while watching a trailer for Winnie the Pooh. Both my husband and I longed to be watching that honey-eating bear. Ultimately, F stayed through the whole Cars 2 movie and I had the treat of getting to hold him through the final 40 minutes or so when he climbed onto my lap after an uncomfortable moment.

I’m left frustrated and a bit bewildered. For whom is the violence heightening the experience? Why use words like “idiot” and why torture a car? Why does this make a better movie, Pixar? Who comes in droves and who buys more merchandise because of it?

Tips For First Movie With Kids:

  • Plan Ahead. I collected advice from friends and family, from other pediatricians, and from those on Twitter prior to the movie. I was told to make sure we’d visited the bathroom prior to starting the movie, review and rehearse with F what to expect, get popcorn on the way into the seat, and have plenty of time for prep. We bought tickets ahead of time. There was no rushing (that’s unusual for us!) and we had plenty of time to take in the entire experience–we took lots of photos during our journey. The best part (for me, maybe) was that F was on a date with his two parents –a treat in itself. We made this out to be a big adventure and I think it enhanced the experience.
  • Vet The Movie. Use resources you trust like your friends with children, your family, your pediatrician, and online resources. I love Common Sense Media. It’s a site where you can read movie reviews, hear opinions about age-appropriate content, compare weakness and strengths of shows & movies, and browse for alternatives by age. Common Sense Media gave Cars 2 a green light for 6 year olds and only a yellow light for 4 year olds. I read the review prior to taking F so I knew we were possibly a bit over our head and that violence was an issue. But like all things, we make decisions in the context of life and we knew F had his heart set on this movie. So we gave it a go.
  • Review The Movie With Your Child. Don’t let the movie experience end when you walk out of the theater. Return to the movie for a few days, discussing what was good about it, themes in the movie and what your child is thinking about. I guarantee your child will be thinking about it…Further, rate the movie, pick it apart, find its beauty, its flaws. After the movie, ask your children about what they saw. In our family, we have a tradition after every single movie we don’t say a word about the movie until we exit the theater. Then on the count of three outside the theater doors, we throw out our hands and rate the movie on a scale of 1 to 10. It’s an awesome gestalt and starts the conversation. The only movie my husband and I have ever agreed is a 10: The Incredibles.
  • Trust Your Instincts (& Your Child’s): If it doesn’t seem right—leave. Just get up and go. I had told F prior to the movie that we could hightail it at any moment during the movie if he didn’t like it. I reminded him that he was in charge for this movie. He never took his parachute but he sure did come close…
  • First Movie Best Bets: Here’s Common Sense Media’s list of  best First Movies. I was right–Winnie the Pooh made the list. Maybe learn from our mistake, choose Pooh this summer as a starter.