I advocate active movie-watching when watching movies at home with kids. That means kids watch with your participation. When you can, commit to sitting on the sofa and watching a movie with your kids/niece/nephew/grandchild, and share the experience. Don’t do something else while they’re watching. Get engaged. Try to see the movie through their eyes.
Active movie-watching also means that when kids have questions – and they invariably will — use the pause button on the remote, and answer their questions. You’re not in a movie theater, where it’d be rude to talk (though make sure kids understand that movie theater etiquette is different). If you feel the need to explain, clarify or otherwise discuss what’s going on, do it. Things are going to come up you should address, whether it’s explaining what a twister is (THE WIZARD OF OZ) or what an archeologist does (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK), calming kids when they think E.T. is going to die (don’t worry, he’s going to be okay), or starting to educate them about racial prejudice (if you’re watching the recent Jackie Robinson biopic, 42)
If this watch-and-pause method proves too distracting as everyone becomes immersed in the movie, it’s fine to leave the talking until just after you’ve watched it. But make sure to talk about it while the memory of the movie is fresh. Draw kids out about their favorite part, anything they were curious about, anything they didn’t understand. Tell them what you liked or didn’t. Tell them what you loved.
Movies can educate kids about subjects some of them might find dull in school — history, geography, science, etc. – and do it in a way that goes down like ice cream. They can expose kids to different kinds of family dynamics (think of all those animated movies where the protagonist has a single parent, from BAMBI to FINDING NEMO). They can show kids what it means to be brave even when you’re scared (the kids in the HARRY POTTER series are good examples). They can make kids want to read or re-read the books the movies are based on (HARRY POTTER again). They can teach kids to accept and celebrate difference (HAPPY FEET). They can show things that aren’t yet possible – e.g., spaceships that travel at light speed — but might be pretty cool if they were (STAR WARS). You get the idea.
Your job is to point out all this rich stuff, and get kids to look for it too. Teach them early on to be active, not passive, consumers of entertainment: to analyze, question, and mine it for gold, whether that gold is understanding what it means to take a leap of faith (INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE), seeing how a kid can master a skill over time (KARATE KID), or getting them to ponder the possibilities of time travel (BACK TO THE FUTURE). And of course, they’ll learn to “never get involved in a land war in Asia” (THE PRINCESS BRIDE). You’re giving them practice in critical thinking, getting them to make connections and have fun doing it.
When kids are very young, and for as long as you can keep it up, I recommend you pick movies for them to watch, but also let them choose sometimes, from movies you’ve already deemed suitable. Just make sure the movies are ones they’ll find genuinely entertaining, or you’ll lose your credibility as movie-picker … fast. The idea is for you to serve as curator of the kids’ screen time, for as many years as you can get away with it. Eventually they’ll develop their own tastes, whether you share them or not. So give them good stuff now, and you’ll be shaping their tastes, at least for a while.
Kids will want to see movies they love again and again, and though it might drive you crazy, let them. Once something’s pre-screened and liked, it can become an evergreen in your household, and baby, that’s gold for those times when you can’t be an active movie-watcher — when you need to make dinner, take a shower, be with your partner, or do something otherwise necessary for your sanity.
When kids are home sick from school and don’t have the energy to do much besides watching a movie, it’s a great time to put them in “movie school” for part of the day. Pick a movie you think they’ll love and watch it with them. If you can’t because you’ve got to work or have other things to attend to, talk about the movie later, over lunch, dinner, or at bedtime.
Whenever possible, be an active movie-watcher with kids. Kids will get more out of the movies, and watching with them may prove some of the best, easiest and most cherished ways to spend time together.