Amid the flurry of tragic and disturbing details released following the shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater last week that left 12 dead and more than 50 others injured, at least two facts were especially jarring for many parents: Veronica Moser-Sullivan, the youngest person killed at that midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, was just 6 years old, while a 3-month-old infant was among the injured.
The outcry was swift and fierce. “Why were there a six year old and 3 month old at a midnight viewing?!? Of a violent, PG-13 movie no less!” one outraged Twitter user posted. “Questions need to be asked of the parents that felt it was wise to take a three-month-old baby to a midnight film screening. Ridiculous,” tweeted another.
True, it can be hard to imagine The Dark Knight Rises seen by young eyes, regardless of the time of day. Its central villain is a ruthless terrorist. The first murders happen in the film’s opening scene. Scenes involving graphic massacres, the killing of innocent bystanders, and the inevitability of death are relentless throughout the entire movie. Numerous studies attest to the negative effects of violent media on children’s behavior. So when it was revealed that Jamie Rohrs brought his 4-month-old son and 4-year-old daughter to a screening of the ceaselessly violent movie, Tracy A. Stanciel at Chicago Now’s Good and Bad Parents blog wrote, “Colorado shooting reveals the nominee for worst father of the year.”
But as any moviegoer can attest, Rohrs is hardly the only parent to cart his tots to the theater to see a movie featuring questionable content. In fact, the practice has become so popular that many theater chains have even instituted special screenings for parents to bring their young children to. Why has this become so commonplace, and is it even appropriate?
“The practical reality is that movies are expensive,” says Stacy DeBroff, bestselling parenting expert and CEO and founder of MomCentral.com. The math is simple: For a young couple, two movie tickets and a popcorn totals $30, at least. Say a responsible babysitter charges only $10 an hour—the find of the century—and you need services for four hours. Suddenly The Dark Knight Rises just cost $70, money most young couples don’t have. But if parents know that their baby is a veritable Rip Van Winkle, date night becomes less of a bank breaker.
“I don’t think anyone is taking their awake babies to these movies,” says DeBroff. “I don’t think this is plan A, but a lot of people can’t afford baby-sitting and know their baby is a deep sleeper, so they go, knowing the child will be asleep by their feet in a carrier and oblivious to what’s going on.”
When that’s the case, says Heather Wittenberg, a child psychologist and founder and president of BabyShrink.com, the infants aren’t processing the movie at all. They’re just out with their parents. “It’s when they get older and can take in the movie that there could be a problem.”
Of course, it’s not just snoozing infants tagging along with mom and dad to these movies. Kids are going to these age-inappropriate films now more than ever, a byproduct of our child-centric culture, says DeBroff: “Even at young ages we include kids in lots of activities that we ourselves growing up would never have been included in.” A generation ago, for example, parents would throw a party at their house and banish their kids to bed in their PJs before the first drink was poured. “Now they’re running around as part of the party.”
Parents also are taking their kids more places in general. “It used to be that moms are home with the babies while everyone else was out in the world,” says Wittenberg. “Now, for better or worse, we take our babies all over the place.”
Whether it’s because of the economy or other reasons, the movie theater is increasingly one of the most popular places to take kids. Seven of the top 20 films at the U.S. box office last year were animated. Theater chains are responding to the trend by hosting screenings specifically for parents to bring their children to.
Krikorian Premiere Theaters in California runs regular Mommy Movie Mondays, offering stroller check-in, reduced sound levels, and dimmed lights (“for optimal diaper-bag visibility”). AMC Theatres in partnership with baby website TheBump.com launched Bring Your Baby Matinees on the first Tuesday of every month at select theaters. Of course, neither screening will silence critics of parents bringing children to inappropriate films: Krikorian’s Mommy Movie next Monday will be Step Up Revolution (rated PG-13 for suggestive dancing and language), while AMC’s Bring Your Baby Matinee will be The Amazing Spider-Man, another comic-book movie rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence.
Requests for comment from both Krikorian and AMC were not responded to before this story was published.
But if taking children to movies is so commonplace, why are the incidents in Aurora sparking such vitriolic debate over whether the practice constitutes bad parenting? It’s the desire to place blame, and find safety and meaning in a din of chaos, says Wittenberg. “Blaming parents who take their children into theaters is an understandable but misguided attempt to find a way to make our families safer.”
Movie theaters are establishments where people were never worried about violence or security, and the change continues a trend in which random acts of violence keep striking in unexpected places, like schools or malls. “This movie-theater debate is like asking if it’s bad parenting to send your child to school or walk a mall or board an airplane,” says DeBroff. “It’s important to separate single incidents from parenting judgment. Otherwise parents are never going to go anywhere, watch Netflix, and never leave their houses.”
That notion introduces intriguing hypotheticals: Forget the fact that this was a movie theater. What if a couple were at home and their baby fell asleep in their arms, so they turn on the latest Batman flick and watch as he sleeps? Would they still be bad parents? “Or what if the movie theater had been showing a quiet kids movie?” asks DeBroff. “Would the midnight screening have been OK?”
A similar argument could be made if a family were participating in another seemingly innocuous act, like boating one weekend, for example, and the boat capsized. Would there be the same uproar? “It’s easy to look at this Batman incident in retrospect and accuse those parents of having an error in judgment,” says DeBroff. “But when our children are young and our babies are asleep and zoned out, we do plenty of things that are adult, or loud, or could end up proving unexpectedly unsafe.”
Movies, truly, are just the tip of the iceberg. Actress Alicia Silverstone, a mother seasoned in dealing with controversy, caused quite a stir when she roamed the fields of April’s Coachella Music Festival—a days-long rock concert headlined by the loud likes of Dr. Dre, Radiohead, and the Black Keys—with her 11-month-old son, Bear, in tow. Bear donned noise-canceling headphones to protect his ears, but that didn’t stop a backlash from brewing. Yet bringing wee ones to concerts in high-tech muffs is such a widely employed practice that it’s reached the ultimate barometer of social acceptance: the meme.
From amusement parks to football games, there’s a litany of environments that could be deemed unsafe for children—yet we take the kids there anyway. It’s why so many people are exasperated by this debate—the confusion over a commonplace practice like taking babies to movies and the notion that such a thing could be considered bad parenting. “Parents have always made their decisions for what’s appropriate,” says Wittenberg. Not everyone has to agree with them.
“I can give you a long list of places I personally don’t believe babies belong,” says Jo Ashline, writer of The Mom Blog at The Orange County Register. Criticizing parents for bringing their kids to the movies, or arguing that any parent purposefully placed his or her child in harm’s way in Aurora, is ridiculous, she says. “The list of where a psychotic gunman doesn’t belong, however, is much shorter: anywhere.”