How Kids Should Behave at Theater Performances

Theater staff encourage parents to choose age-appropriate performances and make sure their children are aware of proper etiquette before plunging headlong into the art scene.

Most theaters have age guidelines or restrictions on child admissions for particular shows. Parents need to consider the length of the show, whether or not there is an intermission, and any excessive special effects or loud music, and complicated or adult themes that would be inappropriate for young viewers.

When Are Kids Ready?
How can you tell if your child is ready to attend a live performance?

Theater staff suggest that the child should be old enough to sit through, understand and enjoy the show. If a child has the ability to realize that going to the theater is a special event with special rules and can live by the different and special rules, then he is ready.

One developmental milestone parents can look for is a child's ability to act like an adult during the production (keeping both feet on the ground, sitting up straight and no feet on the chair in front). If a child will be uncomfortable or unhappy during the show, then he probably isn't ready for live performances.

Most theater pros believe children are ready for live performances once they reach elementary school. By second or third grade, most children can recognize familiar and personal themes like friendship and love in productions. At this stage children are used to controlling their bodies and their minds, they have been in a group setting at school and they have learned to wait their turn, he explains.

While children's ability to control their behavior is important pre-requisite, family theater specialists encourage parents to introduce their children to theater as early as possible. As soon as children have the attention span to listen to a story from beginning to end they are ready.

Introducing children to the theater one step at a time by first taking them to children's theaters is important, because live performances are not like anything else. Children need to be prepared.

Preparing Kids for the Show
The first thing parents should do in preparation is call the theater to find out the subject matter of a show and to check for any age restrictions. If you're going to pay for admission, make sure the subject matter is suitable.

Once you've chosen a production, tell your child what he or she will be seeing and explain the theater environment. Discuss the story with your child before going to the show if it is based on literature. Some theaters even  help parents in this effort by offering study guides on their productions. Listening to the soundtrack or associated music also helps build excitement and prepares the child for the theater experience.

With younger children, explain that there will be loud noises, like drums or shots, and many unfamiliar people will be around (some children are uncomfortable in crowds). Make sure your child understands what it means when the lights go out: The show is beginning, it's time to be quiet.

Let children know there is a bathroom and water fountain and that they should be used before the show begins. Explain that it might not be possible to answer questions during the show, but that all the child's questions are important.

Emphasize what children can, rather than what they cannot, do at the theater, so they will not feel constrained. Tell the child conversations can happen, but they need to be hushed - like telling a secret. Tell them that listening can happen, watching can happen and clapping can happen (at appropriate times).

The more preparation, the more the child will enjoy the show.

Bringing Children to the Show

  • Call the theater in advance to check for age guidelines and age-appropriateness of the production.
  • Children should be tall enough to see over other people's heads.
  • Have your child wear comfortable clothing. It will make him or her more at ease. Keep in mind that some theaters have a dress code.
  • Attend to bathroom and drinks before the show begins.
  • Explain the story line of the show beforehand.
  • Explain what is expected of the child at the show (special rules).
  • Explain that he or she must be quiet during the show.
  • Explain that there might be loud, frightening noises as part of the production.
  • Get up and leave the theater if you need to discuss any problems.
  • Remember that no food is allowed in the theater.
  • Try to find exciting shows, like a musical, with lots of action to hold the child's attention.

Jennifer Lapham is a former assistant editor for the Boston Parents Paper.

© Parenthood.com, used with permission.

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