Mid-Week Poll: At What Age Do Kids Understand Movies?

As a new father, I wanted to ask a question of the other movie-watching parents out there. I’m trying to plan my son’s indoctrination into all things cinema, but I don’t really know the right period of his life to start. As of right now, Dexter is only a week and a half old and he can’t do much other than eat, poop, and sleep. When should I let him watch movies?

Observing my nieces and nephews, I’ve noticed that around 2- or 3-years-old is when they start understanding the concept of “favorite.” They’ll have a favorite movie that they like to watch seven times a day. I remember that when I was that age, I watched Disney’s ‘Robin Hood’ at a pretty steady clip.

My question for parents out there is this: When do you think kids really start paying attention to and understanding movies? I’ve seen six-month-old kids sit and stare at TVs, but do they really understand what’s going on? Or are they just mesmerized by flashing lights?

So, parents, from your experience, at what age should I expect Dexter to understand and enjoy what he’s watching?

At What Age Do Kids Understand Movies?

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  1. I think there’s two separate questions here: When do children start enjoying movies (or TV), and when do they understand them?

    For the flashing lights alone, I think that kids enjoy watching stuff on TV pretty young. But for actually *understanding* what they’re watching, that won’t come until they’re maybe 26 or 27 years old. 🙂

    Love the choice of banner image, Aaron. Too perfect.

    • I agree. I think up until about the age of 5 or 6, I thought there were little mice living inside my television who were dressing up and playing parts. Of course, this was before we had a video recorder. The first time I saw a home movie of myself, I wanted to know how the little mice knew what I looked like and sounded like, although I thought, while they got my friends’ voices right, I thought they messed up on my voice.

      I think I was about 2 when I first started really watching television and movies, and really enjoyed them. I think I was about 6 before I really started to “understand”, and was probably about 8 before I really started to realize that movies were not real (that was also about the age I realized that cartoons were not carpet that had been placed over everything and then filmed, but were actually moving drawings).

      So while, in about a year to year and a half, the kid may be interested in what is on the television, expect the kid to be around kindergarten age before he starts taking intrest in movies other than Cars and Toy Story.

  2. TJ Kats

    It really depends on the parenting I think. My kids are now 5 and 2 1/2 and they both seemed to start to “understand” at 18-24 months I would say. Things like Woody being thrown away in his dream in TS2 and Boo being scared in Monsters Inc. brings up questions.

    Outside of understanding though is once they can talk they can also repeat` which can both be funny and a hard thing to deal with.

  3. Drew

    I think you asked the wrong question. Your question was, “At what age do kids understand movies?” However, your choices clearly reflected that you weren’t actually asking that question. The question that would have been appropriate for the age ranges you gave us to choose from would have been, “At what age do children start to have a desire to watch movies?” The answer to that question is about 12-18 months.

    They will take a small interest just before 12 months, and start to notice things that they like in certain movies. And really start enjoying them to the point of being able to watch some films in their entirety just after 18 months. But 12-18 months is when their interest spikes, and they might even start asking to watch certain movies. It is during this age range that they will start watching movies for longer than 15 minutes at a time.

    If we do want to address the question of, “At what age do children understand movies?” Josh is probably not too far off. It’s humorous, but just think about what age you really started to understand them in the sense that you do now. If you want to actually pose that question for young children only, I would say that the answer is about five years old.

    I’ve noticed that my children gain a new appreciation for film at about five years of age. They start to identify actors and talk about how they played, “that other character in that other movie.” They start to notice special effects. They start to notice when a movie sucks, that they would have thought was okay just a year before that.

  4. Donat Torres

    I think it depends on person to person. I know grown adults who are still in that “mesmerized by flashing lights” stage. They think crap like Avatar and Tron: Legacy are the greatest films ever made and criticize great movies like The Social Network for being “boring and stupid.” I’m 14 and my favorite directors are Terrence Malick and Fritz Lang. I guess you can say I already “understand” movies, but I don’t think kids really grasp what movies are really about until much later in life, but like I said, it depends.

    • Drew

      Trust me, if you are fourteen years of age, you definitely DO NOT understand movies. My favorite directors when I was that age, were Quentin Tarantino, and Martin Scorsese. I thought that I understood film as well. After all, I had loved movies since I was born (at least since my memory started). I started buying films and accumulating my own collection when I was 9. I didn’t realize until I was in my mid-twenties, that I definitely didn’t understand film like I thought I did when I was a young teen.

      • Donat Torres

        I’m pretty sure I don’t understand them, and I’m sure I’ll have a much different taste when I’m, say, 40, but the point is, there isn’t really a definite age when you really start to understand what film is all about. I know people well in there 50s who think Avatar is a masterpiece because of the “graphics.” Try and convince me that they already understand movies.

  5. Alex

    It also doesn’t depend only on the child, but also on the movie. I remember that when I was a kid, my favorite part of Empire Strikes Back (my favorite movie), was the battle on Hoth because of the “flashing lights”. As I got into my teens and my relationship with my own parents evolved, the relationship between Luke and Darth Vader became more interesting to me. Now, I find the philosophies espoused by Yoda to be the best part of the movie. Peoples’ perspectives of film, even the same film, are going to change with time. A well-made film can easily be accessible and understandable on a number of different levels at a number of different stages in a person’s life.

  6. M. Enois Duarte

    I agree with everyone that it does take many years for anyone to actually try — I mean really try — to understand film.

    Our daughter started enjoying movies very early on, like most kids do at around 3 or 4. She would watch TV at a younger age, but really mostly stared at it with amazement, especially animated flicks. It wasn’t really until 3 or 4 that she enjoyed it, saw the humor on screen and laughed because “she gets it,” she can appreciate the joke — not verbally necessarily but visually, which is why Looney Tunes, Our Gang, Three Stooges, Ren & Stimpy and PowerPuff Girls work and continue to work so well.

    She’s a Junior in High School now and can I say she “understands” film or television? Hardly. Sure, she has her favorites — I even let her keep the first three seasons of ‘Heroes’ with her because she loves them. As long as we know what she’s watching, we don’t have restrictions on movies or TV. She can watch ‘Last Song’ or ‘Dear John’ and call it “an utter crapfest” on her own, but can she explain why other than she likes the book better. No. She knows what she likes/enjoys and what she doesn’t like/enjoy, but that’s the extent of it.

    She doesn’t quite understand film, which is completely normal because understanding only comes later in life after experiencing a wide range of movies. It wasn’t until recently, like last month or so, that she asked about something said in a ‘South Park’ episode. After explaining it, she finally understood the political/philosophical ironies of the show and that most all of the humor consists of critical jabs on modern culture. This is the difference between understanding and simply enjoying, and I personally think our daughter is now heading in the direction of understanding. It will be a while longer before she tries to apply understanding to other movies, and that’s okay. Everyone is different as other have pointed out.

    Kids enjoy what they enjoy very early on and quickly attain the concept of favorites. But understanding why or actually understanding what they see on the screen comes much later in life. Heck, I have to deal with people older than myself who still don’t understand. But that’s life, and everyone is different.

  7. Jane Morgan

    Our kids are 11, 9, and 6, BBG. None of them are allowed to watch TV.

    Mostly we try to provide a buffer against marketing.

    We started letting them watch one movie per week, at age 5. For the most part, they sit captivated for entire films.

    Emotionally, they can give themselves completely to a film. And cinematic imagery often sneaks into their dreams.

    Intellectually, the boys are starting become inspired, especially by sci-fi adventure. In their creative play, drawings, short stories, etc… they’ll explore or combine story worlds, or add in some new science. Jurassic Park On Mars. Kung Fu Transformers. Indiana Jones And The God-Stone Of Atlantis.

    This year we started them on ‘The Complete Calvin & Hobbes.’ And the oldest is beginning his first read of ‘The Lord Of The Rings.’

    I doubt they will fully appreciate the artistry of these works until they’re our age.

  8. Trepid

    If you love your son you’ll let him get a solid grasp on reality first, so he doesn’t end up as those people who expect life to play like a movie (I hate you, Dawson and anybody like you). I mean, really? 24 months?

  9. Jane Morgan

    According to ‘Freakonomics,’ just posting this poll has already elevated you into the top 10% of all parents.

    In order to enter the top 1%, you need to hang a mobile over the crib with an ipad that loops Fellini films.

  10. August Lehe

    As a child I adored THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, except I wanted to see more stuff BLOWN UP! Then I graduated to WAR OF THE WORLDS. Finally….Aliens who wanted to kill EVERYTHING(AND IN THREE-STRIP TECHNICOLOR!) Then I moved on to INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, and later….DUNE and STAR WARS. Now they bore me to tears (with the Ninja ‘philosophy’ stuff) and I’m back to DAY and Worlds! Who knew, Alzheimer’s could be this bad?