It’s Showtime! 10 Theater Etiquette Tips for Kids and Families
What to consider before you buy those tickets
Ever been stuck on a flight next to a crying baby? This is also a fear of many theatergoers. More than a few dozen times in my career as an actor, technician and performing arts critic I’ve asked myself, “If the kid is screaming, why won’t her parents take her out?”
In my years as a special education teacher, I’ve wished more parents would explicitly teach their child theater etiquette before spending $250 on tickets. Etiquette is a learned behavior. If kids need to learn it, parents have to teach it.
Not every kid is the same. Age, life experience, developmental stages, disability and temperament must all be considered before deciding what kind of performance is appropriate for your family to attend. Here are 10 tips to consider before buying those tickets.
1. Know your kid. Does he wander while watching TV or he is glued to his tablet during a movie? Does she take lots of bathroom breaks or seem anxious in large crowds? Does your child even want to go to the show? If you can’t afford a sitter for a child who isn’t ready to sit through a theatrical performance, you can’t afford to see the show.
2. Choose the right show. If you wouldn’t take your child to an R-rated movie, don’t take him to an R-rated play. Not every musical is kid-friendly — even if it features puppets. Play to your child’s interests and research the performance extensively. If I want to see “The Phantom of the Opera” but my child is only 4 years old, I’m calling a sitter because it’s too long, too loud, too complex and too scary for a child that age.
3. Sit strategically. Think you might need to make a quick escape with your child(ren)? Choose an aisle seat near the back of the theater. Don’t trap yourself. Think ahead when choosing tickets for shows that require assigned seating.
4. Rehearse. Practice sitting still with your child for entire TV shows. Practice having quiet feet and staying off smartphones or tablets for a 90-minute movie. Sit through something boring with your child. Test your child’s ability to sit for long periods by attending a children’s theater show or church play before committing to a three-hour musical or dialogue-heavy work.
5. Be prepared. Have you used fidget toys or snacks to prevent interruptions during theater performances? Comfortable clothes for your child also help. If your child has a tantrum in the car, you might need to wait in the lobby until she is calm and ready to go in. Get there early so you can ease into the space. Rushing causes stress. If you’ll require a sign language interpreter, call ahead to confirm that this service is available at the theater.
6. Respect the space. Treat the theater as though you’re in someone’s house and you and your child are guests. Clean up messes, prevent your child from kicking other people’s seats, and remind your child to say “please” and “thank you” at the concession stand.
7. Hold all questions. If your child has an interesting observation or comment, or wants to ask a clarifying question, prepare him to hold that thought until intermission or during the walk back to the car.
8. Know when to leave. If you can hear your kid becoming fussy during the show, so can everybody else (including the actors on stage). This is not a teachable moment. You have to get out of there — especially if your child is crying, whining or, worse, screaming. Just take her out. Do not wait.
9. Preteach and debrief. Build anticipation for the show and discuss the expectations. If something you expect to see during the show might be confusing or upsetting to your child, talk about it beforehand. Afterward, revisit the topics you discussed. How did it go? What did your child think of the show? Engagement leads to enjoyment, which increases the positivity and pleasure of going to the theater.
10. Set a good example. Be prompt and enthusiastic. Don’t talk during the show, don’t check your phone and resist the temptation to get up for another glass of wine.
You have paid for your tickets, and so has everybody else. Follow these steps and you’ll all have a grand time at the theater.
Dustin K. Britt holds an M.A. in special education from East Carolina University. In addition to classroom teaching, he is the performing arts editor for Chatham Life & Style and his writing has been featured in IndyWeek and Triangle Arts & Entertainment.