1. Pick an age-appropriate movie. This is probably the most important rule of all -- right up there with not kicking the seat in front of you. If you take your four-year-old to a PG-13 action flick just because it's based on a novel you read and loved as a tween, you will be in for an unpleasant afternoon of frightened whimpering, tears and shouts of "Is he going to die?" If you don't know whether even a PG-rated film is right for your child, I suggest reading Common Sense Media (Full disclosure: I'm also their senior movie critic), a nonprofit site dedicated to telling parents everything they should know before seeing a movie.
2. Go to a matinee. The younger the kid (and we do mean "kid," because infants and young toddlers really don't belong in a movie theater, unless it's one of those special "Mommy & Me" matinees some theater chains host), the earlier a showtime you should attend. All of us have been at a dinner-time screening full of meltdown-prone kids who can barely make it through the 15 minutes of trailers. So unless you're waiting until your kid is in fourth grade to see a movie at the theater, keep the outing in the early afternoon.
3. Discuss the movie before you go. Leave the surprises for older kids you know for certain want to see the latest Pixar flick or (sigh) talking-animal comedy. For a first-time movie outing, it's good to prepare your kid. It's ridiculously easy to do this nowadays, because you can watch the trailer online, and if it's a family friendly movie (which it should be as per rule No. 1), the official website will probably feature a bunch of bonus material, from printables to games. This will get your child ready to see the movie.
4. Talk about movie manners. It's never too early to teach kids how a courteous moviegoer behaves. Explain that the lights will go down, signaling that the audience should be as quiet as possible. Let kids know they can whisper if they need something but otherwise should stay quiet. And remind your little one to keep his hands and feet to himself. (How many of us have had to give an unobservant parent the stink-eye, because their kid is basically tap dancing on our seat back?)
5. It's OK to get emotional. Most kids are extra sensitive to violence, whether it's overt or implied. Consider how many kids' movies feature orphans or a parent who dies (I know I'm not the only one who cried during "Bambi" or "E.T." or "Harry Potter"). If your kid gets upset because of something in the movie, don't shush them -- comfort them. If the tears turn into sobs, take your child outside until they've calmed down.
6. Decide about concessions. This might sound frivolous, but concessions are so over-priced, they can easily double the cost of your trip to the movies. But maybe you adore movie popcorn or look forward to that plastic tray of nachos and melted cheese dip. What you decide about concessions from the start will stay with your kid. We splurged for the kids meal for our children, and ever since they've expected a snack. Even the times we've snuck in our own snacks, we were met with Puss 'N Boots eyes pleading for us to get at least a bucket of popcorn. So think carefully about whether you want your kid to equate a trip to the movies with oversized snack foods.
7. The attention-span test. Some kids aren't ready for a movie until they're in kindergarten, and others can handle a movie at three-and-a-half. We waited the longest with our eldest, and each subsequent child went a bit earlier to the theater. If your kid can't even sit through a 30-minute episode of "Dora" or "The Wonder Pets," they're probably not going to sit through a full-length movie.
On the other hand, if your kid has watched several movies on DVD, it's a good bet she can handle an 80-minute film on the big screen. Congratulations! You're ready to add one more date to your child's scrapbook.