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Introducing a beloved holiday tradition to a child? Timing is everything.

Too young for "The Nutcracker?" Parenting experts discuss when to introduce holiday traditions.

Maybe "The Nutcracker" is magical to you, but is your 4-year-old ready to sit through two hours of ballet?

Sure, taking the kids to see your region's biggest Christmas tree or best holiday parade is fun to contemplate from the safety of your own home, but are you really up for the adventure of three small children at night, in the cold, with snacks, toys and a diaper bag the size of a small refrigerator?

"Even just visiting with Santa can be really scary for young children," says Katie Hurley, author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher). "A lot of children fear people in costumes."

It's a year-round-issue, but the stakes rise over the holidays: When should you introduce your children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews to the traditions you love? Step in too soon, and kids get cranky, overwhelmed or scared. Move too slowly, and you can miss the window when the Grinch is larger-than-life or Scrooge's redemption is a jaw-dropping revelation.

Parents and experts say that there are no simple answers, but there are lots of good guidelines and resources, including websites such as Common Sense Media, which gives age recommendations for popular movies.

They also point out that there are plenty of at-home activities, from baking cookies to singing songs, that the youngest celebrants can enjoy.

"First-time parents do get really excited about this stuff, and in some ways, it's never too soon," says Hurley. "So much has changed in the last 20 years, and there are all these great things that parents can do with kids."

Even preschoolers can enjoy the traditional TV specials, says Suzette Valle, author of "101 Movies to See Before You Grow Up." Think, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Frosty the Snowman," "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" By about age 8, kids can better distinguish between reality and fantasy, Valle says, and many can enjoy films such as "A Christmas Story," "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" with Jim Carrey and "Home Alone."

By 8 to 10, she says, you can consider the Jimmy Stewart classic "It's a Wonderful Life," which introduces the idea of suicide but moves toward a message of redemption.

"It's a very wonderful lesson about appreciating your life and what you did and valuing who you are, how you contribute to your community and society," Valle says.

Betsy Bozdech, executive editor of ratings and reviews at Common Sense Media, says she's taking it slowly with her 5-year-old daughter, Katie.

"It's hard, but I think it's worth the wait," she says. "My all-time favorite movie is 'The Princess Bride,' and I was just thinking about this the other day: It's still a couple years probably until she's ready, and it's hard, but I saw it when I was 12, and I still didn't get a lot of the jokes for years."

The worst-case scenario is that a kid will be scared by, say, the ghosts in "A Christmas Carol" or the rats in "The Nutcracker," and an experience that fills you with joy will become a (literal) nightmare for your child.

"My parents took me to see 'The Exorcist' at 12 years old in a theater," recalls Valle. "They didn't understand the ratings system; I think it was rather new. Well, I slept with my sister for a good couple of years."

Hurley says she wants her kids to see the theatrical version of "A Christmas Carol," but they scare easily, so she's still waiting.

"I do think it's an important play — it's an important piece of history — so that's something I would want them to see eventually," she says.

For now, she and her husband are doing a lot of home-based activities: cookie-making, gingerbread-house building, caroling.

"A lot of parents feel the need to pass on everything they did as children — and I have felt that pull," Hurley says. "My husband has felt that, too, because we both grew up on the East Coast, and now we live in LA, and it's so different out here. Its almost a little depressing when Christmas rolls around, because it's not cold, you don't see snow, the leaves don't even fall off the trees."

But ultimately, she says, the point isn't to duplicate the holidays of your childhood.

"As parents, we have to learn to let go of trying to pass down everything and merge in our new traditions," Hurley says. "That's what our parents did: They brought some things in from when they were growing up, and they started new things. Instead of trying to create this perfect holiday that exists in our minds, we have to give ourselves the space to try new things and create new memories."

Tips for age-appropriate viewing: Every child is different, so use suggested age ranges for movies and activities as just that: suggestions. Author Hurley says it's really important to understand the personality of the child in question. Does he dislike loud things? Does she have a hard time sitting still? Does he scare easily?

When in doubt about a film, preview it, says Bozdech of Common Sense Media. It's amazing how easy it is to sugarcoat a film you saw long ago or to forget the child's perspective. Keep an eye out for profane language, creepy elves and scary neighbors.

Remember Santa: If you're not ready for probing questions about the man in red, you may want to steer clear of films such as "Elf" with Will Ferrell, which (diplomatically) touches on the issue. Check out Common Sense Media's insights regarding Santa issues in popular movies.

nschoenberg@tribpub.com

Twitter @nschoenberg

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