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Positive Psychology & Film: Parenting With Children’s Films

"Interest can produce learning on a scale compared to fear as a nuclear explosion to a firecracker." Stanley Kubrick on the importance and power of curiosity. As educators and parents we want to to care for, nurture, mentor, socialize, and provide for our children to the best of our ability.

Positive Psychology & Film: Parenting With Children's Films

“Interest can produce learning on a scale compared to fear as a nuclear explosion to a firecracker.” Stanley Kubrick on the importance and power of curiosity.

As educators and parents we want to to care for, nurture, mentor, socialize, and provide for our children to the best of our ability. One thing most educators and parents around the globe have in common is the desire to develop character strengths in their children and adolescents. Because film is such a highly accessible art form, it’s been a medium I’ve used to help my child recognize and foster his strengths and interests.

Being Mindful Of Films Children Watch

As a parent and filmmaker, I also believe it’s important to be mindful of the movies children watch. For me this has meant not only researching films beforehand, but also watching films with my son and then spending time afterwards discussing character strengths and virtues with him. I find discussing film an enjoyable way to teach young people how to identify, embrace, and cultivate their strengths into something productive and fulfilling.

For example, parents wanting their children to recognize and build their strength of curiosity, could simply watch Alice in Wonderland (2010), which exemplifies this character strength, and then discuss and praise curiosity with their kids afterwards.

Positive Psychology & Film: Parenting With Children's Films

Alice in Wonderland (2010) – source: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

However, it’s worth noting there are numerous opinions not only about film, but character strengths and children, and even parenting.

Grow Our Children Like Gardeners

It seems how we parent and what we consider good parenting differs not only across historical periods but also across continents. In fact, according to the Webster dictionary, the word “parenting” didn’t even appear in the United States until 1958.  In her recent essay A Manifesto Against ‘Parenting’ Dr. Gopnik suggests that “parenting” itself may be an ill-informed model. She writes “caring for children shouldn’t be like carpentry, with a finished product in mind. We should grow our children, like gardeners.”

Her metaphor runs deeps. “When we garden, we work and sweat and we’re often up to our ears in manure. We do it to create a protected and nurturing space for plants to flourish. As all gardeners know, nothing works out the way we planned. The greatest pleasures and triumphs, as well as disasters, are unexpected. There is a deeper reason behind this.”

Importantly, most gardeners tend to their flowers with love, and unlike parenting today, which has turned into a goal-directed job-oriented verb describing how people should act to produce the right kind of adult, “love doesn’t have goals or benchmarks or blueprints, but it does have a purpose. Love’s purpose is not to shape our beloved’s destiny but to help them shape their own.”

To her point, I’ve found in contemporary society with relatively little long-term scientific evidence available to guide us, many parents become consumed with parenting techniques and overwhelming questions brought about by our fast-changing society, such as long should we let our babies cry, how much time should our teenagers spend on the computer, when does our child need to enroll full time in a sport or start playing a musical instrument if they want to play competitively in college, how much homework is the correct amount, and on and on. Based on what’s important to our culture at the time, parents passionately follow new cultural scripts.

Parenting Scripts: Self-Monitoring

One of today’s most common parenting scripts is “be yourself.” In fact, Adam Grant, a professor of psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, calls this the Age of Authenticity, where “be yourself” is the defining parental advice in life, love and career.

But according to Grant “be yourself” can actually be rotten advice. He indicates that it’s the personality trait of self-monitoring that may actually determine how much someone aims for “authenticity” which he defines as “erasing the gap between what you firmly believe inside and what you reveal to the outside world.”

People who constantly scan their environment for social cues and “adjust accordingly” are high self-monitors. Some people really don’t like to offend others and they dislike social awkwardness.  In contrast, other people follow their “inner states” much more and don’t care as much about their external circumstances.

According to Grant, in this Age of Authenticity “low self-monitors criticize high self-monitors as chameleons and phonies.” And though some research suggests there are indeed times and places for authenticity, other research suggests that there can also be downfalls for being too authentic.

Though authenticity is a character strength, positive psychologists Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson have also noted that many young children may not even have the cognitive maturity to display authenticity.

So with so many opinions and so much research out there, what are parents to do?

Nurture & Culture

Like all good gardeners, we parents and educators adapt to culture and the information that is out there and continue to learn and keep putting in all the energy it takes to provide support and nurturing that kids need.

“As individual parents and as a community, our job is not to shape our children’s minds; it is to let those minds explore all the possibilities that the world allows. Our job is not to make a particular kind of child but to provide a protected space of love, safety and stability in which children of many unpredictable kinds can flourish.”

As Gopnik further opines, “we follow our intuitions, muddle through and hope for the best.” We recognize that perhaps the purpose of nurture and culture is to allow innovation and risk, and that’s part of the whole evolutionary purpose of childhood. Parents and educators try to pass on their knowledge, their wisdom and their values, understanding that their children will likely revise that knowledge, challenge that wisdom and reshape those values.

We recognize sometimes the whole point of that “safe base” is to encourage children to be curious and have adventures. It is in this light that I have found that the world of cinema can be a vast and wonderfully rich space for parents to explore and identify strengths with their children.

Character Strengths in Children

Although a number of studies indicate most young children are not cognitively mature enough to display sophisticated character strengths, there are a number of character strengths, such as love, zest, and hope that many psychologists believe begin developing at a very early age.

Many children mimic the behaviors of their nurturers and role models as they develop. Some psychologists argue that at least in theory a person’s character strengths may be pliant and can be acquired and taught through practice. As young children imitate strengths they may begin to embrace them as one of their own.

Strengths that require cognitive maturity, like authenticity, gratitude, open-mindedness, and forgiveness may require more teaching. This may be why parents have to repeatedly tell their kids to say, “Thank you.” It may be crucial that in addition to parents, other external institutions and influences like schools, churches, community, and even film help foster character strengths in children.

Character Strengths in Adolescents

Though the field of positive education is blossoming and most psychologists believe childhood has an important impact on personal developmental character, most of the character strength research available today seems to be centered on adults.

However, research published in the Journal of Happiness (2006) and The Journal of Positive Psychology (2011) indicates that at least some character strengths in adolescents have a clear impact on psychological well-being.

When compared to peers who display lower levels of leadership, hope, and zest, adolescents with higher levels of these characters strengths display significantly lower levels of depression and anxiety. The studies also suggest that the virtue of transcendence (which encompasses the character strengths of hope, humor, gratitude, excellence, and appreciation of beauty) may predict life satisfaction. The research concludes it’s important for adolescents to have dreams, manifest a sense of purpose, and to develop positive relationships.

I’ve listed a few family films below, along with their character strengths and virtues. Try watching one with your child or adolescent and then discussing character strengths afterwards. I’ve found it a great way to make the most of the film viewing experience, to pass on my knowledge and passion, and to help kids become aware of the cinematic elevation they undergo as well.

Akeelah and the Bee (2006)

Positive Psychology & Film: Parenting With Children's Films

Akeelah and the Bee (2006) – source: Lionsgate

Themes: inner-city realities; African American girl overcoming sexism, poverty, ridicule, and her single-mom’s doubts about the importance of her love of learning; winning isn’t everything.

Character Strengths and Virtues: wisdom, love of learning, curiosity, teamwork and community, perseverance, hope, self-regulation.

Coraline (2009)

Positive Psychology & Film: Parenting With Children's Films

Coraline (2009) – source: Focus Features

Themes: young girl copes with overworked parents.

Character Strengths and Virtues: curiosity, bravery.

Happy Feet (2006)

Positive Psychology & Film: Parenting With Children's Films

Happy Feet (2006) – source: Village Roadshow Entertainment

Themes: finding your talent, dance.

Character Strengths and Virtues: valor.

How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

Positive Psychology & Film: Parenting With Children's Films

How To Train Your Dragon (2010) – source: Paramount Pictures

Themes: how to treat people how who are different than you, unlikely friendships.

Character Strengths and Virtues: courage, honesty, authenticity, kindness.

Hugo (2011)

Positive Psychology & Film: Parenting With Children's Films

Hugo (2011) – source: Paramount Pictures

Themes: orphan boy searching for connection with his father.

Character Strengths and Virtues: creativity.

Whale Rider (2003)

Positive Psychology & Film: Parenting With Children's Films

Whale Rider (2003) – source: Newmarket Films

Themes: child prodigy, adolescent girl challenges cultural and familial rigidity and strengthens her Maori community.

Character Strengths and Virtues: honesty, resilience, perseverance, courage, wisdom.


Two years ago, Richard Weissbourd, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, released a report entitled The Children We Mean to Raise. According to his research a large majority of children from a variety of economic classes, cultures, and races value personal success over caring for others.

Researchers asked children to rank what was most important to them: achieving at a high level, happiness (feeling good most of the time) or caring for others. Almost eighty percent of youth chose high achievement or happiness as their top choice, while only twenty percent selected caring for others.

According to the surveys, parents say they want their children to be respectful and caring of others, and many indicate they value their kids being caring human beings more than their personal achievements. However, according to the children surveyed, their parents appear to put achievement above other traits and virtues like caring.

Weissbourd seems to wonder if the problem lies not simply with parents but with the power and the volume of external messages that prioritize achievement in our culture and our media, which is drowning out whatever messages parents send about the importance of caring and responsibility for others.

Do you think our classrooms, media, and culture currently exalt character strengths like curiosity, creativity, teamwork and community, honesty, and wisdom as much as personal achievement? 

If not, what do you think about using subtexts in films that focus on different values as a way to discuss virtues with your children?  Do you think film can be part of “parenting”?

Share your thoughts below!

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Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

Laurie Agard studied Psychology and Writing in graduate school after becoming a Director member of both the Directors Guild of America and the Academy of the Television Arts and Sciences. She associate produced ABC’s Secret Millionaire and wrote, directed, and produced two independent films that premiered on HBO, ABC Family, we TV, as well as networks such as Fox Latin America, Sky TV, Starz, Showtime, and Encore in 45 territories around the world. Her films have received New Comer of the Year awards and Best Children's Feature awards from prestigious organizations such as Kids First!, Hollywood Youth in Film, and the New York Film and Television Festival. She co-directed the Directors Guild of America’s first ever tribute film for and about its female members.

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