How Movies Can Build Character — and the Ones That Do It Well
Discover the secret to picking movies that strengthen character traits and life skills, from curiosity to courage to compassion.
By Caroline Knorr, Common Sense Media
Has your kid ever misbehaved like Alvin from the Chipmunks movies? Or mean-girled her friends like the Bratz dolls? Don’t feel bad. Kids pick up all kinds of things from movies. But they can just as easily absorb positive messages. The trick is finding movies that teach the stuff you want your kids to learn. And, if you know a little bit about how kids learn from movies, you can make sure they’ll get the right lessons.
Fortunately, you don’t have to look far for character-building movies. Plenty of popular picks have lessons such as gratitude, humility, and integrity embedded in their story lines. And if you’re concerned that self-absorption, immediate gratification, and lack of empathy seem to be the prevailing characteristics of today’s digital kids, these movies are the perfect solution. (Learn more about using media to promote social-emotional learning.)
It’s important to choose movies that impart lessons designed for your kid’s age and developmental stage. You can reinforce the movies’ ideas by talking about them, asking questions, and sharing your values. These tips can help you spot movies that help kids absorb character-building messages:
Little Kids (age 2–7)
- Pick simple story lines. Little kids learn best from movies with one main idea that’s central to the plot and supported by the action.
- Make it obvious. If it were in print, the lesson would be in bold, capitalized, and underlined three times. Little kids need it to be that blatant.
- Look for human characters. Although animated movies rule the box office, little kids actually learn best when human characters demonstrate the lesson. Think of the 1960 Disney movie Pollyanna, whose lead character was so empathic that her name came to mean “someone who finds the good in everyone.”
- Try: Dear Dumb Diary, The Indian in the Cupboard, VeggieTales: Madame Blueberry
Big Kids (age 8–9)
- Keep it simple. To learn lessons from movies, elementary school-age kids still need to see the basic cause-and-effect sequence of how a character’s motives are connected to actions and consequences.
- Find the funny. Kids learn when they laugh. The challenge is finding movies that don’t mock the lesson you want them to learn. Some character traits, such as curiosity, can be dealt with humorously, as in the Curious George series.
- Forget fables. While movies with an implied (not obviously stated) moral seem obvious to parents, they’re lost on kids (until about age 9).
- Emphasize the positive. Look for mostly positive examples of the lesson rather than negative examples. If you want kids to learn courage, for example, they need to see attempts at courage and courageous acts being repeated and rewarded throughout the movie.
- Try: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, The NeverEnding Story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
Tweens and Teens (age 10 and older)
- Look for relatable characters. Tweens and teens are more engaged when they can see themselves reflected on the screen. Cher, the main character in Clueless, for example, is far from perfect, which is why older kids can relate when she ultimately learns humility.
- Seek out complexity. Tweens and teens can understand plots and subplots. As kids get older, they enjoy sorting through complex ideas to figure out what a movie is really saying.
- Dismiss the obvious. Tweens and teens will reject a movie that’s clearly trying to teach them a lesson. They can understand, for example, a loner who learns the value of teamwork (such as Indiana Jones) or that perseverance takes a lot of failing.
- Try: McFarland USA, He Named Me Malala, Bridge of Spies