The classic story of Ferdinand the Bull has been expanded into a new animated film due to be released by Fox in December. It’s family friendly and has a great message for all of us: Be true to yourself. But Ferdinand can be much more powerful. It can be used to help us understand ourselves a little better by identifying our strengths. The slogan, “being true to ourselves,” implies that we know who we are. Yet, how many of us—kids especially—have figured that out? 

Ferdinand the Bull, is cute, for sure, and the trailer suggests it will be a charming and entertaining movie, but I have always loved stealth opportunities to sneak in a “teaching moment” with my kids. Pop culture is a perfect source for kid-relevant metaphors. The expansion of Ferdinand from the eight-page storybook into a full-blown adventure is ripe for that. It has the potential to move from beyond "cute" to, with a little subtle guidance on your part, providing a model to get your kids thinking about themselves and their potential in a new way—from a strengths-based perspective. 

Ferdinand is voiced by some very talented actors, including John Cena as the lead. Having a pro-wrestler who also comes across as a big softie make a perfect fit, but one that will be over the heads of most kids. The film, however, offers parents a unique opportunity to see a fun movie and sneak in a couple of important messages of their own without appearing tedious and teachy. (Kids spot that a mile away). Ferdinand is the perfect entry point to make “finding yourself” into something real and actionable by identifying the strengths you already have. Strengths are qualities that people can use to achieve positive outcomes—things like courage, curiosity, honesty, kindness, humor or leadership (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Ferdinand looks like he will have quite an adventure in this new version. In the process, even the brief glimpses on the trailer show how he uses his strengths to succeed at his goals and achieve self-acceptance. (That shouldn’t be a spoiler since we all know how the book ends.)

The overt messages “you can’t judge a book by its cover” and “be true to yourself” imply that you have a right to be who you are.  A subtler, and equally important, message is that Ferdinand’s success at doing so comes from discovering and using the uncelebrated and unnoticed parts of himself—his strengths. Ferdinand isn’t a fighter but he demonstrates tremendous strengths, such as courage, persistence, loyalty, and altruism that will enable him to succeed as a lover. 

Most parents want to do a good (great) job raising their kids, but real life is busy and stressful. We all find ourselves correcting what is wrong but not taking much time to acknowledge or celebrate strengths and values. We correct what we see as unproductive (or annoying) behaviors hoping to prepare our kids to succeed in life, however research shows that the best way to raise kids who are resilient and able to cope with challenges necessary for success is to identify and build strengths.  This is especially important if your kid feels unappreciated, misunderstood or marginalized.

The same is true for personal change. We beat ourselves up when things go wrong or we feel we are insufficient, but we seldom look for and reinforce our innate strengths that would actually improve our performance across all domains (Gregory & Rutledge, 2016).

My advice this holiday season is to use Ferdinand as a hidden holiday gift to plant some new seeds in your kid's (or your own) brain. Talk about what’s unseen or uncelebrated that allowed Ferdinand to achieve his end goal, and might get your kid to his or hers. 

Ideas for how to talk with your kids:

  • Ask what strengths Ferdinand used to meet different challenges. Give examples from the movie, ask for more. Make it funny. Humor improves understanding and recall.
  • Tell your kid you think he or she is like Ferdinand in some way (kind, loyal, creative, etc.) and ask them to find another similarity about themselves, you, a sibling or a friend. Allow silly answers. Humor can defuse the discomfort of self-exploration.
  • Continue the conversation for a couple of days to see if new ideas emerge from everyday activities. 
  • Ask your kids if they used any Ferdinand strengths today? Name their strengths so they feel ownership of them. What’s the Miguel strength or the Julie strength? Maybe one of your kids is a great communicator, is a good helper, is brave or has a special ability.

The identification and application of strengths across multiple fields are one of the ways that positive psychology has contributed to the field of psychology. For more information about identifying strengths, see the VIA Institute, or see one of many resources such as Strength-Based Parenting from Gallup.

To get some great ideas about how movies can be used to inspire and teach positive psychology constructs, see Ryan Niemic and Danny Wedding's book Positive Psychology at the Movies.

References

Gregory, E. M., & Rutledge, P. (2016). Exploring Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Well-Being. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio Praeger.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Assn.

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