Subbotina/123RF
Source: Subbotina/123RF

How do teens learn to identify their own strengths and abilities? Surprisingly, one way is to recognize those strengths in movie characters.

In today’s busy world, movie-watching is often overlooked as a tool for healthy youth development. Instead, movies are seen for their entertainment value alone. But according to the book, Positive Psychology at the Movies, by Ryan M. Niemiec and Danny Wedding, movies have potential to be much more than entertainment. They can quite literally shape young people’s lives!

Niemiec and Wedding claim that the human qualities of movie characters emerge beneath the storyline, providing a deep psychological landscape for learning. Teens learn to understand core human abilities and act upon them by identifying those qualities in others. Abilities like curiosity, self-awareness, and empathy are readily observed in the psychological layers of movies.

When teens recognize core strengths and abilities in movie characters, they become more aware of the same strengths in themselves. Watching movies with your teen can become an important developmental practice, particularly when parents take the time to discuss significant aspects of the movie with their kids. Too tired after the movie? Set a time, perhaps over dinner, to talk the next day.

The discussions that arise from watching movies together not only increase self-awareness for children, but also for parents. It is an opportunity for parents to share their own stories related to the character strengths under discussion, as well as to listen to their children’s stories. In the process, families become more aware of each other’s abilities and how each family member uses those abilities each and every day.

Parents and teens also have an opportunity to reflect on the abilities they’d like to improve. Movies, like the ones listed below, often show the role of mentors and other support systems to which children can turn to improve their lives.

Movies That Can Shape Your Teen’s Identity

The following movies contain characters who exemplify core human abilities, including curiosity, sociability, resilience, self-awareness, resourcefulness, integrity, creativity, and empathy. Watch each movie as a family, then discuss how the highlighted ability was inspired and demonstrated by the particular characters suggested under each movie.

While each film focuses on a different ability, be sure to talk about how these core abilities are often interconnected and influenced by each other. Extend your conversation to other related character strengths, like honesty, compassion, courage, kindness, teamwork, fairness, forgiveness, gratitude, hope, humor, and leadership.

Conclude your discussion by asking each family member: What has inspired this ability in you and how have you demonstrated this ability in recent months? If you wanted to improve this ability, how might you do so? (No lecturing here! Let your teens come up with their own insights!)

The following movies are rated either PG13 or PG, meaning they are most appropriate for children thirteen or over.

1. Alice in Wonderland (2010); Rating PG; (Curiosity)

Through this latest version of the classic film, discuss how 19-year-old Alice’s fate was shaped by her curiosity. How did curiosity impact her self-awareness, creativity, and resilience?

2. Finding Forrester (2000); Rating PG13; (Sociability)

Discuss Sean Connery’s character and the relationship he developed with a high school student. What did they learn from each other? How did sociability impact their integrity?

3. Whale Rider (2003); Rating PG13; (Resilience)

Discuss the character of Pai and how she developed grit and perseverance to overcome life’s challenges. How did resilience impact other multiple abilities?

4. Seabiscuit (2003); Rating PG13; (Self-Awareness)

Discuss how Charles, Red, and Tom developed self-awareness through mindfulness. What role did self-awareness play in developing resilience and inspiring others?

5. Dead Poets Society (1989); Rating PG; (Integrity)

Discuss Ethan Hawke’s growth of integrity and how it transformed him and his classmates. What other inter-connected abilities grew as the result of the student’s experiences?

6. Akeelah and the Bee (2006); Rating PG; (Resourcefulness)

Discuss how Akeelah pursued her goals and to whom she opened herself to receive support. What internal achievements did she gain as a result?

7. Life Is Beautiful (1997); Rating PG13 (Creativity)

Discuss the character of Guido Orefice. What inspired his creativity and how was it demonstrated? How were his ideas original and relevant to his situation?

8. The King’s Speech (2010); Rating PG13; (Empathy)

Discuss how the characters of Lionel and Bertie developed empathy for one another. What strategies did Bertie use to shift his perspective? How did Lionel and Bertie’s empathy impact those around them?

Beyond Entertainment: Watching Family Movies through a New Lens

If you discuss the suggested questions under the family movies listed above, you’ll begin to shift how you watch movies with your children. You and your kids will observe characters through a new lens – the lens of human development. Through movie-watching, you’ll begin to ask each other different questions, share new observations about character strengths and weaknesses, and gain greater awareness of yourself and others.

As a parent, you will observe in greater detail how adults inspire the development of core human abilities in children and vice versa. Human development is about learning and making meaning from life experiences. Good movies connect at deep psychological levels. Indeed, movies can teach us about human development, but only if we experience them with eyes beyond entertainment.

Please share your family movie-watching experiences in the comments below. I’d love to hear about your discussions as well as other movies that have inspired you and your family.

References 

Niemiec, Ryan M.; Wedding, Danny (2014). Positive Psychology at the Movies. Boston, MA: Hogrefe Publishing. 

Author

Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is a developmental psychologist and researcher, working at the intersection of positive youth development and education. Follow Marilyn's work at Roots of Action, Twitter, or Facebook.  

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©2016 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please see reprint guidelines for Marilyn’s articles.

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