June 26, 2022
Movies are incredibly powerful for people of any age, but especially children. Movies shape how we see the world. They give us moral lessons, they motivate and inspire, they encourage empathy, imagination and exploration. In this article we will look at how the best movies for children encourage a growth mindset. We will talk about the moral lessons we can draw from movies, and how they help to motivate students to study, develop and grow. Most importantly we will focus on how to watch movies in a way that will help our children to develop a growth mindset.
How do Movies Help Develop a Growth Mindset?
A growth mindset is a belief that intelligence can be developed. People with this mindset usually work harder because they know that they can improve. The term was first popularised by Carol Dweck in the mid-1990s. In one study she showed how stories could change a child’s mindset.
In one group, the children heard stories about people who were naturally talented and had no problems. Later when they did a task, the children judged their own mistakes more harshly and gave up more quickly. The other group heard stories about people who had overcome problems in their lives. This group was more positive about their own mistakes and were motivated to study harder. This clearly shows the power that storytelling can have in shaping a child’s understanding of themselves and the world.
The Hero’s Journey
There are lots of movies that help us to develop a growth mindset. One of the reasons for this is that many movies are based on what Joseph Campbell called “The Hero’s Journey”. The Hero’s Journey is found in many forms of story, from ancient mythology to modern sci-fi, but it always has essentially the same shape.
Essentially, the story starts with a person whose life is unsatisfactory in some way. Then something happens to change their life. This thing can either make their life better or worse, but it is a new situation they need to deal with. Then, as the story develops, there is always a moment of failure. After this, the main character needs to deal with the failure and overcome it to become the hero of the story.
It is easy to see how this story-shape promotes a growth mindset. Movies like this encourage children to study and develop skills by showing examples of people overcoming difficulties.
How to Watch a Movie with a Growth Mindset
It isn’t enough just passively to watch a movie and hope that it will motivate and inspire your child to study, develop and grow. Instead, we need to develop ways of watching and encourage our children to watch movies actively and critically. Here are some things to look out for:
Wants and Needs: One of the central conflicts of the Hero’s Journey is the difference between what a character wants and what they need.
For example, Aladdin wants to be a rich and powerful prince to impress Jasmine, but he needs to be honest and accept who he is. In School of Rock, Dewey Finn (Jack Black) wants to be a successful rock star, but what he needs is the loving support and acceptance of a community of people. In Studio Ghibli’s phenomenally beautiful animated classic Only Yesterday, Taeko wants to relive the excitement of her childhood, but she needs to take a risk and open a new chapter in her life.
Look out for this distinction between wants and needs and help your child to discover it for themselves. This will help children to learn that it’s OK not to get the things you want in life. It motivates them to accept themselves and their limitations and inspires them to set realistic goals.
Montages: Realistically, personal growth and developing skills take a long time, and involve a lot of repetitive tasks which are boring to watch. For this reason, many movies resort to montage.
A montage is a process of piecing together separate sections of a story into one short sequence. For example, Rocky Balboa wants to be the world heavyweight champion. We see a montage of his training: running, boxing, skipping, running, boxing, all set to inspirational music… until, five minutes later, he’s ready to compete.
This is a perfectly reasonable way to tell a story. However, as educators and parents, it’s important to help the child notice how unrealistic this is. It is important to emphasize the way the person worked hard. We should acknowledge that this would actually take a long time and a lot of hard work. This will help them to be realistic about how long things will take and motivate them to work hard, even when things are tough.
How the Hero Triumphs: We saw above that failure is an important part of the Hero’s Journey. However, the strategy a character uses to overcome failure is the most important thing for encouraging a growth mindset. Many movies rely on some luck, divine intervention, or help from another character to make the hero overcome their failure.
For example, in Lord of the Rings Frodo nearly gives up, and it is Sam who carries him up Mount Doom to destroy the ring. In Avatar: The Last Airbender Aang defeats the Fire Lord largely by chance.
This is not a bad thing, but it is important to notice and discuss what happens in these stories, and draw moral lessons from them. Talk about how lucky Aang was, how that kind of luck doesn’t happen all the time. Talk about how important it is to have people around you who can help you in times of need.
Goodies and Baddies: Carol Dweck notes that many stories reinforce a worldview of good guys and bad guys. Children as young as two or three already have a pretty good concept of good and bad and want to be good children, not bad ones.
Unfortunately, many movies and stories have characters that are just bad, without any chance for them to change. This reinforces a fixed mindset (the belief that you are born a certain way and can’t do anything to change it). People with this mindset will be less likely to work hard, or take risks, for fear of being seen as “stupid” or “bad”.
There are some films that do show personal growth. In Pixar’s Inside Out, Sadness is treated like an antagonist at the start, but by the end, we see how helpful she can be. In the Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender, Zuko changes from being a “baddie” at the start to becoming a very sympathetic and complex character by the end.
Having baddies and goodies makes for a satisfying story, but, as we’ve seen, it can be problematic. It is important to help children to recognise that goodies and baddies don’t exist in real life. Ask questions about the characters, and try to get your child thinking about different parts of it. “Why was the Queen in Snow White so jealous? What happened to make her that way?” This will help children to be more empathetic and accepting.
It is also important to notice movies that have a better approach to growth and encourage children to watch them too. This will teach them the important moral lesson that everyone makes mistakes, and that it doesn’t make you a “bad” person.
The Chosen One: Related to the idea of goodies and baddies is the idea of a “Chosen One”. The Chosen One is a hero who was destined to be the hero. Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Neo in The Matrix are all examples of the chosen trope.
Often these stories show the hero taking on a difficult responsibility, struggling with it and eventually succeeding. This can help children to understand responsibilities in their own lives.
However, there are problems too. Firstly, the Chosen One can reinforce a fixed mindset by showing someone who was destined by birth to be very important. Secondly, it can encourage a sense of self-importance: every child thinks they are the chosen one, and part of growing up is learning that you aren’t the centre of the universe!
It is important to talk about how “The Chosen One” doesn’t really exist in real life. It is also a good idea to encourage your child to see how other people in the story helped her: how Harry Potter has all his friends, how Han Solo and Chewbacca help to save Luke Skywalker. This will teach children the important moral lesson that other people are important, and we need to have good friends.
If you search online, you can find lots of listicles of “Growth Mindset Movies for Kids”. Some movies do encourage a growth mindset more than others. But I don’t think it’s enough to watch a movie passively. Instead, as parents and educators, we need to help children to watch movies in a way that will encourage a growth mindset.
Ask them questions, encourage them to notice things, to question things about the story and compare it to their own lives. This will help them to draw moral lessons, and encourage them to study, work and develop. It will make them better media consumers, and eventually better people.
Chris is from Thurso, in the north of Scotland. He has been teaching for over seven years in China, the UK, Hungary and Spain. He has a background in Music and studied Composition at the RSAMD in Glasgow, Trinity Laban in London and the University of York. After finishing his master’s at York, he travelled to China to teach for a little while and fell in love with teaching. He has been teaching ever since.