Most children love stories. Stories are entertaining and fun, but can they be more than just fun? Findings from a new study led by one of us (Rebecca de Leeuw) indicate that stories in movies can also be meaningful for children.
This study interviewed children between 4 and 15 years old after they watched the Disney • Pixar film Inside Out. This film takes place predominantly in the head of an 11-year-old girl, where her emotions—Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust, personified as different characters—conflict on how to help her best in her new life after her family moves. When making this film, the filmmakers had extensive consultations with psychologists, including GGSC founding director Dacher Keltner, to make the emotion animations consistent with scientific knowledge.
The research team chose this film because the story follows the “hero’s journey”—a classical narrative framework that has been applied in many famous stories from all over the world. The hero’s journey involves a hero who goes on an adventure, overcomes challenges, and returns changed.
This film is also lauded for its meaningful message around emotions and human connectedness, and because it contains portrayals of moral beauty. Research among adults suggests that watching acts of moral beauty—such as compassion, kindness, forgiveness, gratitude, love, bravery, self-sacrifice, or any other strong display of virtue—can be meaningful and lead people to feel “moved by love.” This emotion opens our hearts toward others and inspires us to do good. Could children experience this, as well?
The research team talked to children together with a sibling or friend in an in-depth interview, asking mostly open-ended questions to encourage them to share their thoughts, including the key question: “Was there a part of the movie that you had to think about?” Children looked at stills of important scenes and were invited to explain in their own words what happened. If they liked, they also re-watched scenes of the film.
The findings of the study indicate that film stories can be meaningful for children in the four following ways (warning: spoilers ahead).
1. Stories can fuel social intelligence
While watching, children made sense of the feelings, motives, and behaviors of characters in the film, using their social intelligence skills. They also further developed these skills when they were challenged in making sense of the story.
Their novel insights included awareness about the motives and feelings of others, but also awareness of their own feelings. Children were often excited when gaining a new insight (which often happened during the interview). For many children, it was challenging to understand the scene in which one of the characters—Bing Bong—sacrifices himself by jumping out of his rocket. Children wondered what exactly happened and why he did this. They were often thrilled to find out that he jumped on purpose to help others.
Many children recognized the animated emotions in themselves, which helped them to understand their own inner life. For instance, children expressed that when they are mad they feel like the top of their head bursts into flames, just like Anger.
2. Stories are an opportunity to experience (moral) beauty
Another way in which Inside Out proved to be meaningful was the opportunity for experiencing moral beauty. Children mentioned that they appreciated seeing acts of compassion, kindness, love, and bravery in the film.
Moreover, children experienced Bing Bong’s self-sacrifice as beautiful, but only if they understood why Bing Bong did this and when they were able to experience mixed emotions. Just like adults, children can have tears or moist eyes or goosebumps upon experiencing moral beauty.
The findings of the study indicated that feelings of moral beauty start to emerge around the age of eight years old.
3. Stories help children gain insights about life
The findings also indicated that, while watching, children were encouraged to follow in the footsteps of the protagonist and gained the same insights as her. During the story, Joy discovers the importance of Sadness and at the end she collaborates with Sadness and the other emotions. When children followed Joy on her adventure, they also came to discover that sadness is important and that collaboration between all emotions is needed to live a full and happy life.
When children said they learned something from the film, it was often related to what Joy learned. If this is true of all stories with the hero’s journey framework, that means children could learn many important lessons from many different movies.
4. Stories can inspire children to never give up
Children admired the protagonist’s perseverance, as well. One of the children in the study even spontaneously expressed that Joy inspired her to never give up in her own life.
The more insights children gained while watching, the more meaningful the story became for them. Talking about the film or watching it again supported them in gaining more insights. (This is one of the reasons why children often watch films repeatedly.)
Altogether, the findings of the study indicate that stories can be an accelerated way for children to gain life experience and wisdom.
How to help children learn from films
Parents or other adults can support children in gaining new insights from a movie, TV show, or book by asking open-ended questions.
- To encourage children to understand the emotions and behaviors of the characters, ask: “What do you think […] feels?” or “What do you think changed his/her/their mind?”
- To discover what in the story was challenging for them, ask children what made them think: “Was there a part of the story that you had to think about?” or “Who did you have to think of the most?”
- When the film contains acts of moral beauty, ask: “Which part of the film do you think was the most beautiful?” or more specifically: “What do you think of […] doing this?” and “Would you also have done that?”
It is important to always respect children’s answers and to remember that sometimes they’re too young to understand everything.
Inside Out is a great film to watch together, as well as other films with critical acclaim. You can also look out for movies that children watch repeatedly and that make them think. By watching such films and talking about them together, you can transform screen time into an opportunity for growth and provide children with rich experiences outside the realm of their daily lives.