Watching Disney movies with your kindergartner

Just recently we had a Shabbat guest who kindly offered to help me set the table for lunch. I gave her the silverware, and as she laid it out she worriedly asked if she should put a knife on the table within my daughter’s reach – not for my daughter’s own use, but for the place setting next to hers. My daughter is a 5½-year-old. Amused, I laughingly responded, “She’s not stupid.”

Immediately, I realized that I wasn’t being fair to our guest, who is unmarried and has had minimal experience with small children. Quickly, I clarified earnestly, “I never truly appreciated the developmental differences between young children of different ages until I had a child of my own, so I understand where you are coming from. Now I know that at five-and-a-half, a child should understand that sharp objects are dangerous and be conscientious about carrying scissors with the blades down.”

Since becoming a father, I have noticed myself misjudging my daughter’s abilities and stages of development. Usually, it’s an underestimation on my part, and then I’m pleasantly surprised by her level of understanding. The older she’s gotten, the more true this has become.

* * *

Based upon my experience as a father, a general piece of advice of mine to other parents would be that we should always be nudging our children to play with puzzles, read books, create art pieces, etc., that are just slightly more difficult than what we may think that our children can succeed at.

The keyword here is ‘nudging’ because children are quite likely to get frustrated and give up on activities that are beyond their skill sets. If they don’t feel too put upon, they are more likely to return to those same activities on their own. We as parents may suggest games to play and books to read, and we may even engage in those activities ourselves to spark our children’s interest… but we should be careful not to turn them off to such endeavors.

* * *

So, what does any of this have to do with Disney movies?

Well, when COVID-19 broke out, our daughter’s preschool was shut down for two months, and my wife and I became her full-time caregivers. She no longer had to wake up early in the mornings during this period so we were slightly more flexible about her bedtime and evening activities. What to do with one’s exhausted child after a day full of various activities?

One of my daughter’s favorite books is a compilation of Disney stories, many of which she knows by heart, and many of which she has come to enjoy reading on her own. At some point, the subject of Disney movies was raised by my wife, and the two of them watched the old Sleeping Beauty movie and then the much more recent Maleficent, eventually roping me into watching them too. For a time, my daughter was particularly obsessed with Maleficent, asking us to watch it with her over and over again, until finally I’d had enough.

Abba’chka, can we watch Maleficent this evening?
Sweetie, I can’t watch the same movie so many times because that’s boring for me. If you want to watch it by yourself that’s totally fine.
But… I want to watch it with you!
If you want to watch a movie with me, that’s great, but we’ll have to watch a different movie. Why don’t you pick one of the stories from your Disney book?
The Disney book?
Yes, the one with the pink cover. Every story in that book is based upon a Disney movie – I promise that I’ll watch any movie that you want, other than Maleficent and Sleeping Beauty.

That’s how it began, more or less. I went online to find a full list of Disney movies and told her which movies I’d seen in my childhood, as well as which films I had not yet seen. Our daughter would pick a new movie, once every week or so, and one or both of her parents would watch it with her. I’d forgotten much of those that I’d seen in my early childhood and truly enjoyed our movie dates.

The thing is- we’ve raised to her to be inquisitive, and at five-and-a-half she wasn’t understanding all the nuances of the plots. Watching Disney films quickly became an educational experience for her because we’d have to pause the videos intermittently to answer all of her questions.

Every Thursday evening or Friday afternoon, we continue to watch Disney movies of her choosing together. I estimate that we pause “new” movies once every fifteen minutes or so to discuss the plots and various turns of phrase used by the characters.

It has been amazing for me to watch how her understanding of human interactions and motivations has exploded in these last few months, particularly thanks to Disney.

For example, I remember how she had difficulty understanding why Kristoff was having so much difficulty proposing to Anna in Frozen II. We discussed it and had a follow-up conversation about the ideals and responsibilities of marriage, and she seemed to grasp the concept but continued asking for clarification. Some weeks later, we watched The Rescuers Down Under, wherein Bernard was nervous about proposing to his coagent Miss Bianca, and I could see the glimmer of understanding brightening in our child’s eyes as we talked about it. By the time we watched Mulan II, she was laughing over Shang’s anxiety at proposing to Mulan. “It’s just like Kristoff and Bernard!” she exclaimed with excitement.

And so it goes. Her familiarity with and comprehension of various human behavioral dynamics continues to mature before our eyes. She also has a true eye for details. After watching a movie once or twice with her parents, our daughter will watch snippets of that same movie by herself before bedtime, continuously asking further questions about what particular gestures and words mean in certain contexts. Of course, all of this input feeds directly into her endless games of fancy; the plots she constructs in her mind, wherein all of the Disney characters play supporting roles, are becoming oh so increasingly complicated.

* * *

I’m sure that our five-year-old would derive enjoyment from Disney movies even if she were watching them entirely on her own (although she would probably run away from the screen during the scary bits), but that is not the only point for me.

We have discussed with her so many different concepts that I cannot list them all, but suffice it to say that our Disney movie project has been fulfilling for all of us. We have discussed the relative depths of movie characters (are their motivations simply black-white or nuanced?), the specifics of various villains’ motivations (are they greedy, selfish, shallow, power-hungry, vengeful, etc.), and gender dynamics throughout many cultures and different eras, among other topics.

No so many months ago, our daughter did not have much understanding of these and other concepts, and it’s taken the many hours we’ve invested in answering her questions and holding meaningful discussions to broaden her understanding of the world to such an extent. For myself, I have come to appreciate that it was never the case that she couldn’t understand these nuances – it was simply that she’d never been exposed to them.

Disney and her parents have been succeeding at unveiling a whole new world.

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