I’m often asked about resources to help parents navigate the tumultuous world of school-aged children. Believe it or not, some of the best lessons of good parenting can be found in films that have been around forever. Since it’s the holiday season, allow me to share with you my three favorite Christmas movies and the lessons for parents they teach.
First up is “Miracle on 34th Street.” In this movie, single mother Doris Walker teaches her child not to believe in Santa Claus. She believes about children that “by filling them full of fairy tales, they grow up considering life a fantasy instead of reality.” This starts to change when she meets Fred Gailey, an idealistic lawyer who defends a big-hearted man deemed insane because he claims to be the real Santa. Fred believes that it isn’t just his client, Kris Kringle, who’s on trial, but “everything he stands for … kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles.”
Doris has no room for those intangibles. Her daughter’s life is a play-deprived constellation of piano lessons, rational adult conversations and learning at a “progressive school.” Fred tries to get through to her: “Look Doris, someday you’re going to find that your way of facing this realistic world just doesn’t work. And when you do, don’t overlook those lovely intangibles. You’ll discover those are the only things that are worthwhile.”
Indeed they are. Of course it is good to demand that children work hard in school and to encourage them in sports and the arts. But too many kids are overpressured about grades and overscheduled with extracurricular activities. Children need time and space for imaginative play, too. Basking in innocent fantasies like fairy tales and Christmas legends engage and excite the imagination. Play, pretend, toys, and imaginative books − even into adolescence − are all part of a child’s exploration of what it means to be alive. They tingle the mind in ways that our electronic screens cannot.
Without the persistent exercise of lovely intangibles like fantasy and faith, joy and love, we can mature into hardened stoics, knit to a purely analytical (and frequently financial) standard of success. We can actually lose our zeal for life. To quote another famous movie character, English teacher John Keating from “Dead Poets Society,” “Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
The most critical of those is love and the effects of a loveless home are on display in the lost Christmas classic “Remember the Night.” Wrongdoer Lee Leander is on trial for theft and John Sargent is the prosecuting attorney. In a screwball story, the two end up riding together to visit their respective families. At Lee’s childhood home, she tries to reconcile with the mother who had once treated her so coldly that she ran away.
No spoilers, but there comes a moment when John realizes the effect upbringing can have on people. His mother tells him, “Do you remember when you took my egg money I was going to buy a new dress with? And how hard you worked to pay it back when you later understood?”
John tells her, “You made me understand.”
“No, dear,” his mother says. “It was love that made you understand.”
I advocate for “tough love” because in my teaching experience it’s the kind that gives kids the best chance to thrive as adults. But even a love that spoils and pampers offers kids a better chance to succeed than parenting where love is absent or withheld.
From the father who abandons responsibility for his child before she’s even born, to the self-indulgent mother who drinks or drugs herself into oblivion every night, to the rancorous parents who hate each other more than they love their kids, love-deprived parenting is alive and well and it damages more lives than just about anything else.
Finally, in “The Bishop’s Wife” an angel (looking suavely like Cary Grant) must teach an ambitious minister that his own family needs him more than his job does. Many parents become so absorbed in their work, their wants or their worries that they neglect to give their children and spouses the time and attention that love and a good home demand.
The minister’s sermon at the end of the movie notes that at Christmas we always make sure everyone gets a gift: “You give me a book; I give you a tie… We forget no one, adult or child.”
Then he reminds us of the real meaning of Christmas, and that there’s often one stocking that goes unfilled. “Let us ask ourselves what he would wish for most,” he says, “and then let each put in his share: loving kindness, warm hearts, and the stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.”
All the shining gifts that make peace in families as well and significantly, peace in the hearts of our children.