Here’s an unpopular opinion: You should actually add more screen time to your schedule. Why? Because it’s all about bringing families together.
Our family has always been pretty restrictive when it comes to screen use: our kids don’t carry phones around with them, we prioritize non-screen activities at home, and we have a household 24-hour “screen-free” period each week.
During this unprecedented break from normality, many of us have been relaxing “screen time” rules. For us, it’s necessary to allow the kids to use computers to keep up with their schoolwork. FaceTime with friends is important to maintain relationships; Zoom can be an awesome way to attend a baking class or share storytime with other families.
But I’m here to tell you that it’s important for YOU, as a parent, to add more screen time to your schedule too…that is, more screen time that you share with your kids!
Watching great movies together is a fantastic way for families to spend their screen time. Cinema creates a shared, cathartic experience. Laughing, crying, or learning together are some of the noble purposes of art. And watching the same films in the same room can really help families grow close.
All it takes to implement this wisely is to use movie time as “together time” — and a little bit of media literacy. In order to engage meaningfully with films as a family, we suggest following these simple guidelines:
1. Don’t let your kids watch anything you’re not willing to watch with them.
Now, this doesn’t mean you always have to sit down with them to watch every show. We’re specifically talking about the extra, guilt-free, school-of-film screen time that we’re suggesting right now.
Movies should be a family event and not used as babysitting. Pop some popcorn, cuddle on the couch, and turn it into “together time.” It’s amazing to us how many families are all on separate devices taking in “boutiqued” entertainment…that is, something aimed only at a particular demographic.
At its best, art is meant to be experienced communally. Use it to build your family culture, not separate you into individuals.
Additionally, this rule helps you avoid the more stupid entertainment marketed directly to children. There’s no reason a small child can’t enjoy the same thing as his/her parents! When our kids were toddlers, they loved Charlie Chaplin, because his films are so visual.
Just like you try to give your kids a healthy diet of food, you should consider their media diet as one more way they are consuming and being nourished (or not). And here’s the good news: as with any art, the more you are exposed to the height of the genre, the greater your appreciation of it will grow.
Kids will accept as “normal” whatever you show them — so why not teach them early to appreciate good films that get them thinking, and broaden their understanding of the world or the human condition?
It turns out, great films don’t necessarily have to be adults-only; and kids’ movies don’t necessarily have to be “beneath” grown-up sensibilities. But exercise caution, because…
2. Your favorites might not be right for your kids…yet.
Many times we’ve heard from fellow parents that they sat down to watch something they remembered loving as a kid, only to be horrified at the language, violence, or nudity in it.
Parents frequently make the mistake of introducing content too early. They are so excited to share everything they liked that they don’t stop to think about if it’s appropriate for their kids yet. It’s not that you’ll never be able to show them Gremlins…it’s just that your four-year-old probably isn’t the target audience (true story).
An easy way to check yourself is to look up the year a movie came out: you might be thinking Goonies or The Breakfast Club was a childhood favorite, but then you realize it came out when you were a teenager — and the right age for it!
Remember, there are SO many great films that are totally fine for your kids! Why rush anything? Enjoy the amazing catalog of classics, animation, silent films, and family-friendly fare that covers the century of the medium. You’ll know you’ve hit the sweet spot when they’re laughing uproariously at the Marx Brothers (try Duck Soup) or Katherine Hepburn chasing a leopard (Bringing Up Baby); or when they shed a tear when Dumbo’s mom cradles him through her cage bars; or when they jump around in excitement seeing the parallels to Aladdin in The Thief of Baghdad from 1924.
Honestly, it’s a lot more fun to watch a movie with your kids when you don’t have to cringe, fast-forward, or explain things away.
Let them fully experience the terror of Jaws or The Shining when it will give them the chills—but not nightmares. Share films about slavery when they’ve studied it in school and can handle the real story, not a whitewashed version. And you’ll have a much better experience watching adult or complex humor when they’re really ready for it!
One of our daughter’s favorite movies is Monty Python and the Holy Grail, because we waited to show it to her until she could follow the rapid-fire, intelligent jokes (until that day, start ‘em with The Princess Bride).
Trust us: before you know it, they’ll be grown and ready for films that really challenge their ideas, expose them to alternative points of view, and yes, even teach them about the more adult parts of life through violence, sensuality, or coarse language.
So, how do you find appropriate and excellent films to watch?
3. Trust expert opinions to help you choose movies.
Instead of just scrolling around looking for a thumbnail or description that seems vaguely interesting, intentionally look for what you specifically want to watch. How do you find that? In this age of Yelp, a lot of us tend to trust crowdsourcing over experts.
But we would argue that expert opinion has an important place in evaluating art.
The fact is, critics have seen all the good movies (and, sadly for them, most of the bad ones too). They are better able to judge based on a vast wealth of experience that most of us just don’t have. Yes, they tend to be more “snobby” than many of us, but when a film is getting rave critical reviews and delighting audiences, that’s usually when you know you’ve got a home-run.
Read reviews and pay attention to what’s on the “Best Of the Year” lists, or what is winning awards. Learn which directors’ and writers’ work you enjoy and seek out their other films (even the older ones!).
At the end of this article, we’ve shared a starter list of our “must-watch movies” for every family. The book The Best Old Movies for Families: A Guide to Watching Together, by Ty Burr, is also an outstanding resource, full of recommendations from the early years of Hollywood filmmaking.
For more recent titles, Common Sense Media is a treasure trove for parents. Not only have they reviewed thousands of films (and books and other media), but they give basic info that helps parents like why a movie might be rated PG-13. They also provide discussion questions to prompt your engagement beyond viewing, which leads us to our next point…
4. Use movies as an art form meant to engage you.
Too many people think of movies (and especially TV) as “mindless entertainment” or something to distract them from real life. True, they can serve that purpose and take you to wonderful fantastical places — and that can be really important, especially in scary times. But movies also can help you understand the real world better; they can reveal the truth about what it means to be human. Good movies are art, and the point of art is to teach, challenge, and enlighten. Just because you’re sitting and watching, doesn’t mean you have to be passive!
The most important way to get kids interested in film is for them to see you engaging critically with the media you consume.
Don’t just take it in, but talk about it — we pause shows all the time to discuss what we’ve seen! Ask questions that get kids thinking about what they’ve experienced, and answer them for yourself, too! Encourage their emotional reactions. Praise their critical thinking. Point out ways that cultural norms have shifted over time, and get their opinions on the morals of a character or the message of a film.
Now, in order to get today’s kids to watch “artsy movies”, you’re going to have to do a bit of homework. The best thing you can do is introduce them to great films early and often. Look for the classics that have stuck around for years, or movies that have won awards. You’ll be amazed how funny some of the 40’s screwball comedies still are, or how a Bollywood movie can keep your family entertained for 3+ hours. Don’t be afraid to show your kids foreign-language films! If they’re too young to read, just read the subtitles to them.
When you shift your thinking to include film as an art form, you’ll begin to see all the ways it can teach you about life, not just help you escape it. You’ll also broaden your appreciation for and understanding of film if you…
5. Learn as much as you can about movie-making magic.
One disappointing reality of mostly streaming entertainment is that we’ve lost the special features from our DVDs and Blu Rays, but we encourage you to go looking for those extras. They really enhance the experience! Disney+ often has a few special features available in the “Extras” section of any film’s page. Borrowing DVDs (sanitized, of course!) is another way to find these treats.
Watch the “making of” featurettes to discover the movie-making process. Deleted scenes are always fun to discuss, and sometimes feature a short explanation as to why they were cut. You might be surprised to see how much technology goes into supporting this art form — STEM skills were essential for early filmmakers who were inventing cameras to do stop-motion or planning effects that required knowledge of light, physics, and chemistry. Today’s movie magicians use computer coding, mechanical engineering and more to make stories come alive.
To go deeper, you can read articles, reviews, or books that help you break down a film, explore a theme, or learn more about a filmmaker. Invite your kids to write their own reviews — they might enjoy recording them for social media! You can also create your own movie or trailer very easily in iMovie or another program, and try out some of the movie-making magic for yourselves.
The more you learn about how stories are written, animation is drawn, or special effects are created, the more your family will appreciate the huge amount of work that goes into your entertainment.
And the more you respect an art form, the deeper your appreciation of it will be. At that point, you’ll be ready to try a “home film festival”…
6. Choose a theme and watch several movies related to it.
We would argue that this is an assignment with as much value as many of the school assignments your kids will receive during the closure. There is so much to learn from cinema! Heck, there are whole college classes — college departments! — just dedicated to what people learn by making, watching, and discussing films.
Watching a set of movies around a theme helps you make connections between filmmakers, or follow an evolution of thought, or focus on a character trait.
For instance, our family has been watching through all of the Disney Animated Features in order of release since last summer, and are only about halfway through the list. We have learned so much about animation, and watching its progression as an art form has informed our sensibilities. It is a really fun family project!
A theme can be anything from a studio (e.g. Pixar) to a director (e.g. Spielberg) to a type of movie (like our animation series). It could be a historical event — older kids might be interested in watching several different movies about the Civil Rights era, or the struggles and triumphs of the LGBTQ community, or even wars (contrast positive films praising the heroes of WWII with the mostly-ambivalent films made about Vietnam).
You can also choose a character trait as a theme, such as responsibility, activism, friendship, or integrity. Emotions work too: movies about grief, or first love, or even fear (there IS a whole horror genre, after all…and one of our favorite family film fests was watching through all the classic Universal monster movies!).
And of course, you can always theme your choices around a season! That’s why Christmas movies exist, after all.
However you choose your content, remember this primary rule: it’s okay to add more screen time as a family. The best way to watch movies as a family is together, with hearts, minds, and feeling engaged! Try these tips and you’ll find that adding more movies to your family’s routine becomes a treasured tradition for everyone.
Must-See Movies for Every Family
Put these films on your CoronaBreak Movie Watchlist for guilt-free extra screen time that will not only educate and enrich each family member, but also provide opportunities for great discussion, shared laughs or tears, and inside jokes/quotable lines that you’ll treasure for years to come.
We’ve watched all of these as a family (my kids are 9 and 11). Anyone from an older age category can enjoy one from the younger categories, I just separated a few that play especially well with those groups.
- Duck Soup (McCarey, 1933) (the Marx Brothers are great for mixed-age groups because the comedy alternates between visual and verbal) — Rent on Prime Video, Google Play, or iTunes
- Bringing Up Baby (Hawks, 1938) — Rent on Prime Video or Google Play
- The Wizard of Oz (Fleming, 1939) — Rent on Prime Video or Hulu
- Singin’ in the Rain — (Donen, 1952) — Rent on Prime Video, iTunes, or Google Play
- Mary Poppins (Stevenson, 1964) — Rent on Prime Video or Disney+
- The Sound of Music — (Wise, 1965) — Rent on Prime Video or Disney+
- Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Stuart, 1971) — Rent on Prime Video, Google Play, or iTunes
- The Princess Bride — (Reiner, 1987) — Rent on Prime Video
- Babe (Noonan, 1995) — Rent on Prime Video or Hulu
- My Neighbor Totoro — (Miyazaki, 1998) — Rent on Prime Video
- Lilo & Stitch (Sanders and DeBlois, 2002) — Rent on Prime Video or Disney+
- Safety Last! (Newmeyer and Taylor, 1923) (Harold Lloyd silent film where he hangs off the clock) — Rent on Prime Video or iTunes
- The Circus (Charlie Chaplin, 1928) — Rent it on Prime Video
- Wallace & Gromit: The Complete Collection (Park, 1989, 1993, 1995, 2008) (Short films) — Rent on Prime Video
- Fantasia 2000 (Disney, 1999) — Available on Disney+ (or Prime Video when available)
- Ponyo (Miyazaki, 2008) — Purchase on Prime Video
- The Music Man (DaCosta, 1962) — Rent on Prime Video, Google Play, or iTunes
- E.T. (Spielberg, 1982) — Rent on Prime Video, Google Play, or iTunes
- Labyrinth (Henson, 1986) — Rent on Prime Video
- Spirited Away (Miyazaski, 2001) — Buy on Prime Video
- Lagaan (Gowariker, 2001) (Bad News Bears meets Once Upon a Time in China…but from India…this was the first subtitled film we showed our kids) — Available on Netflix
- Speed Racer (The Wachowskis, 2008) (a kids movie by the writer-directors of the Matrix; one scene of guys shooting machine guns at the hero — nothing compared to Marvel, but can disturb some kids) — Rent on Prime Video, Google Play, or iTunes
- Peter Pan (Hogan, 2003) — Rent on Prime Video or Hulu
- Brave (Chapman, 2012) — Rent on Prime Video, Hulu or Disney+
- Epic (Wedge, 2013) — Rent on Prime Video, Google Play, or iTunes
- Big Hero 6 (Hall, 2014) — Rent on Prime Video or Disney+
- The Book of Life (Gutiérrez, 2014) — Rent on Prime Video or Hulu
Upper Elementary and Tweens:
- The Philadelphia Story (Cukor, 1940) — Rent on Prime Video, Google Play, or iTunes
- Arsenic & Old Lace (Capra, 1944) — Rent on Prime Video, Google Play, or iTunes
- Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki, 1997) — Buy on Prime Video
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Lee, 2000) — Rent on Prime Video
- School of Rock (Linklater, 2003) — Rent on Prime Video or Hulu
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Cuarón, 2004) (only if they’ve read it, no spoilers!) — — Rent on Prime Video, Google Play, or iTunes
- SpiderMan: Into the SpiderVerse (Persichetti, Ramsey, and Rothman, 2018) — Rent on Prime Video or Netflix
- Ready Player One (Spielberg, 2018) — Rent on Prime Video or Google Play
- Knives Out (Johnson, 2019) — Rent on Prime Video or Google Play
Featured Image Credit: Alexander Dummer