by Beth Hall and Martha Rynberg
One of the most popular themes in children’s movies is loss of parents, often followed by some variation on adoption. It is hard to think of a recent animated kid’s movie that doesn’t touch on these family themes. And that means that adoptive parents (and their allies) have to find ways to monitor and manage the information that their children take in along with compelling and popular media images.
It’s the age-old balancing act of “protect vs. prepare.” We can limit what they see but we can also support them as they process what they have seen. Kids like to fit in, so seeing the new kid’s movie that all their friends are talking about might be really important to them. And it is equally important for you to talk with them about it.
We don’t need to demonize a movie – or the film industry. But we do need to help children understand how to view movies (and other media) with a critical eye, and not assume that everything that is portrayed is either real or accurate. There is a two-pronged goal for adoptive parents: Make sure that important conversations about adoption and other family matters are happening with you AND teach your child adoption-positive values and facts so that they learn to recognize misinformation and/or wrong values even when you are not around.
How-to suggestions: Whether the movie features a quest to find a missing parent, or an abusive orphanage, get in there and help them figure it out. Be empathetic about how it feels to have a whole movie theater laughing about a joke that places them at the brunt end. Help them understand that while most movies don’t get it entirely right, there are only a few that are truly toxic. Kids need our help to learn how to tell the difference.
Connection is the name of the game. When kids see stories that touch on their own experience—even if remotely—it offers them information. It is up to the important adults in their lives to help them make sense of that information. It is valuable for parents to watch films with their children, including some with which they may not fully agree. This can spark important conversations that help children learn how to think critically about information they are fed from various popular-culture media sources.
How-to suggestions: Kids (just like most people) don’t like being put on the spot. On the way home from the movies, or while digging the popcorn out of the couch before bed, try making sweeping observations and wonder out loud: “I noticed that the main character didn’t know much about why her parents couldn’t take care of her. I bet that would be really confusing to not know my story.” Maybe your child will pipe in with his/her opinion, or maybe she’ll just listen. Don’t let silence be a deterrent. The car is a great venue for these conversations: private, but diffused, with only casual eye contact in the rearview mirror rather thanan intense stare. Doing chores at home together can provide the same vibe of connection gently distracted by activity.
It’s okay to like a movie AND talk about how it portrayed adoption. If we make a movie “bad” our kids might feel “bad” for wanting to see it or for enjoying it despite the movie’s flaws. There are very few depictions of real life in popular culture that get it 100% “right” for any of us – and of course we all have different values and definitions for what “right” is anyway. When we avoid putting our kids in a position to defend a movie, it is more likely that they will be open to analyzing it.
How-to suggestions: Take the opportunity to help them decode adoptism (or racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc.) by finding the balance between the parts you enjoyed about the movie (“I really like the main character’s sense of humor!”) and the parts that made you uncomfortable (“I was confused about why…”).
Kids are concrete learners; even if they are aware that the story is pretend, it can still feel real. We can start to grow our kids’ media literacy by talking about what the filmmakers might not know about adoption and what our kids, adoption experts, do know. If a story features a girl who doesn’t have adults taking care of her then filmmakers can more easily explain how it is that she goes on wild and crazy (or dangerous!) adventures. We often like stories that are outrageous and really different from our own lives, so we make up scenarios that let characters do things that we wouldn’t ordinarily do.
Thor: He is of Asgard and he is my brother!
Black Widow: He killed 80 people in 2 days.
Thor [deadpan]: He’s adopted.
“The Avengers” (2012)
How-to suggestions: Again, there is opportunity here for discussion and correction through conversation: “It really makes me mad what they said in ‘The Avengers’ about adoption. Why did they have to put that in such a good movie?” Or, “Obviously the director needed a consultant who understands what adoption is really about. Way more non-adopted people have killed people than adopted people. That was dumb!”
Don’t let movies be the only way you talk about adoption. Our kids deserve to feel a sense of mastery of their own story, which means our families need to practice talking about it a lot. The more our kids get to hear and see and feel about adoption—their own and also the huge diversity of adoption experiences—the more prepared they will be to see a movie (or read a book, or respond to a question) and know what parts are based on truth and which parts are sensationalized or stereotyped. Our kids are developmentally changing all the time. Their understanding of adoption changes as they grow, and we need to keep refreshing the discussion even if we as adults feel like we have covered it already. Read stories, watch movies – but most importantly talk about adoption.
You don’t have to be perfect – but you do need to show up. Your kids need to know that you are with them in figuring it all out. They need to know you are paying attention and are emotionally trustworthy. The more you connect with them over things as “simple” as an adoption-themed movie, the more likely your connection will be strong when more complicated issues arise, adoption-related or not. Our kids need to know who they are and the value of their own story, so that they are not as vulnerable to the mythological or gratuitous representations of adoption that are so abundant.
Resources. Children-focused movie reviews, particularly those that relate to adoption and foster care, can be helpful since most parents don’t have time to preview every movie their children may want to see. That said, be careful not to give away all of your power or rely on anyone else, including so-called “experts” to make determinations about what is best for your particular child. Below are two resources we use most frequently.
- Adoption at the Movies (www.adoptionlcsw.com) is a great website that attempts to review movies with adoption triggers and narratives in mind.
- Common Sense Media (www.commonsensemedia.org) attempts to rate movies (and books, TV shows, games and websites) by developmental appropriateness for children and youth, with a helpful section that addresses parental concerns.
Beth Hall is an adoptive mother and the Executive Director of Pact; Martha Rynberg is an adoptive mother and formerly served as Pact’s LGBTQ Family Support Specialist.