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12 Movies to Help Kids Learn Empathy

By Common Sense Media, Understood Founding Partner

Kids with social skills issues may struggle with empathy—the ability to understand and relate to the feelings of others. This can make it hard for them to make friends and navigate social situations. These 12 films can help kids learn how to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.

(Common Sense Media’s recommended ages are only a guide, and may not be right for every child.)

“It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”

This animated film features well-known Peanuts characters Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy and Snoopy. The plot is simple. Linus hopes for a visit from The Great Pumpkin, but no one else believes in him. The characters are sometimes mean to each other, but that’s a good opportunity to kick off a discussion about the feelings of others.

Common Sense Media Recommended Ages: 4+ Rated: Not rated 

Discussion Questions to Ask Your Child

  • When is Charlie Brown happy? When is he sad?

  • How can you tell that Snoopy takes his Halloween costume very seriously?

  • Why does Lucy get Linus from the pumpkin patch and put him to bed?

“Beauty and the Beast”

Magic turns an arrogant prince into an ugly beast. To try to break the spell, the beast takes a young woman named Belle captive in his castle. She starts to see the beast’s inner beauty, but her village marches to destroy him. The music, story and animations in this Disney movie will captivate kids—raising questions about the nature of appearances.

Common Sense Media Recommended Ages: 6+ Rated: G

Discussion Questions to Ask Your Child

  • What is Belle feeling when she agrees to be the Beast’s captive?

  • Why is Gaston surprised that Belle doesn’t want to marry him?

  • Why do the villagers want to destroy the beast?

“Inside Out”

Inside Out is an animated Pixar film about the feelings of an 11-year-old girl named Riley. Anger, Sadness, Joy, Fear and Disgust are all characters in the film. They must work together to help Riley make the right decisions in life. Inside Out is more serious than a typical Pixar movie, but it can teach kids a lot about emotions. (Read why Inside Out is great for kids with attention issues.)

Common Sense Media Recommended Ages: 6+ Rated: PG

Discussion Questions to Ask Your Child

  • Why is it hard for Riley to tell her parents how she is feeling?

  • How does Bing Bong feel when he helps Joy escape?

  • What does it mean to have “mixed emotions” about something?

“E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial”

In the classic family film E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, a young boy named Elliott makes friends with an alien who is stranded on Earth. Elliott tries to help E.T. “go home.” But other humans are afraid of E.T., and government scientists try to catch and study the alien. This film can help kids explore how people see others who are different.

Common Sense Media Recommended Ages: 7+ Rated: PG

Discussion Questions to Ask Your Child

  • Why do the kids and adults see E.T. differently?

  • Could Elliott have talked to his mom about E.T.? Why or why not?

  • Did you know that the director, Steven Spielberg, has ? Do you think that helped him relate to the characters, and how?

“Zootopia”

In a world where animals can talk, a rabbit named Judy Hopps and a fox named Nick Wilde team up to solve a kidnapping case. This exciting crime mystery has lots of jokes that will go over kids’ heads (and that parents may love). But it’s a great tool for helping kids learn about tolerance and the danger of stereotypes.

Common Sense Media Recommended Ages: 8+ Rated: PG

Discussion Questions to Ask Your Child

  • What kinds of stereotypes do the animals of Zootopia have about rabbits and foxes?

  • How do Judy’s and Nick’s opinions about each other change in the film?

  • Is there something human society can learn from Zootopia?

“Fiddler on the Roof”

Fiddler on the Roof is an epic musical story of Jews in Ukraine facing religious persecution while trying to hold on to their traditions. The main character is Tevye. He butts heads with his daughters over marriage, and they are all threatened by a hostile government. Fiddler on the Roof can help kids understand how cultures shape people.

Common Sense Media Recommended Ages: 10+ Rated: G

Discussion Questions to Ask Your Child

  • At the start of the film, Tevye sings “If I were a rich man…” Have you ever felt like him?

  • Why do Tevye and his daughters disagree about marriage?

  • Do you know of any people today who are persecuted because of their religion?

“Napoleon Dynamite”

This sweet, quirky film about a social misfit in high school will not appeal to all kids. But those who march to a different beat may like Napoleon Dynamite. The wide range of characters in the film is also a good jumping-off point for conversations about the uniqueness of every person.

Common Sense Media Recommended Ages: 11+ Rated: PG

Discussion Questions to Ask Your Child

  • Is Napoleon’s life in a small town in Idaho similar to or different from your life?

  • How do Napoleon and Pedro try to show that they care about others?

  • What kinds of hopes do the different characters in the film have?

“Bully”

Bully is a powerful documentary about the impact of bullying in America. Through heartbreaking real-life stories, the film takes on issues of name-calling, physical violence and teen suicide. This movie is intense and not appropriate for every child. It’s probably best to watch this film together with your child.

Common Sense Media Recommended Ages: 12+ Rated: PG-13

Discussion Questions to Ask Your Child

  • How do the kids who are bullied feel? Have you ever felt that way?

  • Why do you think it’s so hard for kids to stand up when another child is bullied?

  • How can kids and adults help stop the problem of bullying?

“The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”

Four high school friends separate for the summer and keep in touch by mailing letters and a pair of blue jeans to each other. During the summer, they learn about friendship, family, love and loss. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants can help kids talk about how people go through and respond to different experiences.

Common Sense Media Recommended Ages: 12+ Rated: PG

Discussion Questions to Ask Your Child

  • Which character do you identify with the most? Why?

  • When something bad happens in your life, do you ever feel like it happens for a reason?

  • How can you be mad at someone and love them at the same time?

“To Kill a Mockingbird”

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” So says Atticus Finch, a lawyer who decides to defend a Black man accused of rape in the 1930s Deep South. This classic film teaches kids about the impact of racism. And it can help kids understand the importance of not judging others by their appearance.

Common Sense Media Recommended Ages: 12+ Rated: Not rated

Discussion Questions to Ask Your Child

  • Do you think you could stand up like Atticus to fight for what’s right?

  • Why is the character Boo Radley so misunderstood?

  • What do you think the jurors are thinking as they consider the case?

“The Breakfast Club”

In The Breakfast Club, five high school students—some popular and others not—spend Saturday detention together. They end up setting aside their differences to learn about each other’s hopes, fears and dreams. There’s a lot of racy content in this film, but it can help your teen learn about social dynamics in high school.

Common Sense Media Recommended Ages: 15+ Rated: R

Discussion Questions to Ask Your Child

  • Does your high school have cliques like in the movie? (Read ways to help teens handle cliques.)

  • Which student in the movie is the most like you?

  • Do you think the students will continue to be friends when they go back to school the next week? Why or why not?

“Do the Right Thing”

Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is set in Harlem, New York, and follows a story of racial unrest that takes place over a single day around a pizza parlor. Throughout the film, characters speak directly to camera to share their viewpoints. Do the Right Thing can help your child learn about how misunderstandings can shape real-life events.

Common Sense Media Recommended Ages: 16+ Rated: R

Discussion Questions to Ask Your Child

  • How does music represent different characters’ viewpoints of the world?

  • Do you have more understanding for each character when you learn more about their lives?

  • What do you think is the cause of racism?

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