Why sad Disney movies are good for your child

You may remember from your own childhood, if you watched Disney or Pixar films, that one scene that tugged at your heat strings. It may have been Bambi’s mother dying or when Scar lets go of Mufasa’s arms. Personally, mine was when the widow – SPOILERS – abandons the fox in The Fox and the Hound, driving away in the rain. I can’t even watch it now, the poor fox.

But these moments in our childhood are an important, according to a new study, because they help kids learn about death. Researchers from the University of Buffalo studied 57 Disney and Pixar movies, in which 71 characters died, and worked out ways they help bring kids to terms with the subject of death.

“These films can be used as conversation starters for difficult and what are oftentimes taboo topics like death and dying,” says Kelly Tenzek, co-author of the paper. “These are important conversations to have with children, but waiting until the end of life is way too late and can lead to a poor end-of-life experience.”

The deaths in these films can help children relate to and understand death, in ways that otherwise might be challenging, the authors said. “We believe that Disney and Pixar films are popular and accessible for children and adults so that a difficult conversation can begin in a less threatening way earlier in life,” says Tenzek.

The pair of researchers analysed the deaths and noted five things. These were; whether the character was the hero or villain, how they died, if the death is shown or just implied, how the characters react and whether it was permanent or a fantasy. 

For example, the way other characters react in these films is crucial for teaching kids about expressing emotion. This is something that is developing, according to the researchers. The authors note that in two recent films, 2014’s Big Hero 6 and 2015’s Inside Out, emotional responses to death were specifically addressed where they had not been in previous films.

Another point is about whether characters have the intention to kill another character, and what happens after death, which can lead to discussions about religion. 

“I teach end-of-life communication,” says Tenzek. “My goal is to educate and help people become more comfortable with the end of life. “One way to do that is through these films,” she says.

Image: erules123 used under Creative Commons

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