A Spoonful of Sugar? Parenting in Christmas Movies

Christmas. Family. Christmas. Ah… Time for a nice sit down, to put feet up, and spend time with the family. ‘Cos that’s what its all about isn’t it? Well, that and finally getting a chance to clear some emails, and cleaning up and getting pissed on a week night. And family. And once the house has deteriorated into bickering and the inevitable argument, any sane parent switches on the TV and settles everyone down in front of a classic Christmas movie.

But are Christmas movies effective or perhaps even damaging models for successful parenting? Are families in need really getting the best support and advice at a time of year that is a well-known pinch point for family stress and breakdown? Is the optimal strategy to promote a grieving family’s recovery to hire a rebellious nun as governess? Or how should we positively parent two sisters, one with a rare disability involving ice, who seem to be drifting apart? What about the virtues of a bit of hands-off parenting over Christmas, what we’ll call the McCauley Culkin model? That turned out all right in the end… on screen at least.

Below is a handy holiday guide to see for yourself if you’re getting the best parenting examples from your potential Christmas viewing. Enjoy the science. Of course, if your strategy if just to stick the kids in front of the TV to get a chance to stack the dishwasher while scouring the left over wine glasses for any remaining traces of alcohol from Christmas lunch… you’re about a 3 on the five-point scale. Which, as Sandra Scarr (1992) would say, is probably good enough parenting when all is said and done. Happy Christmas!

wonderful lifeIt’s a Wonderful Life: James Stewart wishes he had never been born, so an angel comes to make his wish come true. But first, he has to go through a sort of karma audit and he changes his mind. Redemptive stuff. Happy holidays.

Concern – Father has mental health problems.Signs of encouragement – Appears on path to recovery. Additional notes – Family history of financial mismanagement. Parenting style – Believe in angels

frozenFrozen: In modern days Elsa’s disability (turning stuff to ice) could qualify her for entry to the X-men… but in Arandelle, a backward and feudal regime, it is regarded with suspicion and often met with prejudice! Elsa and her sister Ana’s parents die in a rather predictable boating accident towards the start of the film. But their parenting approach prior to that, during the girls’ early childhood, clearly wouldn’t be regarded as best practice. For instance, Elsa refuses to build a snowman with Ana although that is one task she is clearly ably equipped to assist with. Far from encouraging snow games, their parents lock Elsa away… like the first Mrs Rochester. Cruel.

Concern – Parents deceased. Oldest daughter has disability. Signs of encouragement – Family managing well financially. Additional notes – Low quality and almost absent sibling interaction; parents have dabbled in alternative therapies. Parenting Style – Rule bound and unresponsive. Parents appear to be stigmatising ice-disability

actuallyLove Actually: Lots going on, but the one family is Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman’s with a child who has to wear some ridiculous costume to the school play. Alan’s shagging his secretary. Emma’s stoic. Oh, and she’s the sister of the Prime Minister Hugh Grant.

Concern – Marital breakdown. Signs of encouragement – Love is all around them. Additional notes – High profile (mother’s brother is Prime Minister). Parenting style – Unclear. Seem uninvolved. Or is that just Emma’s schtick?

snowmanThe Snowman: Animated fluff from Raymond Briggs and ball-breaking vocals from not-a-sex-pest Aled Jones. Child is abducted from his house and taken on a “flight” through the snowy English countryside – and out of the country without a passport – by an unknown older man who is naked apart from hat, scarf and, bizarrely, buttons. You probably love it. Frankly, I can’t see the point. The child’s parents are nowhere to be seen.

Concern – Youngish child, abducted during the night. Signs of encouragement – Little positive; parents appear unaware of child’s absence. Additional notes – High risk of repeat absconding, abduction and risk of abuse. Parenting style – Neglect

poppinsMary Poppins: First one up for Julie Andrews, still the archetypal perfect parent/nanny/ governess/parent-in-waiting. Two young children are caught in the crosswires while their parents play out an Edwardian social power struggle between finance and the emerging movement for women’s suffrage. Sadly neither parent realises the effects of this on the children. Luckily, Julie turns up to show them a middle way involving weird fantasies including animated horse racing. Some evidence she introduces the children to controlled substances cut with sugar and laughing gas.

Concern – Children appear to be developing delusional thoughts. Signs of encouragement – Family enjoy help from extensive domestic staff. Additional notes – Children home-schooled and nanny does not appear to be following national curriculum. Health and safety concerns.. Parenting style – Father – authoritarian; mother – neglect; Nanny –  permissive. No wonder the kids are confused…

musicThe Sound of Music: Julie Andrews again. There’s a rather unsavoury set of pages on the internet about whether Julie is more desirable as Mary or Maria. The answer, of course, is that either is unthinkable.

Concern – Large family. Evidence of emerging sexual impropriety in oldest daughter 16 years (going on 17). Signs of encouragement – Family shares an interest in music. Father has developed effective techniques for disciplining the children.. Notes – See Mary Poppins (above). Father has history of being detached and absent. There are also Nazis.. Parenting style – Father – very much authoritarian; Governess – permissive

The Muppets Christmas Carol: Another firm favourite is The Muppets Christmas Carol, which does feature some family scenes ostensibly with Kermit and little Kermit playing Bob and Tiny Tim Cratchett respectively. On the whole, it conforms to the staple of warming, wholesome, salt-of-the-earth type stuff of family relations as resilient in the face of social injustice, a parent grappling with an unsustainable work-life balance dilemma, and being non-hibernating amphibians during a really cold snap.

Concern – Social deprivation. Signs of encouragement – Warm family environment. Additional notes – Amphibious. Parenting style- Authoritative/Permissive

elfElf: Buddy (Will Ferrell) is raised as an innocent, wide-eyed Elf, and he’s told way too late that he’s actually human. When he’s officially outgrown the North Pole, he’s sent to New York to live with his own kind.

Concern – Child in foster care, problems leaving care. Signs of encouragement – Good plan for rehabilitation; Evidence of positive experience of inter-species foster care. Parenting style – Christmassy

Die Hard: There is a family in the background there – wife in a hostage situation… and somehow this now seems to qualify as a Christmas movie. But the parent’s “us time” isn’t exactly high quality and there seem to be some background marital issues. Bruce Willis’ approach to solve these is effective but, one suspects, short term in the context of the marriage.

Concern – Parents disagree on fundamental issues. Father has alcohol problem?. Signs of encouragement – Family stay in touch regularly by phone. Parenting style – Father modelling violent methods of conflict resolution

aloneHome Alone: It’s more easily done that you’d think. We once left our youngest in the hall in her baby seat and were half way towards Junction 2 of the M40 before we realised we were missing one. But it seems to happen to the McCallister family every Christmas… Still, Home Alone was set in the days when parents would think nothing of letting their 7 year hang out “down the Mall” for the entire vacation.

Concern – Large family, parents unable to count the children. Signs of encouragement – Youngest child shows evidence of precocious independence and self-sufficiency. Frequent family holidays. Additional notes – Repeat offenders; crime is rife in the neighbourhood. Parenting style – Neglect