Why We Don’t “Do” Disney

Before you had kids, did you have any idea that taking a position on how to best parent would be so divisive? It starts with disagreements with friends over birth control and pregnancy and then childbirth and sleep training and continues well into your child’s adolescence.

Trust me. I have a lot of strong opinions. And I’m not afraid to share them. But I try not to be one of those “holier than thou” elitists about stuff like this because it’s not my job to parent your children. It’s my job to parent mine.

For example, we get questions a lot about why my almost-four year-old daughter still has not seen the movie Frozen. As if it’s a crime. As if she’s missing out on a life-defining childhood experience. So, in a brief diversion from current affairs, let me offer a quick peek into our family life and why we, generally, don’t consume a lot of popular kids’ media.

First of all, my kids are not sheltered. And no, don’t worry, we don’t throw away gifts given by friends and family. My daughter has a Disney princess book (which she loves) and an Elsa doll. My kids play with lightsabers and make references to Batman. They know that the worlds of Disney and superheros and Star Wars exist. They know the stories and characters and have read many of the books.

Kids like “kid stuff.”
No big deal.

But, because exposure to popular media is almost a given these days, we are intentional about exposing our kids to more of what we think is “good” media and entertainment. It’s similar (in my mind) to a family that says to their children, “No juice before bed,” or “No dessert before dinner” regardless of what their friends’ parents allow.

And although I’m speaking most specifically here about Disney princess movies, this post could have just as easily been titled “Why I Don’t Buy My Son Star Wars Action Figures” or “Why We Watch 10+ Year-old Movies On Family Movie Night” or “Why I Hate That My Kids Love Paw Patrol.

Let me quickly clarify that, yes, I know that not all kids’ media is equal and that I’m probably being too hard on Disney. There are many, many intelligent, funny, enlightening kids’ movies, television shows, and books in existence, produced by Disney and others. We’ve seen some of them. We have really liked some of them.

Also, I’m sure you can argue a “Yeah, but, have you seen….. ?” for everyone one of my arguments. Feel free to make recommendations, but I still consider them the exception to the rule. And we shouldn’t set standards based on exceptions.

And, no, you don’t have to worry that I’m going to be weird about my kids coming to your house and seeing your kid’s Superman bedroom or that we’ll balk at your big-screen tv. That’s not the point of this. Please don’t take this personally. I’m just trying to explain the decision we’ve made with our kids because it does seem so strange to some people–especially to other people’s kids. And I understand that there are probably things we do allow our children to consume that confuse other people just as much as what we don’t allow. (I’ll keep an eye out for someone to write a post about “Why We Don’t Let Our Kids Listen to David Bowie Like The McEwans Do.”)

I know some of my ideas are unpopular or might make people uncomfortable. I think it’s worth sharing this kind of stuff anyway because, in the world of parenting, there are a lot of things that we take for granted about what is “good” or “best” for our kids just because it’s popular or recommended or it seems to work for everyone else. I’m simply suggesting some reasons why we should question these assumptions and consider that maybe, just maybe, popular kids’ media is feeding us all too much “dessert” and not enough “dinner.”

So, here you have it.
Seven reasons why we don’t “do” Disney.

Every new popular movie is just another fad. Fads are created by multi-million (billion?) dollar marketing schemes that specifically target impressionable young children and parents who are willing to give into their child’s desires. I don’t want my kids to get into the habit of latching onto what’s new just because it’s new. The best of the best of the new shows and movies will have staying power and will be just as good when they are 10 years old as they were when they were brand new. That’s why our kids will eventually see all these popular movies–but it will probably be in a few years, once the fad has passed.

The ubiquitous marketing by companies like Disney is overwhelming and confusing for a child. (For more on the manipulative nature of marking to youth, read this book.) What a child wants is not always what a child needs and what a child needs is not always desirable at first glance. When a young child walks through a store and everything in their sight, from snacks to water bottles to t-shirts and pull-ups is branded with a Disney character, the difference between want/need is blurred. They are manipulated into believing that the items branded with Frozen‘s Elsa are the better ones. They don’t learn a thing about quality, only desirability. This is a dangerous lesson to teach children. It will not prepare them to be wise consumers as they age. Yes, sometimes “want” and “need” can be found in the same item, but not always. We need to teach our kids to put first things first.

The meta-narrative of most popular media is weak and confusing. What exactly is your average Disney princess movie about? Ask three people and they’ll tell you something different. Is it about “true love?” Is it about “finding yourself?” Is it about “breaking free from restraints?” Who the heck knows. Case in point: I recently heard two different people discuss the story from the movie Frozen in two different church sermons. One thought it was a positive and liberating story; one thought it was completely godless and worldly. Does it really matter if it’s not super obvious what these stories are about? Maybe. Maybe not. In the end, we are the ones who help our children interpret these stories. I’d simply rather choose better stories.

(As an aside: I’ve never understood how many Christian families boycotted Harry Potter but take their preschool children to see Disney movies. Although Harry Potter is admittedly “dark,” the series has so much more depth and rich truths to the story than any Disney princess movie ever did. And no, my kids have not seen/read Harry Potter, either.)

– Disney stories cannot stand apart from their visual presentation. In other words, without the screen, a Disney princess story is crap. Have you ever tried to read a storybook adaptation of a Disney movie? They are horrendous. That doesn’t mean the movie itself isn’t a good movie, only that its value is completely dependent on visual stimulation. There are some exceptions to this rule–movies like The Lion King and Frozen that have a good soundtrack, for example. But in general, I’d say it’s true. Why is this a bad thing? Well, because children don’t belong couched in front of a screen for hours upon end. Every once and a while? Sure. As “dessert” after a healthy “dinner” of profitable consumption? Sure. At Grandma’s house or on vacation or while passing time during a 10-hour car ride? Sure, pull out that DVD player. But on a regular, daily, or multiple times daily basis? No way. And since there are no decent, non-movie versions of Disney stories, we’d rather skip the stories entirely and find something better.

– I’m a Conservative. And I know that this doesn’t make me super popular, but I believe in inherent differences between men and women. And, often times, the gender distinctives in popular media are one-dimensional and the characters are inaccessible to the opposite sex. I don’t want my kids consuming media that only presents their differences in one-dimensional characters whose entire identity is predicated on their being “girly” or “manly.” And when I say these characters are inaccessible, I mean that they are so shallowly presented that the characters themselves have no lessons to teach children of the opposite sex. The heroine is beautiful and naive; the villain is masculine and conniving. This obviously exists on a continuum (Anyone remember Mulan? I loved her.), but if I read one more princess story that starts with the phrase, “the princess was the most beautiful baby in the world,” I might puke. They write it because it sells. But it only sells because we’re buying. How this manifests itself: Merida, the female protagonist in Disney’s Brave, was physically altered in post-production to look prettier. Apparently, the strong, brave, spunky young woman of the popular movie was not good enough to be sold as a doll.

– The love stories are full of lies. “He fell in love with her the moment he saw her” is garbage. Do I want my daughter to place a high value on love and commitment and sacrifice? Absolutely. Is a fairy tale the best way to communicate the nature of “true love” to my young, impressionable daughter? Probably not. At least not the grossly exaggerated, manufactured, feel-good Disney-ification of a fairy tale. You may believe the lady-in-waiting, “Prince Charming is just around the corner” messages are harmless and all in good fun and that “all little girls dream of being a princess.” But I would argue that lies about love and devotion and Prince Charming have gotten my generation into a big mess of broken relationships, fear of commitment, confused sexuality, and disappointment in marriage. Children will listen, as another fairy-tale tells us. Be careful what you tell them when they are young and listen to you most.

Many animated movies are simply immature. You see, it’s not necessarily the stories that I find objectionable, but the dumbing-down of decent, edifying stories. Many Disney movies are based on wonderful, historically significant folk tales and fairy tales. In their original form and their cultural adaptations, they are complex and subtle and engaging for both adults and children. But in trying to make them “kid-friendly” and easy to swallow, we strip these grand stories of their strength and meaning. We reduce them to two hours of poop jokes for the kids and innuendos for the parents who are forced to watch. Children don’t need their stories dumbed-down; let’s give our children more credit than that.

The world is full of beautiful stories for children, stories of princes and princesses, heroes and adventure, love and loss, goblins and witches and giants and pirates. We should be offering the best of what is available, not what is easiest and most accessible at any given time on our nearest electronic device. It may take a little bit more work at times for parents, but the payoff is worth the effort.

In closing, let me leave you with a quote by author Madeline L’Engle:

“‘Why do you write for children?’ My immediate response to this question is, ‘I don’t.’ … If it’s not good enough for adults, it’s not good enough for children. If a book that is going to be marketed for children does not interest me, a grownup, then I am dishonoring the children for whom the book is intended, and I am dishonoring books. And words.

“Sometimes I answer that if I have something I want to say that is too difficult for adults to swallow, then I will write it in a book for children. This is usually good for a slightly startled laugh, but it’s perfectly true. Children still haven’t closed themselves off with fear of the unknown, fear of revolution, or the scramble for security. They are still familiar with the inborn vocabulary of myth. It was adults who thought that children would be afraid of the Dark Thing in Wrinkle, not children, who understand the need to see thingness, non-ness, and to fight it”

– Madeline L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet

*Ironically, Disney is set to make an adaptation of L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, one of my favorite books. This is both a little heartbreaking and a little exciting. Disney did a pretty good job with CS Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and several other live-action films based on children’s literature, so I’m hoping for the best.

5 thoughts on “Why We Don’t “Do” Disney

  1. Stay strong, Liz! My “kids” are your age, yet I still wish for a do-over on any number of issues we navigated as a family. By walking against the
    current of popular culture, you are building strong bones!

  2. Thoughtful article. Much here for me to chew on.

    Just so you know, though, Walden Books is producing the Narnia movies, not Disney.

  3. What are some family friendly movies that you would recommend? We don’t watch a lot of tv either (and no Disney) but are always looking for quality recommends…

    1. Kim- Since our oldest turned 6, we’ve introduced more movies into the family, but always watch them together. We research them before viewing (on websites like Common Sense Media: https://www.commonsensemedia.org/).

      We tend to avoid newly released movies, less for content reasons and more to avoid the ubiquitous branding on toys, food, etc. My poor 4 year old daughter (who was named Elsa before the movie was released) still has not seen Frozen. Yikes.

      We have let the kids watch older movies like Peter Pan, Robin Hood, etc. They have seen one or two of the Toy Story movies. And we have enjoyed Happy Feet, Madagascar, Despicable Me, and Kung Fu Panda. The last movie we watched was The Croods, which was a good family-positive movie.

  4. Thank you sooo much for this!! I can relate and though I grew up in Disney movies and cartoons in that simpler, pre YouTube era, I am much choosier about the stories and media my kids consume. If anything, they are pbskids type kids with a couple nick jr shows I couldn’t avoid. And now I’m realizing they’re not into Disney bc I’ve been very conscious about the stories and their lack of substance, quality and diversity (except for Mulan, Moana which we love!! And the lion king) kudos for staying strong!

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