Have you ever noticed how people talk a lot about how children learn, but they don’t have the same conversations about adults?

Maybe learning seems more important when the mind is young and malleable. Maybe we tend to forget about our own minds and hearts when we take on the responsibility of someone else’s. Maybe we don’t realize how much we keep learning as adults or how important it is that we keep learning well.

Learning is a particular concern of mine, and not just for my children. I’m the type of person who could have happily become a professional student, and failing that, I’ve become my own teacher. I’m a student of music, literature, foreign language, art, crafts, and even business.

I’m also a student of humanity.

I’ve always been an avid reader of fiction and a curious people-watcher. I spent a few years in the theater and often regret having abandoned it. All these activities are known to develop a person’s sense of empathy, which is our capacity to understand what another person is feeling through their frame of reference. It is, for many people, the most difficult lesson in a lifetime of learning; many will never learn it.

This is not for lack of opportunity. Movies and television, though often vilified, provide us with many opportunities to learn about empathy.

Movies give us a chance to step into someone else’s shoes, which is essentially what empathy is all about. Granted, not every movie provides much emotional weight. Vapid scripts and poor acting mean that some movies might not flex the empathy muscle as much as others.

But today I’m not talking about any old movie. Today I’m talking about Christmas movies.

Christmas movies have messages. They’re often moralistic. Sometimes they’re incredibly simple. Mostly, they push the idea of Peace On Earth and Good Will to Men.

Which is wonderful.

But I’ve found, over the years, that Christmas movies have so much more to teach us. The characters in Christmas movies have become more complex in recent years (and by recent, I suppose I mean within my lifetime, which reaches back to 1984) because they’re fighting for a place in the already-full Christmas canon. Even solid efforts (like Vince Vaughn’s Fred Claus or Four Christmases) can fall flat when compared with true classics (sorry, Vince).

Now that I’m a parent rather than a child, I’ve noticed a shift in the way I watch Christmas movies and, subsequently, the lessons I learn. Now that I’m a mother, Christmas movies have become a veritable guidebook for parenting, and I’m not just talking about the massive list of “don’ts” a mom can find in Home Alone.

(Though, seriously, Mrs. McAllister–all the McAllisters, actually! What the hell were you thinking?!)

Anyway. The top three parenting lessons I’ve learned from Christmas movies:

The Polar Express

I was an adult when I first watched The Polar Express, but I was not yet a parent. Still, I think I watched the movie with the eyes of a child, and as such, it struck me that the conductor was both a stern authority figure and a nice guy.

He harps on the rules and gets upset when they’re broken. Still, he sees reason when the rule-breaking is sufficiently explained. He raises his voice and commands the children while maintaining an interest in their comfort (HOT CHOCOLATE!) and listening to their concerns.

When I eventually watched the movie with my daughter, the first thing she said about the conductor was, “He’s mean!” By the end of the movie, she loved him.

Lesson #1: Don’t worry about kids not liking you. You can enforce the rules and be kind.

Christmas Vacation

Near the beginning of the movie, Ellen Griswold warns her husband not to expect too much of their impending family Christmas. “You set standards that no family event can possibly live up to,” she says. Then his high hopes for Christmas spend the next two hours falling hilariously to the ground.

So, we can learn that lesson: temper your expectations. But that’s not what really hits me about this movie.

There’s a moment, when everyone is out on the lawn and the twinkle lights won’t light, when Ellen’s mother says she hopes the children can see what a silly waste of resources this was, and Audrey–grumpy, scowling, teenage Audrey–says in a small voice, “They worked really hard, Grandma.” As they all go inside, she turns to her dad and tells him it looks really good, even if the lights aren’t lit. Then she hugs her daddy.

This is my favorite moment in the whole movie. It strikes me as so sweet. And it taught me:

Lesson #2: No matter how old or sassy they get, kids are still kids. They still love and need their mommies and daddies.

A Christmas Story

There are thousands of parenting lessons to be learned from A Christmas Story, good and bad, but for me it all comes down to the moment when Randy eats like the piggies eat.

As a kid, I thought it was just another joke in a funny movie. As an adult I see that one of Ralphie and Randy’s mother’s greatest strengths is her ability to relate to her children. She even tastes the soap she’s put in Ralphie’s mouth after his infamous use of the F-word, and I’ve always thought that after that, she’d think twice about shoving a bar of soap in his mouth… or at least that particular brand.

Lesson learned: Meet your kids on their own level. See the world through their eyes and you’ll be able to teach the way they learn.

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