This parent-child discussion guide for Walt Disney Studios’ Cinderella is a supplement to The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls through the Princess-Obsessed Years.
Cinderella (1950): A parent-child discussion guide
by Jennifer W. Shewmaker, Ph.D.
Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker, a nationally certified school psychologist and licensed specialist in school psychology, is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Abilene Christian University. She authors the blog “Don’t Conform…Transform” at http://www.jennifershewmaker.com.
Common Sense Media recommends Cinderella for children ages 5 and up, due to some cruelty and deaths in the family. However, compared to many Disney movies, there is little violence and the villain is not as scary, so Common Sense Media notes that it may be appropriate for some four-year-olds, as well.
After Cinderella’s father dies, she is left to act as a servant in her own home to her cruel step mother and two spoiled step sisters. Cinderella is a meek, sweet, and beautiful girl whose social contact is limited to the animals around the house. When a royal proclamation invites all of the single young girls in the kingdom to a ball, Cinderella prepares to go, but is thwarted by her stepmother and stepsisters. But, with the help of her fairy godmother, she ends up going to the ball after all. Her godmother warns that the enchanted coach and gown will only last until midnight. Cinderella meets the Prince at the ball, and they share a romantic dance. When the clock begins to strike midnight, she runs away, leaving behind one of her glass slippers. The Prince declares he will marry the girl whose foot fits that slipper. He finds her, and they live happily ever after.
Here are some suggestions for discussion, roughly categorized by age level. Use these as a rough guide: tailor them to your own child’s level.
- The Pretty Princess Mandate
Cinderella is very focused on the heroine’s beauty, although there are other admirable things about her, such as her kindness. You can help children see these other admirable qualities about Cinderella, which may not be obvious to them at first.
With children ages 4 and 5, co-view the movie and talk back to the screen to model critical viewing. Your child will listen to what you say. Consider comments such as the following:
- “It would be hard to get to know someone well enough to want to marry them from just one dance!”
You can also ask some questions that are simple but go beyond yes and no answers:
- “What do you think the prince liked about Cinderella? What made him notice her?”
- “How else might the Prince and Cinderella have gotten to really know each other?”
With children ages 6 to 8, you can make these points while co-viewing, but later—perhaps over dinner or while in the car running errands—you can expand upon them and work towards a dialogue. Remembering to avoid yes/no questions, try something along these lines:
“In falling in love with Cinderella, the prince seems to be reacting to her appearance. But besides being pretty, what are the things that you think make Cinderella special as a person? What are some ways that the Prince could have learned these things about her?” Give your child time to respond to this question; listen carefully to what she says and respond accordingly.
You might add, “What do you think about the idea of falling in love with someone at first sight? Do you think that’s how most people find someone to love?” Listen to your child’s response and acknowledge her perspective.
Notice that the Pretty Princess Mandate does not apply to the stepsisters. In fact, they are not only mean; it is pointed out that they are ugly. This depiction of female goodness being equated with beauty is found time and again in older Disney films, and it’s very important to point this out to your children. You might say something like,
“Did you notice how they call the step-sisters both mean and ugly? Do those things always go together?” Take this chance to help your child think through this idea, asking them, “What if the step-sisters had been mean but more beautiful than Cinderella? Would that have changed the story?”
Take this chance to talk about how being physically beautiful is not linked to being a person with a beautiful heart or kind behavior. Point out other media characters they are familiar with who don’t fit this stereotype. You might even think of someone in your own life who doesn’t fit the conventional ideal of beauty, but provides a lot of love and kindness to your child.
Make it real: Talk about how healthy relationships develop, focusing on how getting to know one another as friends before becoming romantically involved. Who in your social or family circle might have a story that you could share? Consider sharing the story of how you and your partner met and decided to get married, or that of an aunt and uncle or of family friends.
- The Gender Stereotypes
As an older Disney Princess, Cinderella fits into stereotypes regarding feminine behavior. She is mostly depicted as a passive damsel in distress, waiting for others to help her. She does tend to help those in need, though, such as the mice and farm animals. Point this out to your children and prompt them to think through her behaviors in relation to what you and your family value.
With children ages 4 and 5, point out Cinderella’s passive and active behavior as it happens on screen. Be as specific as possible. Here are some examples:
- “Cinderella really looks out for others who are in need, just like how she helped Gus.”
- “Cinderella doesn’t seem to know how to help herself so that she can go to the ball.”
- “Cinderella seems to be waiting for other people to make her dreams come true, instead of figuring out how to make them come true herself.”
With children ages 6 to 8, you can bring these things up as they happen, but you could also connect these dots in a later conversation. Try something like this:
“When we watched Cinderella, I noticed things that I really liked about the way she acts, like the way she takes of others. But I also noticed things that I didn’t like so much, like the way she waits for someone else to save her.”
You might then ask your child, “What do you think about the idea of waiting for someone else to save or help you?” Listen to his/her thoughts and then say, “Are there times when it’s better or easier to ask for help? How could you do that in a way that still gives you some control?” “What about helping others, can you think of a time when you helped someone else when they needed it? Did they ask for help or did you just see that they needed it?”
Make it real: Cinderella can be a great chance to explore the concept of giving and receiving help. Help your child consider how to best ask for and give help, role playing some specific examples of situations that might come up in their daily life, such as reporting bullying behavior at school or helping someone with a problem in class or on the playground.
- The Stepfamily Narrative
The story of Cinderella depicts blended families in a very negative way. It’s important for you to talk with your children about the fact that in real life, blended families are usually healthy and supportive of each other. You might start the conversation by saying, something like:
“The step mother and step sisters are really mean to Cinderella in this movie. They make her do all of the work and be their servant.” After you make that observation, perhaps after the movie is finished, provide your child with the opportunity to process that dynamic further. You might prompt them to think through the step family narrative by asking questions such as:
“What did you think about the way Cinderella’s stepmother treated her? Do you think that most stepmothers act like that?” Listen to your child and guide her to consider other ways that stepparents may treat their children. Give specific examples of people who they may know who have healthy relationships.
Follow up this conversation with one about the stepsisters. Ask, “What did you think about how the step sisters behaved? Do you think that’s how people usually act in real life?” Again, listen and guide them to think through the ways that blended families have the chance to build a strong, positive bond with one another.
Make it real: The step-family dynamic in Cinderella can be a great starting point to talk about the beauty of different kinds of healthy, well functioning families. From adoption to blended families, you can help your child think through all of the ways that people come together to love and support one another. Try to find some good examples of families in your own lives they can relate to—families who may be different from your own, but are also happy and healthy.