Young People’s Unbridled Self Esteem – Do Kids’ Movies Make It Worse?

A thought-provoking article in The Atlantic this month takes on animated children’s movies for the overused, formulaic message so many of them portray of the underdog rising above the odds to fulfill his dreams. The writer, Luke Epplin, lists a number of recent examples, in which the main character rejects a life of what they perceive to be mediocrity to fulfill an otherwise impossible dream, becoming extraordinary in the process.

Epplin argues that this message is misguided, and that it fuels the narcissistic tendencies of today’s generations. Kids nowadays are being taught that it’s possible to do anything they can think of — all they have to do is believe.

In Disney's "Dumbo," an elephant defies what's possible to fly with his ears.

Disney’s “Dumbo” defies what’s possible to fly with his ears. Photo by Henry Mestre | CC by 2.0

The article makes some good points. I can point out few of my peers who are content with making a life goal of landing a decent job. Instead, we talk about rising above the mundane to live fulfilling lives.


In our parents’ and grandparents’ lifetimes, success was more likely defined by being able to provide for your family, working diligently, and being remembered as a decent person when you die. Nowadays, success more closely resembles the extraordinary.

Entrepreneurship is the new flavor of the month, CEOs are becoming increasingly younger, and few people want to be a cog in the wheel anymore. In the new tech bubble, everyone is trying to create the new Facebook or industry disrupting technology. But is that necessarily a bad thing?

Eppin suggests that the characters in these movies either promote or represent a generation whose “attitudes are all part of an ethos that privileges self-fulfillment over the communal good.

But what our critics often fail to remember is that we are also more concerned than those of former generations about social good. “Doing good” is almost a prerequisite for starting a company these days. To name a few buzzed-about and obvious examples: Warby Parker donates a pair of glasses for every one it sells to people in poor communities and trains them to start their own businesses; similarly, TOMS gives a pair of its shoes for every one sold to children in need; and newcomer THINX, whose goal is to make a revolutionary kind of underwear, plans to help women in Africa by giving them not only the supplies, but jobs making re-usable sanitary napkins. (See video below)

And let’s not ignore the studies that say Gen Yers want to work at companies that make a positive impact on society or the rise of non-profits within our time.

It would seem our longing to break away from the prescribed path of college-job-retirement and dare to be different stems less from the pursuit of personal glorification than from a desire to think creatively about how to solve the problems around us and to make a difference in our communities (be they on a local or global scale). In fact, our aversion to the humdrum, workaday existence seems to spur innovation.

More than ever, I see my friends thinking about using their talents in ways that will make a valuable contribution. Instead of thinking about how to get a 6-figure salary by climbing the corporate ladder, most aspire to do something that will make a difference, and, yes, make them feel good about themselves.


Eppin’s main point is correct, though. Children’s movies could use some variety. There are so many lessons that still need to be reinforced — about inclusiveness, openness and diversity of experiences, to name a few. And not to mention the values of perseverance and grit.

“These films discount the hard work that enables individuals to reach the top of their professions,” he writes. ” Turbo (from Dream Work’s Turbo) and Dusty (from Disney’s Planes) don’t need to hone their craft for years in minor-league circuits like their racing peers presumably did. It’s enough for them simply to show up with no experience at the world’s most competitive races, dig deep within themselves, and out-believe their opponents.”

Thinking that success doesn’t necessitate hard work is a legitimate problem that I fear may be this and future generations’ one stumbling block. Do we have what it takes to sustain this movement? But I believe, unlike many of those who write about our generation, that there is hope.

To me, one of the most interesting things about Eppin’s article turned out to be the comments. For many of the examples he listed, readers were able to point out how the movie actually went beyond the message of “You can do whatever you dream of” to show how either hard work or compromise could lead to a fulfilling end.

Plus, as I’ve said before, if my friends and I are indicative of anything, then most of know the value of working toward our goals.

It’s easy to dismiss the next generation as overly optimistic and unrealistic. But I’d prefer to live in a world where people hope beyond what seems immediately possible and work towards it, than one where we settle for small victories and never try because we think we might fail. Only in the former world might we have a hope of solving the hunger crisis or bringing about world peace or creating a society that is not divided by race or orientation.

And until then, it couldn’t hurt to make movies a little more complex.



  1. October 4, 2013 / 1:43 pm

    It does seem, though, that kids who are willing to work are becoming less and less prevalent. They want everything and they think their parents should be the ones to give it to them. And to the shame of many parents, they do. Not all, of course, but a disturbing percent. Allowances? Parents paying their children just for being children? Bad Idea. How are you going to buy a Porsche when your sixteen? “I’ll make my parents pay for it.”

    • October 5, 2013 / 2:00 pm

      Thanks for your comment phillyvanilly. Yes, unfortunately, there are some of us who never learn the value of working for what we want. Even into adulthood, there are parents who still pay their kids’ bills! I get the desire to help your kid achieve stability, but it seems misguided. You just gave me an idea for a new blog post!

  2. August 25, 2013 / 2:29 pm

    I agree with one point is that kid movies could use more variety. As a mom of a little one its hard to find movies or even tv shows that give variety.

    • August 25, 2013 / 2:55 pm

      I can only imagine. Whatever happened to good old movies like “The Jungle Book” or “The Lion King?”

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