How would you react if your son ambushed you with a radio show phone call after telling the hosts you were lonely? Or if your daughter lied to you about her Paris vacation and got kidnapped? When watching movies like Sleepless In Seattle or Taken it is only natural to wonder what we would do under similar circumstances. If you handle those situations as Sam Baldwin or Bryan Mills did, you are likely on your way to that happy ending. But movie parents aren’t always heroes. Sometimes they are flawed characters. Other times they are outright villains. No matter where they fall on the scale, you can learn a lot from poor parenting on the big screen.
Dr. Lauren Knickerbocker, clinical psychologist at the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Health, shows her students examples of bad parenting in film for just this reason. “Most discipline falls somewhere in the two categories of want and control,” she says. “Problems come when either of those categories is taken to the extreme. Finding a reasonable punishment can be difficult in the moment, which is why it can be helpful to consider all kind of scenarios, even when you’re watching a movie.” Here, Dr. Knickerbocker helps us rank and analyze a few memorable moments of movie discipline.
10. ELF (2003)
Buddy the Elf looks might have the body of an adult, but it is clear that he has the temperament of a child. As such, Walter’s harsh dismissal elicits the kind of reaction you might expect from a toddler — an emotional outburst that, in this case, points to poor parenting.
Dr. Knickerbocker: “Obviously actual abandonment is never acceptable, but sometimes, regrettable things are said. Parents are allowed to lose their tempers, it happens, but what is important is that the parent takes the time after to repair. If they go about that correctly, they can possible get some positive experience from that mistake.”
9. Tom Sawyer (1973)
There are a lot of things out of date in this classic film, including punishing the rambunctious younger Sawyer by withholding his meal.
Dr. Knickerbocker: “There is a lot of new research that has been done on the withholding of meals, and the findings are that you can create a lot of issues with food down the road. The ability to eat should not be used as a weapon.”
8. Matilda (1996)
Mr. Wormwood is one seriously verbally abusive dad. This hard-to-watch scene, where he berates his daughter Matilda for criticizing his business tactics, is all the evidence you need.
Dr. Knickerbocker: “I actually use this movie in my class to demonstrate poor attachment, discussing her relationship with her parents. Just because a response is nonphysical, it doesn’t mean it is right. Here he is trying to hurt her verbally. Through this discipline he is showing his child that he is not attached and doesn’t really validate her feelings. That is completely unproductive.”
7. Home Alone (1990)
Mr. and Mrs. McCallister are in the bad movie parenting history history books for stranding their Kevin on Christmas, but before that even happened they make some serious missteps — sending him to his room without giving any clear reason, and no meal.
Dr. Knickerbocker: “He may have done something wrong, but in the midst of his shaming there was no positive reinforcement going on. Sending him to his room is acceptable, but the fact that he didn’t get to eat is not good.”
6. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
Ted Kramer doesn’t deal well with his wife leaving him — but that’s nothing compared to how to deals with his son Billy when the kid acts up.
Dr. Knickerbocker: “The big observation that I make here is that dad kept moving the goalpost. He piled onto the behaviors that he wanted his child to stop, but the punishment didn’t come until the very end when he just snapped, saying the punishment was for the first thing. Especially with little kids, just telling them ‘don’t eat that’ is not enough. You have to be clear with where the line is, and then follow through when it is crossed.”
5. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
Harry Potter suffers a great deal under his Uncle Vernon’s “care,” capped in this scene by being put in a sort of solitary confinement under the stairs.
Dr. Knickerbocker: “Of course that living situation isn’t acceptable to begin with, but if it were, sending a child to their room is an acceptable punishment. That being said the door should never be locked, that is where you can start to do harm psychologically.”
4. Joe the King (1999)
Bob Henry has a big part in sending his son Joe into a life of crime through his bad temper and harsh punishments.
Dr. Knickerbocker: “Here he is asserting a lot of control, and expecting 100 percent compliance. Nowhere is he showing that he acknowledges that this is a separate person from him. Then he becomes violent, which is also a terrible reaction.”
3. Tree of Life (2011)
Terrence Malick’s fantasy flick is full of beauty, but things get ugly in the moments where Mr. O’Brien rules his family with an iron fist.
Dr. Knickerbocker: “There are still a lot of families that believe that children should be seen and not heard. Grabbing the children in that fashion will not help their relationship with their father either, even when it isn’t directed at them individually. Historically, that kind of treatment of children has backfired.”
2. This Boy’s Life (1993)
There are few father figures more terrifying than Dwight Hansen, whose treatment of a young Tobias is simply criminal.
Dr. Knickerbocker: “Violence is never acceptable and completely unproductive. On top of that, this is less about discipline and more about his own ego.”
1. An American Crime (2007)
Corporal punishment of children is problematic enough — but in the hands of a psychopath, it becomes the thing of nightmares. The only thing that makes Gertrude Baniszewski’s treatment of the Likens children worse is the fact this movie is based on a true story.
Dr. Knickerbocker: “Corporal punishment like spanking is still something that unfortunately exists. Of course in the short term it can have the right result, as in the child begins to comply, but in the long run it usually has a boomerang effect. There is also resentment that can build up and lead to bigger problems down the road.”