What is kindness? What does kindness look like? How do we teach kindness to children? The 2017 film Wonder, based on the book by RJ Palacio, seeks to answer these questions and more through the experience of its protagonist, Auggie, a child with severe facial deformities. Empathy and kindness represent a cornerstone of the emotional intelligence (EI) skill of social awareness.
Prior to Goleman’s theory of EI, empathy and compassion were assumed to be skills you were either born with or without. But we know now that children learn these skills best through stories and role modeling. So let’s dive in to the emotional intelligence of Wonder and think about possible conversations you can have with your kids about empathy and kindness that will put the movie’s lessons into practice.
An Exercise in Empathy
From the very first scene, we hear what life is like for someone with a facial deformity (in Auggie’s case it is due to a condition called Treacher Collins syndrome or TCS). He knows he is not an ordinary child because in his words, “ordinary kids don’t make other kids run away from playgrounds.” He is used to adverse reactions when people first see his face. He says everyone reacts the same way, but kids are worse at hiding their repulsion. So right away, the movie gives us an insight into the lived experience of someone who on the surface has very different issues than many of the viewers.
This is immediately a wonderful exercise in empathy. Trying to imagine what it must feel and be like to live with something that makes you unique (TCS affects about 1 in every 50,000 people) is the root of empathy. It requires imagination and self-awareness amongst other skills, which is why it can be so difficult for children. At a young age, children are still developing a sense of self—what it means to be a person in the world—so the concept that other people also have feelings and consciousness and lives of their own takes some time to fully understand.
But Auggie is not the only person the movie focuses on. Sections of the movie also focus on Auggie’s sister Via, his friend Jack Will, and Via’s friend Miranda. While each one has a unique perspective on the world, they all have something in common, and that’s their connection to Auggie. As Via says, “Auggie is the Sun and we are all planets in his orbit.” The impact of this multifaceted storytelling device is that we see the scope of Wonder’s empathy as it extends to everyone around Auggie. By shifting perspectives and hearing the stories about how they all orbit Auggie’s life, we are exposed to a variety of more familiar perspectives and see how people look past his condition to the wonderful, intelligent, humorous boy underneath it all.
That’s not to say that the story is without conflict. Wonder wouldn’t be a very realistic portrayal of life with TCS if everyone were understanding and compassionate the whole time. On Auggie’s first day of going to school with other children, he is given a guided tour of the school and is immediately met with hostility and apprehension from the bully Julian. Children aren’t always mature and can be downright cruel at times, especially when dealing with something they don’t understand.
The movie offers a very succinct explanation that I think offers a great lesson as well. Auggie’s mom says “He probably feels badly about himself and when someone acts small you just have to be the bigger person.” This is a great lesson for any age, but especially for children who often don’t have the verbal communication skills to be able to resolve their conflicts without resorting to physical aggression. It’s important to note this to your kids who will probably ask you why people do mean things.
Midway through the film, we see an especially heinous act of cruelty from Jack Will. He initially befriends Auggie and brings him out of his initial funk, but then Auggie overhears Jack saying incredibly hurtful things about him, which makes Auggie regret ever going to school in the first place. Thankfully, this is rectified later on when Jack asks Auggie for forgiveness and stands up to the bullying Julian who pressured him into saying those hurtful things.
But the film’s empathy doesn’t stop there. Even the bully, Julian, is empathized with as we met his parents. It becomes clear that his parents are bad influences on him and are fueling his hostility towards Auggie. This eventually leads to him leaving the school against his wishes and a lesson is learned in how cruel people are made and how difficult it can be to break out of that cycle.
What I see as the central message of the movie stems from the precept that Mr. Browne gives the class, “If given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kindness.” While I believe this message is brought to life in many moments of the film (some of which I will go over in a bit) I think the film does break its own moral at times. Auggie’s mom says it’s important to take the higher road when dealing with mean people, but on two separate occasions physical aggression from bullies is responded to with physical aggression and this supposedly resolves the conflict. This confusion of the film’s morals misses a valuable opportunity to teach kids that there are other ways to stand up for yourself. While I don’t condone the fact that Jack Will’s defense of Auggie is through punching, it is important to stand up for people you care about and that is a lesson worth taking home.
Via and Healthy Emotional Regulation
Part of what I love so much about this movie is the attention it pays to Auggie’s sister, Via. It’s not often that someone grows up with a family member who requires as much care and attention as Auggie, but for those who do, life is understandably difficult. Via suffers because of Auggie’s condition as she’s almost always forgotten by their parents and her life often revolves around his. She mentions studying in hospital waiting rooms, consoling him when he’s bullied, and always bottling her emotions and feelings so as to not add any more stress into her family’s already stressful life, or as she puts it, “I knew my family couldn’t take one more thing.”
This is a huge lesson for young ones that may go over their heads a bit. Her sacrifices for Auggie are noble and represent her independence and self-reliance, but ultimately, her emotional suppression is not healthy or feasible for everyone. It becomes obvious that she has never truly had the chance to grieve for the loss of her closest relative, her grandma. Coupled with the frustration she feels when her first day alone with her mother in 10 years is interrupted when Auggie is bullied at school, Via’s turbulent emotions begin to bubble over.
This culminates in a scene where Via emotionally explodes and has an ugly argument with her mother about the way she’s been ignored. This is a powerful scene rife with emotional intelligence lessons and lessons in empathy. One of the biggest takeaways here should be familiar already from another film I’ve talked about, Soul. In Soul, the protagonist had difficulty connecting with his mother and was frustrated that all their conversations kept coming back to the same issues over and over again.
This was because of all the unspoken issues and resentment and feelings that were simmering between them that needed to come out. The same is true in Wonder. Via feels strongly that her family has mistreated her and it’s obvious she still suffers from the loss of her grandma. It isn’t until she expresses these things that her family is able to make adjustments to resolve the situation. Even though emotional outbursts and arguments like the one she goes through may seem ugly, when they come from a place of love and acceptance, they are much healthier than the alternative (emotional retention and unspoken resentment).
What to Discuss
First of all, ask what they think the message of the movie is. In my estimation, the precept Mr. Brown discusses is the message of the film. Choosing and prioritizing kindness is an important lesson and one that children aren’t always born knowing. Ask them about scenes where characters choose kindness. When Summer chooses to sit with Auggie, when Jack Will first shows him kindness and makes him feel better about fitting in at school, when Miranda lets Via take her part in the play, the list goes on.
The question of Auggie’s appearance is an important one as well. Ask your kids how they reacted to seeing his face for the first time. How do they think it must feel to live life with that face? Have they ever been in a situation where they reacted to someone different than them and how do they feel about that now?
Another big question is the emotions of the movie. Ask your kids what scenes made them laugh, cry, or feel sad. Did they relate to anything in the movie, maybe lead them towards noticing their similarities with Auggie instead of always focusing on the differences. Making these connections between them and Auggie will help them figure out how to relate to people that are vastly different from them on the outside. This is the foundation of empathy. There are so many possible questions you can go over but if none of these ones here speak to you then check out this list.
At the end of the day, how you use this movie as a teaching moment is up to you because there are so many possible lessons to pick up on. Being kind, advocating for people in need, being a good sibling, a good spouse, a good parent, there are so many things you could focus on. The central theme throughout all of this is kindness. Focus on kindness and empathy will follow.