We all know by now that there's more to raising kids than reading, writing and 'rithmatic. Research has shown that qualities such as kindness, empathy, friendship, sacrifice and compassion are the ones that truly dictate not only how well our children succeed but, even more importantly, how happy they are.
Kids today are bombarded by media opportunities and access everywhere they look. But is the media they use really helping them? We've crafted a Media Guide of compassion- and empathy-building books and movies that expose kids to the lessons really worth learning.
Book for ages 4+
Stellaluna: The story of a little fruit bat who is attacked by an owl, separated from her mother, and taken in by another family.
Stone Soup: Three strangers, hungry and tired, pass through a war-torn village. Embittered and suspicious from the war, the people hide their food and close their windows tight. That is, until the clever strangers suggest making soup.
The Ant Bully: When Lucas is bullied by the neighborhood bully, he in turn bullies the ants.The ants capture Lucas and shrink him to their size, forcing him to work alongside them.
All Families Are Special: Students in a classroom discuss the makeup of their families. They discover there is a vast diversity, including families with adoptions, same-sex parents and single parents.
Toot and Puddle: A story about true friendship and understanding. Two friends (Toot and Puddle are pigs) that have very different ideas on adventure.
Peace Begins With You: A simple, lyrical book that provides children with a definition and description of peace and teaches them, "peace begins with you."
Horace and Morris but Mostly Dolores: Horace, Morris and Dolores are the best of friends until Horace and Morris decide to join a boys-only club, leaving Dolores downhearted. Dolores reluctantly joins the girls-only club, The Cheese Puffs. A great gender-stereotype buster.
Ballerinas Don’t Wear Glasses: Ben would like to play with his friends, but since his mother is working late he has to look after his little sister Allison. Ben and his friends pick on her, but gradually Ben begins to empathize with his sister.
Enemy Pie: Life is good for a young boy until Jeremy Ross moves into the neighborhood and becomes the one and only person on his enemy list. His father tells him he can get rid of his problem with a recipe for enemy pie. But in order for the recipe to work the boy must spend an entire day with his enemy and be nice to him.
The Araboolies of Liberty Street: The houses on Liberty Street are all very similar until the colorful Araboolie family moves in. Everything about the Araboolies offends the Pinch family, so they call in the army to remove the family that looks different.
Weslandia: Wesley, an unusual child, is tormented by other children. He decides to grow his own food and found his own civilization.
The Giving Tree: This classic picture book designed for school-age children tells the story of a tree that gave everything it had to a boy it loved.
Suki’s Kimono: On the first day of school Suki wants to wear a kimono given to her by her grandmother. Her sisters don’t approve, opting to wear “cool” clothes to school.
The Great Kapok Tree: A man intending to chop down a tree realizes the harm he could do to all of those living in the rainforest and has a change of heart.
And Tango Makes Three: The zoo at Central Park is home to many kinds of animal families. In the penguin house, one couple is a little different because Roy and Silo are both boys. The keeper notices that the new couple do everything together and concludes that they must be in love. When he sees that they would like to raise a child like the other couples do, he brings them an egg that needs to be cared for.
Ordinary Mary’s Extraordinary Deed: Ordinary Mary changes the world when she picks blueberries and thoughtfully gives them to Mrs. Bishop. Mrs. Bishop is so happy to receive them she gives plates of muffins to five people and so on, showing how a small deed can reach everyone on the planet and change the world.
Say Something: This is a story written from the perspective of a young girl who learns that feeling sorry for kids who are teased is not enough. It includes a discussion guide at the back to help talk to kids about bullying.
Have You Filled a Bucket Today? Through simple prose and vivid illustrations, this heartwarming book encourages positive behavior as children see how rewarding it is to express daily kindness, appreciation, and love.
The Quiltmaker's Gift: A quiltmaker helps a selfish king learn that giving is the true secret to happiness. The heartwarming, strongly moral tale supports important values, and the detailed illustrations feature dozens of lovingly rendered quilt patterns.
Zen Shorts: a giant panda who moves into the neighborhood and tells three ancient and amazing Zen tales.
Books for ages 6-plus
Thank You Mr. Falker: When Trisha starts school she finds reading difficult and begins to realize she is different. Other children call her ‘dummy’ and her first few years in school are torture. When she starts the fifth grade, her teacher Mr. Falker recognizes her artistic abilities and helps her to overcome her learning disabilities.
Milton's Secret: In this book by Eckhardt Tolle a young boy worries about a possible bully encounter at school, until he realizes that he must live in the present and not in the future.
Sam and the Lucky Money: A young boy in Chinatown on New Year’s Day is excited about spending his four dollars in lucky money. He becomes angry when he discovers how little he can buy with his money but then begins to see things differently when he sees how grateful a beggar is to receive a quarter.
The Day the Whale Came: Tommy and his best friend Ben have the opportunity to see a dead whale, which is being brought to their small Midwestern town by train. Ben wants Tommy to help him cut a piece of the whale off as a souvenir, and Tommy must learn what to do when something doesn't feel right.
Chicken Sunday: A young girl and her friends Stewart and Winston visit a neighborhood hat store run by a Jewish man, to look at Easter bonnets for the boys’ grandmother. When some bigger boys throw eggs at Mr. Kodinski’s store he thinks the three children did it.
Prince William: When an oil tanker sinks off the coast of Alaska causing a major environmental crisis, the entire community pitches in to clean the beaches and care for all the oil-covered animals.
The Story of Ruby Bridges: Six-year-old Ruby Bridges is one of the first black children to be integrated into an all-white school in the southern United States in the 1960’s. Every day for months Ruby is escorted into her school by marshals while large crowds of angry white people protest. Ruby stops twice each day to pray for these people who are so full of hate.
The Carpet Boy’s Gift: A young boy working in a carpet factory in Pakistan tries to exercise his rights and is punished. But Nadeem doesn't give up, and ventually he leads the other enslaved children to freedom.
The Mountains of Tibet: A tenderly told story about an old woodcutter and his choices when he faces the chance to live life over again.
Books for ages 10-plus
Number the Stars: As the German troops begin their campaign to “relocate” all the Jews of Denmark, Annemarie Johansen’s family takes in Annemarie’s best friend, Ellen Rosen, and conceals her as part of the family.
Hana’s Suitcase: This is the true story of Hana, a young girl who died in the Nazi Germany, during the Holocaust, and of Fumiko Ishioka, the director of the Tokyo Holocaust Center.
Kindness: A Treasury of Buddhist Wisdom for Children and Parents: These clarified and often humorous narrative journeys open the Buddha's profound and gentle teachings to persons of all ages, religions, races, and ideological persuasions.
Bluish: Friendship isn't always easy. Natalie is different from the other girls in Dreenie's fifth-grade class. She comes to school in a wheelchair, always wearing a knitted hat. The kids call her "Bluish" because her skin is tinted blue from chemotherapy.
Book for ages 12-plus
Freak the Mighty: Two boys — a slow learner stuck in the body of a teenage giant and a tiny Einstein in leg braces – forge a unique friendship when they pair up to create one formidable human force.
Mockingbird: Caitlin has Asperger's. Before, when things got confusing, Caitlin went to her older brother, Devon, for help. But Devon has died, and Caitlin's dad is so distraught that he is just not helpful. Caitlin wants everything to go back to the way things were, but she doesn't know how to do that.
Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories: Today’s top authors for teens come together to share their stories about bullying, as silent observers on the sidelines of high school, as victims, and as perpetrators.
To Kill a Mockingbird: The conscience of a town steeped in prejudice, violence, and hypocrisy is pricked by the stamina and quiet heroism of one man's struggle for justice — but the weight of history will only tolerate so much.
Movies that cultivate compassion
My Neighbor Totoro: A beautifully animated fantasy about friendship fit for all. If you have never seen a film by acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki, this is a wonderful introduction.
Ponyo: One of Miyazaki's most kid-friendly films, a beautiful and dreamy story filled with strong characters and positive messages about the ties of friendship.
Up: After his beloved wife Ellie dies, septuagenarian Carl decides to her dream come true and unveils hundreds of helium balloons to fly his house to Paradise Falls. Unbeknownst to Carl, a young Wildlife Explorer scout tags along, and an unlikely friendship develops.
Charlotte’s Web: The ultimate story about friendship and sacrifice.
A Children's Garden of Poetry: Not only will kids hear some great poems, but they'll see kids express what they love about them, how they listen to poetry, and even how to count out the syllables of a haiku. Sweet movie that encourages slowing down and listening.
Best for ages middle school and up
The Illusionist: Gorgeous animation suitable for older kids and enjoyable for adults about the kind of magic that transcends age and language.
The King's Speech: An indie best for teen and adults about a king who stutters. This film explores what it means to conquer one's fears and contains the themes of hope and perseverance.
What's on Your Plate? An excellent, kid-friendly introduction to numerous complicated concepts about food, both controversial (food miles, high-fructose corn syrup consumption) and not (basic nutrition). Picture a Fast Food Nation for kids. Suitable for kids starting around age 8.
Chops: An inspiring documentary about high school jazz musicians that will make viewers appreciate the results of passion and hard work. Good for kids as young as 8.
Eyes on the Prize: This film contains scenes of violence and mature topics and therefore is best for mature kids and teens, who will learn a lot from this even-handed, solid, and accurate record of the history of the American civil rights movement.
Offside: This Iranian dramedy explores the gender inequalities that affect that country's young soccer fans.
Editor's note: This article was written in 2012 and updated in 2015.