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  • Heather McDorman

Building Mother-Son Traditions Through Classic Movie Sunday

Two people watching a movie at home

Movies can evoke joy, anger, empathy, laughter, tears or even move you to act. I’ve loved movies for as long as I can remember – something I got from both of my parents. Whether action, thriller, romance, comedy or sometimes even horror, there’s something to entertain and learn in any genre.

Around the time my son entered high school – the same time that teenagers start asserting their independence from their parents – I wanted to find something to bring us together. So, one Sunday afternoon I called up the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Films of All Time (see downloadable PDF at end of story). And so was born our new mother-son tradition, Classic Movie Sunday.

American Film Institute logo

Liam has his own theories about the origin of our tradition.

“I believe my mom began the tradition of Classic Movie Sundays with me for two reasons. One was to show me media that I may not have been exposed to on my own that she found enriching (Singin’ in the Rain, Sound of Music, etc.) and ones that were indicative of their time over the last 100 years. The second reason was because she really loves movies and wanted a guaranteed way to watch them with someone.”

You know, he’s not wrong.

Where to Start?

Schindler's List movie poster

I used the Institute’s list as inspiration to begin our quest to watch together as many of the Top 100 as possible – along with a few of my favorites that didn’t make the list. My son, Liam, was game to begin this journey together.

I wish I could remember which was our first “classic movie,” but I do recall the movie that inspired me to begin the tradition. It was Schindler’s List. The movie made a huge impact on me, and I knew Liam would feel the same, eventually. It would be a movie we would work up to.

Early selections included Star Wars, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, Toy Story, and Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (my husband and Liam’s dad, Bob, sat with us during those choices). It was important to consider Liam’s age when we started – he was about 14 – so I was sure to stick with titles that were palatable and age appropriate for him. Soon after we started this thing up, we looked back a bit further and landed on 1959’s campy comedy, Some Like It Hot, and one of my all-time favorites, Singin’ in the Rain (1952). I was so grateful that Liam’s interest in music translated into an interest in musicals.

Remain Flexible

When you are dealing with a teenager, and even a young adult, I have found it best to remain flexible in order to keep them engaged. What do I mean by this? Well, the AFI Top 100 remains the foundation of Classic Movie Sunday, but it has been valuable to stray from it on occasion. It has allowed me to share more about my interests with Liam and for me to bring in movies that I knew would be of interest to him – despite the film’s absence on the Top 100 list.

Airplane! movie poster

One example of this departure from the Top 100 list is a classic movie from my teenage years – Airplane! And, thanks to Liam’s quirky sense of humor, he loved it as well! His thoughts:

“I remember when we watched the movie Airplane! That movie had a better sense of humor than most mediums of comedy do to this day. It was an incredible study of how someone who *definitely* had ADHD could create a masterpiece of cinema as long as they were funny enough.”

It was also valuable to be flexible about when we watched movies together. There have been plenty of times when Sunday wasn’t the best day to catch one of our classics (especially during school breaks and summers), so we’d take advantage of other days to catch another movie on our list. Plus, for me, I’m a serious pro football fan, so for 17+ weeks each year I was with Bob watching Sunday football with our all-access NFL Ticket.

Create an Opportunity for Discussion

Heather and Liam - mother and son

Watching the movie together was important, but I also wanted to discuss it with Liam as well. What had he learned? What did he enjoy? What did he think of the movie in general? The mechanism I used to start our discussion was to ask him to rate the movie on a scale of 1-10. From there we answered some of the questions I mentioned. Sometimes I would debate him if we disagreed. Most often, we would simply delve into why he liked it – or didn’t like it – and that was spurred on from his rating.

Reflecting on the rating practice, Liam called it risky:

Heather and Liam – close to the time period when we began the tradition.

“Encouraging me to rate these movies has got to be the riskiest thing my mom could have ever done. One 6/10 rating on Citizen Kane or an ‘I didn’t really care, it bored me’ on Schindler’s List could’ve sent Suburbia into a tizzy! Overall, though, I think it has been a great way to bond parentally and a very easy thing to suggest whenever no one has any ideas on how to enjoy themselves on a Sunday.”

I began to promote our Classic Movie Sundays on social media with a screenshot from each movie – asking my friends if they could guess what movie was on tap for that particular day. In the comments I would confirm correct guesses and share Liam’s rating and sometimes his explanation for that rating.

Reflections of Classic Movie Sunday

Liam and I may not take part as frequently in our tradition anymore, but we still fit in a movie now and then. As we grow closer to the day when we don’t share a household, I feel a bit of pressure to catch more movies on the AFI list – especially those close to the top ten.

Until then, I asked Liam about his reflections of our tradition, what he’s learned, and if he’d consider starting it up with his offspring someday.

“I’ve definitely gotten a lot more media literacy out of the endeavor. I have been exposed to considerably more media now and, as such, have a much wider range of topics I feel comfortable talking about. In addition to learning how movies have evolved over time, I’ve absolutely learned more quotes I can whip out against my peers at any given moment. Finally, I would absolutely start this trend with my child with key features changed to it for my amusement. I’ll keep those ideas to myself – don’t want grandma to spoil it for me.”

I guess I should be grateful that he’s gotten something from the tradition (ha), but I like to think our time watching classic movies has expanded his vocabulary, broadened his perspective, taught him a little history, and, finally, built memories with his mom that will last a lifetime.

What traditions have you started to build happy memories with your children? Thanks for sharing! I'm sharing the AFI Top 100 List below and the movies on the list we've seen so far (click the arrow to expand the list).

AFI's Top 100 List (downloadable)

Download PDF • 572KB

AFI Top 100 Movies We’ve Seen – So Far (AFI ranking in parentheses)

  • The Godfather (2)

  • Singin’ In the Rain (5)

  • Schindler’s List (8)

  • The Wizard of Oz (10)

  • Star Wars (13)

  • It’s a Wonderful Life (20)

  • Some Like it Hot (22)

  • ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (24)

  • To Kill a Mockingbird (25)

  • The Sound of Music (40)

  • Rear Window (48)

  • Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring (50)

  • West Side Story [1961] (51)

  • Jaws (56)

  • Rocky (57)

  • Raiders of the Lost Ark (66)

  • Tootsie (69)

  • Saving Private Ryan (71)

  • Shawshank Redemption (72)

  • Silence of the Lambs (74)

  • Forrest Gump (76)

  • The Apartment (80)

  • Pulp Fiction (94)

  • Toy Story (99)

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Apr 27, 2023

Hi. Schindler's list is one of the most beautiful films of my youth. Thank you so much for reminding me about this masterpiece, I have now dug up an old disk, I want to watch it from it, this has its own aesthetics for me. It's good that I don't have to buy a new dvd player, since there are applications , which allow me to convert video files to the format I need


Mar 14, 2023

Fun to hear more about this great tradition! And agree with you on The Banshees of Inisherin, Heather. Even though it didn't take home any Oscars, it was a huge winner with me! Jeppe, Maja and August loved it too :)


Mar 10, 2023

Fun to read this commentary since I have known Liam before he was born, lol


Mar 09, 2023

Jonathan and I did a similar thing, though more pop-culture centered. We watched movies that I thought he "needed" to see like Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Blues Brothers, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Raiders (80s much? Cough, cough...), and the Star Wars trilogy, etc. We also watched things like The Big Lebowski and a family favorite The Grand Budapest Hotel. Maybe we'll get to the real classics later (we did add Rear Window to the mix but I don't remember his thoughts about it).

Heather McDorman
Heather McDorman
Mar 09, 2023
Replying to

I. Love. This! Thanks for sharing, Karen. We’ve seen several of those too.


Mar 09, 2023

This was great, Heather! Tell Liam that I loved learning more about him through his comments—funny, smart and sweet. (The same adjectives I use for cherished time with my son. ❤️)

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