"I know 'Cliffhanger' is rated R, but it's only for violence, not for sex, Dad!" The boy in the video store added that all of his friends had seen it and said it was no worse than several other gruesome titles he had already seen. His father sighed and gave in. The technology that has enabled new generations to have a range of entertainments broader than anyone could have imagined has created tough challenges for families. Too often we end up grabbing videos from the "Just Released" shelf or watching the same things, over and over. This electronic baby-sitting is like the Star Trek characters who "set their lasers on 'stun,'" a numbing cavalcade of explosions and jump-cuts. Its messages are never consciously considered, yet they somehow sink in.
That same technology makes it possible to find videos that exercise the mind and spirit, and bring families closer together. Classic movies that once were available only on scratchy prints in art-houses or shot through with commercials on the "Late Late Show" now appear in video stores, public libraries, and mail- order houses -- pristine new prints, as timeless as a Rembrandt. Films that enchant, inspire, thrill -- even teach -- are there for parents who know where to look.
But it can be a challenge, once you have found them, to get kids to watch them. Children love the familiar. That's why they want to hear the same books over and over when they are small and see the same videos over and over (or almost-carbon-copy sequels) when they are bigger. Mental exercise, like physical exercise, is not as easy as watching a movie that is, in Frank Lloyd Wright's words, "chewing gum for the mind." Furthermore, the style of movie-making has changed, so that older movies can seem at first unfamiliar and slow-moving. Kids used to movies like "X-Men" and "Finding Nemo" or even TV shows like "Sesame Street" are used to kaleidoscopic images and non-stop action, even a bit numbed by it all. But be patient -- and persistent. Just as important as their exposure to wonderful stories, beautifully presented, is the stretching they have had to do to adjust to quieter, subtler story-telling. While introducing these movies to today's children can be a challenge, it can be done, and it is worth the effort. These hints will help:
Parents need to get children interested before the movie begins. Tell them what the challenge or conflict in the movie is, but don't tell them how it turns out. "This is a movie about a girl who dreams of owning the fastest and most beautiful horse in the world." "This is a movie about a teacher who goes to a country far from home to teach the children of a king." Children love to watch the movies that were their parents' (and grandparents') favorites when they were their children's' ages.
Movies should not be background for whatever else they happen to be doing. If they wander off, bicker, or start to play with toys, turn it off, and tell them they can see it when they are ready to watch. Stretch their attention spans. Don't let them zone out between explosions and car chases; kids (and adults) have a tendency to have the TV on more to numb their thoughts than to engage them. Kids who grow used to putting their minds on hold this way may find more dangerous ways in the future. Make sure that they learn that watching is active exercise for their minds and spirits.
Make sure that every movie they see is one that you feel is worth the two hours it takes away from other things. Be aware that older movies are more slowly paced and some children will complain that black and white movies are boring. Just reply with a slight tone of regret that you are sorry to have made a mistake in thinking they were old enough for these movies, and you will try again next year, but that they can go to their rooms and read or draw while you watch it.
Challenge them to challenge the film, as well. Don't let it be background noise; if they stop watching, turn it off until later. Make sure they are thinking about what is happening. Ask them what they would do if they were in that situation. Ask why the character is behaving that way. Ask them what the people who made the movie wanted them to think about the characters, and how they could tell. How does the movie spring its surprises? How does it make you feel the suspense? This not only teaches them about narrative and point of view, it helps to teach them critical thinking as well.
No matter how bright and well-educated a child is, developmentally he or she is unlikely to be able to follow and understand and truly enjoy a full-length movie's plot, especially one set in another time or place, without some kind of introduction. This is another reason children like to watch the same movie over and over; each viewing allows them to understand it better.
Connect To Them
Pick a movie that relates to the child's interests or experiences in some way. If you have visited (or plan to visit) New York City, try On the Town, in which three sailors have only one day to see the city. If the child loves baseball, try The Pride of the Yankees or The Rookie. Many classic children's books have been made into movies. Children who have read The Secret Garden, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Diary of Anne Frank, Tuck Everlasting, or The Phantom Tollbooth, will especially enjoy the movie versions. A child who has learned about Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Malcolm X, Charles Lindbergh, or Helen Keller in school can see movies about their lives. Children also love movies that feature a child as a major character. Try Heidi, The Prince and the Pauper. Everyone watches A Christmas Carol, Miracle on 34th Street, and It's a Wonderful Life at Christmas, but other holidays have movies, too. For example: 1776 for the Fourth of July, The Long Walk Home or Boycott for Martin Luther King Day, I Remember Mama for Mother's Day, Life with Father or To Kill a Mockingbird for Father's Day, The Pajama Game or Norma Rae for Labor Day and Sergeant York or To Hell and Back for Memorial Day. If a child likes a particular genre (Westerns, pirates, detective stories, adventure), seek out movies in that category. Some children get attached to particular actors and will want to see all of their films. One movie can lead to a related one: The Wizard of Oz to The Wiz, West Side Story to Romeo and Juliet, Rudy to Knute Rockne, All American. Movies can teach a child about the careers or backgrounds of family members or friends. A child dealing with challenges like courage, loss, growing up, moving, confidence, or tolerance can find them easier to talk about (or even think about) after seeing them in a movie.
Older movies do have the advantage of telling their stories without the kind of language, violence, or nudity that led to the development of the rating system in the late 1960's. But the disadvantage is that they sometimes reflect assumptions or attitudes that are inconsistent with modern views, particularly about women and minorities. This creates an important opportunity for discussions with the children about those attitudes, about the history they were a part of, and the history since, and, most important, about being able to identify prejudice and its impact, to make sure it is eradicated.
Examine the ratings carefully and make sure the movie is suitable for children before you bring it home. Don't just go by the information on the box, which is designed to sell, not inform. One mother brought home Sirens for her son, not realizing that much of the movie is three naked women discussing sex very explicitly--the box made it look like something from Masterpiece Theatre. Many parents have allowed their children to see The Good Son or Ace Ventura: Pet Detective because they seemed like children's movies. If you are watching a movie with the children and decide it is not appropriate, turn it off. This has nothing to do with how smart or sophisticated they are for their ages; it has to do with your communicating to them your views on what is appropriate. Just because you show it to them, implies your endorsement. It is very tough, in this era, to protect children from inappropriate material, but they will appreciate every effort, if not now, later.
Sharing a movie with them shows the children that you are not seating them in front of the TV to give yourself a break; you are sharing something with them that you think is worthwhile. It gives you the chance to answer their questions, and to tell them what you think of characters or issues. Even an objectionable movie has some value if it prompts a discussion about the objectionable behavior. It gives you a chance to point out aspects of your past ("I used to dress like that!" "You see, all the airplanes had propellers!") or places you have been. It gives you a chance to talk about values without sounding as though you are preaching to them. And it gives you a chance to win the Grand National with National Velvet, save King Richard in The Adventures of Robin Hood, learn to communicate with Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, and climb the Alps with Heidi. You'll fall in love with the movies along with your children, and the movies will be a part of your shared experience and frame of reference that you will always treasure.
Excerpted from The Movie Mom's® Guide to Family Movies (iUniverse 2004).