Tackling the Tough Ones

Videos take on social issues

"What's wrong with poor people?" "This kid in my class is an Indian, but he's not a real Indian. Real Indians live in teepees." Kids pick up stereotypes by a subtle but powerful cultural osmosis. No matter how committed parents are to respecting the dignity of all people, to valuing diversity, to fighting racism and bias of all kinds--suddenly prejudice is there, in their own homes, coming from the mouths of their own children. How can parents tackle these issues without being preachy or boring?

Good movies can help parents to debunk stereotypes. Journey to Spirit Island, set in the Pacific Northwest, focuses on the conflict between the islanders' traditional religion and an attempt to develop tourism on a sacred burial site. The leading characters are a young Native American girl and her brother, ages about fifteen and ten, and their family. Two brothers from Chicago come for a summer visit, bringing with them stereotypes of Native Americans. The youngest visitor thinks Native Americans live in teepees and say "how." The Native American kids recognize the stereotypes--they've heard this nonsense before--and react with humor. All four young people show courage and strength in meeting and overcoming danger together.

Journey to Spirit Island is a good family video choice for several reasons. First, and perhaps most important, it is a good story, with action, suspense, conflict, and sympathetic characters. Second, the main characters are young people. Kids like to watch other kids, especially those a few years older than themselves. This movie is an especially good choice for preteens, since the oldest of the children in the movie are in their early teens.

Third, Native American culture is sensitively depicted. Although Grandmother is closer to the traditional religion than are her son or grandchildren, they are still respectful. Reference is made to the important, if often overlooked, fact that there are many different Native American nations and cultures. Finally, movie is one that parents and children can enjoy together. That's important. Watching movies together opens all kinds of conversational opportunities.

Sweet 15, a Wonderworks production, is another great family movie. Its star, Marta, is a teenage girl from a Mexican American family in Los Angeles. She shares the prejudice of many of her classmates against recent immigrants and people who do not speak English, and tells her Mexican-born parents that she is American, not Mexican. Nonetheless, she wants a quinceañera, the traditional Mexican coming-of-age celebration, for her fifteenth birthday.

As Marta grows up and tests her independence, her father tries to set strict rules, creating conflicts familiar to all parents and adolescents. Watching Sweet 15, viewers learn about Mexican American culture. Sweet 15 also shows the conflicts that immigrants face in valuing their own culture while living in a new country. Parents and children can empathize with the family love and battles common to all cultures.

Even very young children can enjoy attractive, accurate images of diverse cultures presented in video. In The Wonderful Tower of Watts, Reading Rainbow's Levar Burton introduces preschool viewers to an eccentric Italian man who builds a marvelous work of art in his backyard. From the title story to interactions with children living in Watts, Burton shows to the positive sides of this Los Angeles neighborhood.

Another Reading Rainbow video, Legend of the Indian Paintbrush, introduces both a Native American folk story and a story about a contemporary Native American community and Native American pottery-making. Parents could help children take the story one step further by using clay or play-dough to make pottery.

An old favorite of mine, An American Tale, was just re-released on video in 1998. This tale of Russian immigrant mice is appealing to young children and can give families a springboard for discussion of immigration, prejudice, and poverty.

Schlessinger Media produces a range of videos celebrating diverse cultures and religions. African American Heritage introduces viewers to the rich languages, music, and geography of Africa. With songs and stories, the fast-paced video moves from a tasting adventure at an African food market to instructions for making African adinkra cloth designs. Children can follow along with a traditional folksongs and learn to count to ten in the Moré language and to speak a few words in the Yoruba language.

Other selections in the Schlessinger's American Cultures for Children series include Arab American, Central American, Chinese American, Irish American, Japanese American, Jewish American, Korean American, Mexican American, Native American, Puerto Rican Heritage, and Vietnamese American. Schlessinger's Holidays for Children series focuses on sixteen holidays, ranging from St. Patrick's Day to Ramadan. The Schlessinger series are aimed at children from kindergarten through fourth grade, but older and younger viewers will also enjoy them.

Videos can help parents tackle the tough issues of poverty and homelessness. Fly Away Home, a great book by Eve Bunting, is also the featured story of the Reading Rainbow video of the same name. LeVar Burton moves on from the touching title story of a homeless boy and his father to interview homeless children in a family that is finally finding their own home. Ending on a positive note that encourages children to get involved in their communities and in helping people, Burton interviews children who volunteer in Common Cents and City Harvest projects.

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