Tackling the Tough Ones

"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.  

Honest videos present problems without sugar-coating or evading the pain caused by poverty and prejudice. Sounder, one of the all-time movie greats, tells the story of an African American family living in the rural South in the mid-20th century. When the father is jailed, the mother quietly and courageously keeps the family together, with consistent and important help from her children. The face of rural poverty is shown with nitty-gritty realism: hunger, torn clothes, bare feet, and hard work. Racism is shown just as clearly, as is the family's courage in struggling against injustice, and their joy in one another.

Adolescents and parents may find common ground in docu-dramas and documentaries available in video rental outlets. Roots is based on a book by Alex Haley, who traces his own family roots from 20th century United States back to Africa. The richness of African culture, the cruelty of slavery, and the strength of African American families are evident in this powerful drama. When Roots was broadcast as a television series in 1987, it drew wide audiences and inspired a surge of interest in family histories among people of all ethnic backgrounds.

Shoah uses actual film footage from the 1940s and interviews with Holocaust survivors to tell the story of the Nazi genocide of the Jewish people. People who lived near the death camps are interviewed as well. Shoah was made so that no one could deny the reality of the Holocaust.

Romero is the true story of the life and death of El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero, assassinated in 1980 by his country's army death squads. During his last years, Archbishop Romero moved from preaching endurance of poverty as a way to heaven to demanding justice and ordering soldiers to stop killing their fellow citizens.

Movies can teach without preaching, just by presenting positive portrayals of people from diverse backgrounds. In Charley, a mentally handicapped man shows great gentleness, kindness, and compassion. The Awakening presents a sympathetic portrait of people suffering from apparently incurable mental illness. The stunning heroine of Children of a Lesser God inspires respect and admiration for deaf culture and people. While this trio of movies is more appropriate for older children, Sign Me a Story introduces younger children to sign language through familiar fairy tales, simultaneously signed and spoken by Sesame Street favorite Linda Bove.

Movies and videos don't take the place of parents, but they open doors to discussion. Watch them as a family. Then talk. In the movies and in the conversations, you have an opportunity to communicate your family's values. If you need a little help, here are a few starter questions for after-movie discussions:

What character was your favorite? Why? Did any part of the movie make you uncomfortable? If you had to choose to be one person in this movie, which one would you be? Why?

Which character would you least like to be? What did you think was the most true-to-life scene? Why? What did you think was the least realistic scene? Why? If you could add one thing to the movie's ending, or change one thing, what would it be?

Like good literature, videos can communicate truths about human experience. As viewers, we share the deep emotions, the tears and laughter, of film characters. Through the magic carpet of movies, your family can visit India, China and Kenya, Los Angeles and New York, small towns in Mississippi and farms in Kansas. The same magic carpet can introduce your family to people of varied ethnic groups and cultures, to grandparents and teenagers, to legendary heroes and ordinary families. We stretch beyond our own experience, learning to empathize with the people we meet.


Renting or buying these videos:

Check with your local video store to see what titles are available, and recommend that they buy specific titles that you think children will enjoy.

Schlessinger Media produces the Holidays for Children and American Cultures for Children series. Each video runs 25 minutes; $29.95. Call (800) 843-3620 for catalog and to order videos.

Great Plains National/WNED-TV produces Reading Rainbow. (800) 228-4630. Each video runs 30 minutes, $23.95 (price for home use only). Call and get a catalog, which includes an order form for books featured in the series, as well as a description of each video. In addition to the videos mentioned in this article, check out Borreguita and the Coyote, Uncle Jed's Barber Shop, The Gift of the Sacred Dog, and The Lotus Seed.  

To order the Wonderworks Family Movie series, aimed at middle-school and older children, call (800) 654-1686. Priced from $14.95-$19.95. Videos focusing on the African American experience include And the Children Shall Lead, Brother Future, and You Must Remember This. Spirit Rider tells a story of a modern Indian youth traveling between city and reservation life, and both Sweet 15 and Maricela tell stories of Latin American immigrants.


Mary C. Turck is a St. Paul freelancer. This is her first contribution to Minnesota Parent.

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