Film School

Screen time for kids

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

I see you, parents.

Your kids can’t go to school. They can’t play with friends. All those activities you signed them up for are curtailed, postponed or just plain cancelled.

Sure, many of your offspring are plunging into the world of online learning—huge shout out to the teachers making the plunge right along with them—but that doesn’t change the fact that your kids are home. Every minute of every day. All of the time.

I’ve been impressed by the extent to which the parents I know have been managing these unusual circumstances and stressful time in history. You’re using it to teach your children valuable life skills, helping them to design innovative forms of entertainment with the resources you have at hand and assisting them in keeping in touch with their friends and extended family through technology—all while managing their expectations and mitigating their fears as best you can.

And because the nature of parenthood is designed to make you feel guilty and as though you’re constantly underachieving, I just want you to know that you’re doing a remarkable job. Getting through the day is hard work right now, and you’re doing considerably more than just making it from wakeup to bedtime.

That said, you deserve a break. As such, there’s not a thing wrong with turning on a movie for your kids while you pour yourself a glass of something and tune out for a bit. Since screen time is such a fraught issue for every parent I know, I’ve got some suggestions for films that will teach your kids a thing or two while they think they’re being entertained.

It was the inimitable Fred Rogers who said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” Never has that been truer than under our current circumstances. Read your children the quote and then let them learn about the extraordinary life of the man who said those words from the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor. In a loud, scary world, Rogers embodied gentleness, acceptance and quiet courage. Nearly every adult I know benefitted from his teachings when we were young. There’s no time like the present to pass those lessons on.

Perhaps your squirrely offspring could use a double feature, in which case I suggest the one-two punch of science and innovation under pressure embodied by Hidden Figures and Apollo 13. From the former, they’ll learn the largely unknown—at least until the 2016 hit film, that is—story of the black female mathematicians who worked for NASA and were instrumental in launching astronaut John Glenn into orbit during the Space Race of the 1960s, despite facing segregation and the massive societal obstacles of racism and sexism. From there, they can watch Ron Howard’s epic about the space program back when it was firing on all cylinders and sending men to the moon in a show of American exceptionalism—at least until something went terribly wrong, that is, during the Apollo 13 mission. Your kids can witness the frantic efforts and incredible ingenuity shown by NASA engineers and the mission’s astronauts, led by Tom Hanks as commander Jim Lovell, as well as the moment when Hanks utters the iconic line, “Houston, we have a problem.”

Because I always have to put a plug in for a classic movie—I learned to love black-and-white films as a child, and if I had kids, would force them on my children in the same way my mom forced them on me—it’s my duty to offer an oldie but a goodie, in this case, To Kill a Mockingbird. One of the reasons the film adaptation of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel translates so well to younger folks is that it’s told via the viewpoint of its hugely likeable protagonist, Scout Finch. The plot itself is a hard one, dealing with complicated issues of racism and rape in 1930s small-town Alabama, but thanks to Gregory Peck as lawyer (and Scout’s father) Atticus Finch, it’s ultimately a story of fair treatment, moral fortitude and turning the other cheek. Peck won a Best Actor award for his portrayal and Atticus Finch has been called the greatest film hero of the 20th century. If your kids haven’t yet read the novel in school, they certainly will.

Lastly, there exist those movies that are ostensibly for kids, but that I would never inflict on them and would caution all parents away from. Really I’m just talking about one film: Where the Red Fern Grows. I still carry with me the scars inflicted by both the movie and the book it’s based on. I’m not saying Where the Red Fern Grows is responsible for all of the therapy I’ve sought, I’m merely letting you know it did come up in a session or two.

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