NEW YORK (AP)--Somehow, some way, children learn about sex, drugs, violence, divorce and death - whether their parents like it or not.So parents who want to give these life lessons before their kids' playground pals do are always searching for opportune times to have the ``big talks.'' But what if those times never come?Help for parents may have arrived from a seemingly unlikely source: Hollywood movies.``Movies are a way to have a serious discussion with your kids without having the serious discussion,'' said Ronald Madison, a psychologist and co-author of ``Talking Pictures: A Parent's Guide to Using Movies to Discuss Ethics, Values, and Everyday Problems With Children'' (Running Press).The new book is a guide to films' sensitive subjects and age appropriateness.Many of the movies on the early-childhood list, for 3- to 7-year-olds, are expected, such as ``The Little Engine That Could'' to teach about accomplishment, and ``Toy Story'' about friendship.Some of the suggested films for teen-agers, however, might seem racy for a young audience: ``The Ice Storm'' identified as a lesson in family life, also examines teen sexuality, marital infidelity and even spouse-swapping, and the violence-filled ``Boyz N the Hood'' is recommended for its coming-of-age story.``Watching these films alone might be detrimental to children, but watching them together as a family might open up the lines of communication,'' said Corey Schmidt, a 28-year-old writer who collaborated with Madison. ``Kids are going to watch these movies anyway. The best way to safeguard against immoral behavior is to talk about it.''For instance, Thomas Schumacker, president of Walt Disney Feature Animation, said ``Pinocchio'' (hailed in ``Talking Pictures'' as a lesson in identity and accomplishments) is often criticized because the lead character is not ``a good little boy.'' That's the point.``The story IS about a bad boy - a boy who misbehaves - and then learns from it,'' Schumacker said.The same is true of ``Beauty and the Beast,'' in which children learn more from the Beast, who had to right a wrong, than from Belle, the heroine.
``Storytelling has always been done to get people to talk about it,'' said Schumacker. Using fictional cartoon characters can make it easier for children to relate and for parents to approach the subject.The idea for ``Talking Pictures'' came from the New York-based Schmidt, who spent a lot of her own childhood watching movies with her divorced dad. ``Movies were a common ground. It gave us an activity because sometimes a teen-age girl and a single dad don't have much to relate to.''The list includes films from her own experience, as well as ones that Madison has used in private practice and at Brookfield Academy, a private school in Cherry Hill, N.J., for special-needs students. Others come from an informal poll the authors conducted with parents, children, video-store workers and others.Madison, who lives in Medford, N.J., and his 8-year-old twins have watched all the age-appropriate films in the book, including ``Mr. Mom'' and ``Sounder'' for their family-life lessons. It was his 20-year-old son who suggested ``Pi,'' a film about a math genius who suffers physical effects from either insanity or stress.``Talking Pictures'' is intended as an aid to parents and not as a substitute for parenting.Parents first need to assess their child's ability and readiness to discuss a difficult subject, Schmidt said. While videos featuring the Berenstain Bears are safe ground for almost any child, ``The Lion King'' can spark many emotions - and the child might not be ready for that.``We've warned parents that they need to know their own kids' maturity levels, hot spots and sensitivities,'' said Schmidt.``The Breakfast Club'' is a good starting point for young teens, because it deals with issues they have probably encountered already, such as peer pressure and social cliques, the authors said. There is a marijuana-smoking scene, Schmidt noted, but it's short and not a big plot point, so it makes for a good segue for an offhand comment or open-ended question to get youngsters talking.
The fact that ``The Breakfast Club'' is almost two decades old, or ``Rebel Without a Cause'' was made in 1955, isn't lost on Madison, who uses both films in schools for crisis counseling. ``These movies are still relevant. ... A kid can see an issue isn't new or unique to them. Fighting with parents and peer pressure are timeless issues.''