"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:

Entice Them
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.

Engage Them
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.

Challenge Them
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.

Prepare Them
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.