Use Pause to Reflect

My family was rooted to their spots like trees. Was this the same group of people I had just spent eight grueling, bickering hours traveling with? Wasn’t it everything the seat belts could do to contain those squirming bodies? Yet here they stood frozen, just inside the hotel room with the door still wide open, looking like something out of a low budget sci-fi film. One child must have been removing his jacket, because it now hangs limply from his arm. Another is standing on one foot while removing the shoe from the other. All of them are staring at the flickering TV screen. How can one push of that magic ON button mesmerize even my wife? "Hey you guys… isn’t anyone going to help me carry in the rest of the suitcases?" The resounding "SHHHHHH!" was so loud I thought the car I left out in the parking lot had blown a tire.

As funny as it sounds, I’ll bet my kin are not the only ones who can get so lost in television or movies that they become oblivious to outside distractions. In fact the whole viewing experience can be so engrossing that most families have an unwritten understanding that no one talks when a program is running. And heaven help the fool who messes with the remote control!

So what happens if a child, or even an adult (my wife is convinced I’m plot impaired) has questions or concerns about what they are watching? What are parents to do if they suspect their child may be too hypnotized to want to talk about the complicated information they have been exposed to? (Have you ever noticed how they are never too scared during the movie to want to turn it off, but as soon as it is over they are too scared to get to sleep?)

If you have ever tried to ask anything of the person next to you during a movie at the theater, you’ll know there are times when you shouldn’t start a discussion. However, if your family watches movies or television programs together at home, it may be time to change the old attitude of, "If I stop to talk I might miss something important" to, "If I don’t stop to talk I might miss something important."

Thanks to the invention of VCR and DVD players, you can employ the most powerful button of all—Pause. By freezing time (so to speak) you can address those queries, and turn ordinary entertainment into educational and enlightening moments. It might also prove that the person with the remote control is not a fool after all.

Here are some things you can try as you pause to reflect:

What will happen next?

A fun way to diffuse tension and allow children to think about what they’re watching is to hit the pause button at the pinnacle of a tense moment, then ask the simple question "What will happen next?" (If you don’t explain the rationale of this game first, your answer may be the couch pillows and popcorn you’re about to be bombarded with.)

While you may be unpopular at first, this frozen moment will allow you to identify the various literary traps screenwriters set to capture their audience. As most movies use tried (and tired) formulas, these cliffhangers will be familiar to parents with years of viewing experience, even if they seem fresh to your children.

"What will happen next" is especially useful in the opening moments of a typical children’s movie (such as The Land Before Time, The Jungle Book and countless others) where the young hero loses his parents to some unforeseen calamity, and is left alone to find his own way to the closing credits.

You’ll be amazed at how quickly your children learn that heroes are rarely killed, and that most protagonists have to face a series of increasingly difficult obstacles. After a little practice, they’ll positively beam when they are able to correctly predict the outcome.

What decision would you make?

Whenever you watch a movie, television show, or read a book, you are at the mercy of the writer. Forging a chain of events that inevitably leads to a major dilemma, the audience has to accept whatever course of action the story’s creator decides his character will choose. If you hit the pause button at that crucial moment, you can suspend the writer’s designs long enough to ask, "What decision would you make"?

Especially helpful when watching a film where the protagonist makes choices you would prefer your children not to emulate, this method allows you to explore your own reactions to some of these typical scenarios:

Robin Hood Motives: A hero makes a dishonest decision in hopes of improving the lives of others (The recent Gone in 60 Seconds is a fine example of this flawed logic). Pause: Are there any other alternatives that would still allow him to be a hero without breaking the law?

Shoot First, Ask Later: It’s easy to solve complex problems in movies… just pull out your gun (typical of most action adventure films like The 6th Day, XXX or National Security). Pause: Is this drastic measure the best or only solution to the crisis? Has the hero exhausted all his other options? Did anyone try negotiating or compromising to find an answer? How important is this battle? What would happen if the hero just walked away? Would you respond as the character did, given the same circumstances? What would happen in the real world if you used this approach?

Love = Sex: Often characters who fall in love immediately engage in a sexual relationship. The transition between love and sex can happen so seamlessly that it is difficult to tell the two apart. (This happens in most romances and teen flics. See Autumn in New York or Center Stage for case in point. Even the otherwise wonderful My Big Fat Greek Wedding slips into this formula ) Pause: Are love and sex inseparable or did the couple make a decision? Is this an appropriate response to their feelings? Are they married or do they have any intentions toward marriage? What could the consequences of this act bring? Will those consequences be included in the movie?

Not only will this provide an opportunity for your family to discuss what your values and standards are, it will also increase your children’s critical and evaluative skills. Besides, my kids have come up with some better endings than the authors did. (Like, why didn’t The Little Mermaid’s father turn Prince Eric into a “merman” instead?)

Why are they using that music / lighting / camera angle?

All filmmakers use a variety of techniques to manipulate the emotions of their audience. (Citizen Kane is a classic example of these art forms.) Especially popular in children’s movies are the inclusions of scary music, moody lighting, or camera angles that make a character appear small and vulnerable compared to their towering enemy. (There is a wonderful scene in Warner Brother’s The Little Princess where the balance of power shifts between the school headmistress and young Sarah, that is communicated entirely through the use of high and low camera placement.)

Pausing the action for a moment can give young minds a chance to understand what is really making them scared, happy, sad, or angry. Help your children to recognize these devices by asking them what would happen if happy music was playing here, or how they would feel if the same scene took place on a bright sunny day. Look for camera moves, costumes, weather conditions, geographical settings, or any other elements that are contributing to the overall mood. (If you have a copy of Toy Story II in your home, take time to notice how the sun goes behind a cloud dimming the bright colors in Andy’s room the moment Woody’s arm is torn.)

Understanding production techniques will make your child feel in control of their responses to on-screen events—and their intelligent prattle should impress (or annoy) Grandma and Grandpa.

Time to push play and begin!

Old habits are hard to break, so you should expect some resistance the first few times you try these exercises—usually from older children. Disconnecting can be as painful as withdrawal. To prevent your remote control from being permanently hijacked, warn your family of your intentions to interrupt before they begin watching—and maybe start with a movie everyone is familiar with.

One final warning: Your children may turn the tables on you. Although it may require some patience on your part to listen to what they think and see beyond the picture screen, remember—that’s what the pause button is for. But if it is help with the luggage you’re after, you may have to exercise the ultimate power of OFF.

More details about the movies mentioned in this post…