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Authors of: What Kids REALLY Want to Ask Interview
by Tony Farinella

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The Book

The Book
Rhonda A. Richardson, PhD and Margaret Pevec, MA are co-authors of "What Kids REALLY Want to Ask: Using Movies to Start Meaningful Conversations (A Guidebook for Parents and Children ages 10-14). I recently interviewed them to promote their book, which examines how movies can lead to worthwhile conversations with your children. The book is currently available at Amazon.com and finer book stores everywhere. If you're having trouble talking to your child, this is the book for you. You'll learn how certain movies can lead to your child opening up about certain subjects.

Tony: Was there a specific incident or situation that inspired you to write this book?

Rhonda: As an academic specializing in adolescence and parenting, I read a lot of scientific studies about parent-adolescent relationships. I have been struck by the repeated findings that connectedness to parents is one of the strongest predictors of positive outcomes for kids, ranging from academics to social behavior to psychological well-being. At the same time, large-scale national surveys by the Search Institute conclude that only about 1 out of 4 young people report that their parents are approachable and available when they want to talk. I teach a course on Early Adolescence for middle school teachers and I have repeatedly heard from them stories of disconnection between middle school students and their parents. So my inspiration for this project was a desire to do something to help close this gap and bring parents and middle schoolers closer together.

Tony: What surprised you the most about some of their responses?

Rhonda: Each student answered the following query: "If you could ask your mom or dad one question and know you would get an honest answer, what question would you ask?" What surprised me the most was that the majority of the responses were thoughtful and sincere; the kids expressed a genuine desire to talk with their parents, especially about relationships in the family. I think most parents would be surprised that the questions on the minds of middle schoolers are often not what a parent would expect.

Margaret: I was touched by their willingness to answer the research question thoughtfully and honestly. Most of their questions were serious and considered. Some of them were poignant. Very few were "blow off" questions.. The responses from kids reminded me again that when we respectfully ask young people for input, they are happy to oblige and they have valuable and important things to tell adults.

Tony: Do you think it's a common misconception that kids won't talk to their parents? It seems like the kids are willing to talk. Do you think parents sometimes have the wrong approach?

Rhonda: Yes, I do. Parents often assume that as their kids approach the teen years they're only interested in their friends and no longer want to spend time with or converse with their parents. In response to that assumption, I believe many parents begin to back away from trying to have meaningful conversations with their kids. And when they do talk to their kids it often takes the form of a one-sided lecture about topics the parents think are important to address -- topics such as saying no to drugs and alcohol, avoiding early sexual activity, and the importance of doing well in school. I think if parents would ask their kids what they want to talk about, and listen to what their kids have to say without being judgmental, deeper connections between parents and kids would occur. Our book is based on this premise and is a guidebook for parents and children ages 10-14 to get the conversations going.

Margaret: I believe humans are naturally willing and able to communicate with each other and that lots of things can get in the way of that. If communication isn't happening between a parent and a child, the parent has created an atmosphere where open communication is not an option for the child. The child has learned that asking any question or discussing any topic is not safe for whatever reason. I did research with high school students asking the same question Rhonda used with middle schoolers in her research for our book. But, I followed up with another: "What stops you from asking this question?" There were six main categories of reasons teens didn't want to ask their question. Three had to do with the parent responding negatively, (the parent would be dishonest or dismissive, the parent would get mad or asking the question would start a fight, or the parent would make assumptions about the teenager). It is up to the parent to create a context in which all topics of conversation are open to discussion. If this is the goal, the parent will be more successful if he or she concentrates on listening carefully and monitoring his or her strongly held beliefs, opinions and attitudes so as not to overwhelm the child's willingness to communicate.

Tony: What do you think is so unique and important about the middle years of development for kids?

Margaret: A lot of things are hitting kids all at once during the middle school years. They're often going from a small, local school to a larger one where the social pressures suddenly become more intense. New emotions and body sensations due to puberty add stress. At the same time, they are developing critical thinking skills due to brain development. Kids at this age are exploring their individual identity and uniqueness in new ways. They are truly undergoing a heroes journey as Joseph Campbell once said. It's an awesome time. I think if adults would spend time getting in touch with their own "inner" teen, they would fare much better parenting a teen. In the book we ask parents to think back to their younger years and reflect on how things were for them and how they wished their parents had been and share that information with their child. Our book is about encouraging parents to transition from "all knowing god" to trusted confidant and advisor before their kids decide they have nothing of value to share.

Rhonda: These are years of incredible physical, cognitive and social change for kids. The choices kids make and the experiences they have during these years will shape the course of their development through adolescence and

into adulthood, and will greatly affect the kind of people they become.

Tony: Did you draw on your own experiences with your own kids to write this book?

Rhonda: In writing this book one of my purposes was to share with other parents some of the strategies I have found helpful for establishing meaningful, close relationships with my own kids, who are now ages 14 and 19. Many of the talking points for parents and kids are based on the kinds of conversations I would have with my own kids after watching these movies.

Margaret: I definitely did. I was a single mom of four when my kids were teenagers. I did just about everything wrong a parent can do. I think my kids (now 26 through 34) will laugh if they read the book! My experience taught me what not to do and that effective parenting is the hardest job there is. It humbled me. My education taught me what works in theory, and in theory our ideas are sound. But the complexity of parenting is astounding. Parents are not only dealing with developing humans, but trying to manage their own development, complete with the emotional baggage of 30-some or 40-some years. There is a common notion that human development is finished somewhere in the 20's. But my personal experience is that I am still changing and growing; that has never stopped.

That's why I think exposing adultism (the oppression of young people based solely on age) is so important. Adults need to learn to respect young people across the board, without question, every time. That is why our book is so important. Rhonda went right to kids and asked an open-ended question: "If you could ask your mom or your dad one question and know you would get an honest answer, what question would you ask?" This is not common in research with young people, but lately there have been several mainstream books featuring the authentic voices of teens. I think we need more of those books.

Tony: What about the art of cinema inspired you to put movies in your book?

Rhonda: Movie-watching can provide a fun, non-threatening context for bringing up sensitive subjects that can be difficult to talk about. Plus, movie watching is one of kids' favorite pastimes. Most parents would probably find it much easier to ask a 12-year-old to watch a movie than to ask them to sit down and have a conversation about friendship or family difficulties. We found that many of the topics on the minds of middle schoolers are reflected in movies, so in our book we recommend particular movies to serve as a hook to get conversations started.

Margaret: We were really trying to find a way to help parents and kids have fun with these deeper topics of conversation exposed in Rhonda's research.. We thought enjoying movies together was still something parents and middlers would do and that using a movie as a jumping off point for the questions kids had was a way to make it non-threatening. The book is packed full of great information that families can use in creative ways. The purpose is not to watch and discuss the movies; the purpose is to deepen conversations about the questions kids have; and provide a guidebook to help parents learn and practice being open and up front about personal things that are important to their middlers. Parents can use movies as the vehicle for these deeper conversations; but even if they don't watch the movies, the background information and questions based on the movies, plus the appendix of 450 questions from the research

Tony: Do you think modern movies get blasted for having too much sex and violence?

Rhonda: There's no doubt that a lot of modern movies do contain a lot of sex and violence. But there are also many movies that don't feature these things and have important messages for families. We chose some of our favorites for this book.

Margaret: Our book is not about movies. It is about parent/child communication. Of course there are many, many wonderful movies, 14 of which are in our book, that the whole family can watch and enjoy. And there are many movies that parents would probably rather their child did not see. We have so much choice! That's why we wrote extensive cautions for each movie in our book, so a parent would know exactly what to expect and could hold some movies until a child was ready. For example, the movie for Chapter 12 is "Pay It Forward." It deals with a number of hard issues, including alcoholism, homelessness, hopelessness, murder, severe child abuse, etc. It offers an opportunity for a parent to have an in-depth discussion of those issues with their child. Our book gives parents ideas about how to approach such a movie and such difficult topics with their child.

Tony: Do you think it's wise to hide certain movies or themes from kids?

Margaret: I think movies can be great teaching tools, especially if conversations follow the movie so the child isn't left to their own thoughts and images. Children are going to see movies whether their parents approve or not. A parent can't always be there to make those decisions.

Rhonda: I think parents should consider the maturity of their child as well as their own moral values when making decisions about what topics or themes to expose kids to. The MPAA ratings can be a helpful guideline. Parental involvement is critical. Watching the movies with their kids and then discussing them afterwards is certainly a helpful approach. Our book provides guidelines for parents to do this.

Tony: Did your parents ever use movies to help you talk and ask questions?

Margaret: In my family (single mom, 2 older brothers) we went to movies but I don't remember talking about them. In fact, I don't recall ever having any in-depth conversations with my mother when I was young. It just wasn't something working class parents did with their children back in the 50's and 60's. Children were meant to be seen and not heard. There wasn't the consciousness then about parenting that there is now. One movie I'll never forget was "Imitation of Life." It made a huge impression on me because it was about a young black woman who betrayed her mother by passing as white. But all my thoughts and feelings about that movie were kept inside. I was also taken to see Dracula when I

was quite young and couldn't sleep without a light on for years afterwards!

Rhonda: I grew up in the pre-VCR era so we didn't watch a lot of movies as a family, but I do remember watching wholesome family TV programs such as Lassie and Flipper and having conversations with my parents afterwards.

Tony: How important was it for you to give ideas without becoming preachy to parents?

Rhonda: The goal of the book is to get parents and kids talking, but not to dictate what parents should say to their kids or what kids should say to their parents. We want both parents and kids to share their personal perspectives with one another. We offer questions as prompts to get the conversation going, but there are no right or wrong answers to any of these questions.

Margaret: Rhonda and I didn't discuss the tone of our book, and I hope it doesn't come across as preachy, because that would not be a reflection of who we are. I don't think there is ever "one right way" to do anything, but especially in child rearing. Each individual parent and child has their own dynamic that has already been established. The parent is always dealing with their own baggage from the past, the child is struggling to be an individual. I hope our book conveys the message that kids are interested in inter-family relationships and the ideas we present might be helpful for starting meaningful conversations.

Some of the ideas in our book are quite progressive. Sharing one's own life and experiences with one's preteen; creating a non-judgmental atmosphere of openness; consciously thinking through how to discuss certain sensitive topics (why you got divorced, for example) are difficult for anyone. This is complicated, human stuff, the stuff that makes like meaningful. Nothing is more meaningful than having close, open, honest relationships within the family.

Tony: Do you think young teens are able to watch horror films and understand it's just a movie?

Rhonda: Cognitively, most young teens are capable of distinguishing between fantasy and reality, but some kids may find the imagery in horror films frightening. I think it's a matter of personal preference. None of the films in our book are horror films. That genre of film is not relevant to the topics identified in my research as what kids want to discuss with their parents. I don't think horror films are appropriate for igniting meaningful conversations between parents and children

Margaret: That certainly depends on the individual child and I think the parent is the best judge of whether their child can watch horror films and not be freaked out. I hate horror films myself and I never took my children to see them when I was still making those decisions for them.

Tony: Do you think Hollywood creates enough movies that both kids and adults can watch together?

Margaret: I'm not much of a movie buff. I don't pay attention to the new films coming out unless they get my attention through a friend, but I think there are plenty of films for families. Especially with services like NetFlix, getting a hold of current movies as well as the whole wealth of older films is so easy. I'm delighted with the surge in documentaries and independent films like Little Miss Sunshine, that are getting greater attention, probably due to the many film festivals all over the country and the world. We have nearly unlimited choices. There are plenty of appropriate films for families.

Rhonda: I am not a huge movie buff, so am not well-informed about everything coming out of Hollywood. But my impression is that the majority of movies coming out of Hollywood are not films that kids and adults can watch together as a basis for starting meaningful conversations about issues on the minds of young people. Some of the films in our book are independent films.

Tony: Are you surprised that it has taken so long for a book like yours to be released?

Margaret: Our book is about parent/preteen communication, and of course there are a number of excellent books out about that. If you're referring in your question to books that help families use movies for deeper communication, I think we are one of the first. When we did the research for our book proposal, there was only one that came close, but it was about discussing movies from a Christian perspective. Most books about movies are simply guides. Our book is much more than that. Each chapter provides, first and foremost, a list of verbatim questions about the topic that preteens wanted to ask a parent. That is followed by extensive background information about the topic area and why it might be of interest to a middler. Then we give a synopsis of the movie, detailed cautions for parents to help them decide whether it is suitable for their young person and great talking points for both the parent and the child to start a personal conversation about the topic using the movie as a jumping off point. It is truly unique, is based on solid research about what kids want to ask their parents and the fourteen movies are terrific family fare.

Rhonda: Using movies as a launching pad for meaningful conversations between parents and kids is not a new idea, but until now there has been no guidebook available for parents to assist them in this activity.

Tony: What's the best part about teaching?

Margaret: I enjoy the challenge of presenting information in a way that is interesting and engaging to students.

Rhonda: Teaching gives me the opportunity to help future human service professionals and future middle school teachers find a passion for making a difference in the lives of adolescents.

Rhonda A. Richardson, PhD (Human Development and Family Studies) is an Associate Professor in the College of Education, Health and Human Services at Kent State University. She is also a Certified Family Life Educator. She and her husband live in Kent, OH, and have two daughters.

Margaret Pevec, MA (Family Life Education) works as an educator and a life coach with parents of teenagers to help smooth out the rough spots, discover common values, and find the fulfillment that comes from deep connection. She is the mother of five young adult children and lives in Boulder, CO.

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Tony Farinella
Tony is an Oak Lawn, IL based film reviewer and columnist looking to have fun and share his unique views on film with everyone. Tony also has an unhealthy obsession with Vanessa Lengies, but that is neither here nor there.

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