Nancy Churnin: Beyond the gross matter, some real gems of morality

Monday, June 12th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


A myriad of studies warns us about the bad messages Hollywood sends our kids - such as the recent Harvard University report about violence in G-rated animated films.

Family therapist Michael Gurian shares these concerns. "Most of what we see is harmful," he says.

But the best-selling author of The Wonder of Boys, The Good Son and A Fine Young Man also urges us to remember that there are good apples in that rotten old barrel.

And in his latest book, What Stories Does My Son Need?,he finds 100 movies and 100 books that he contends can stimulate a child's moral development.

"If every boy saw every one of these movies and read every one of these books, I think he would be a person of higher character," he says from his office in Spokane, Wash. "Of course, we want to make sure we watch these movies together as a family. If it's an older child reading a book, let's take him out for a cup of coffee and have a discussion with him."

Don't expect the selections to be free of violence. After all, Mr. Gurian points out, few would dispute that the Bible is a moral book, and it has its share of injury, betrayal and death.

If there had been time before the book had gone to print, he says he would have included 1999's Cider House Rules on the list because of the moral issues it raises, but as appropriate only for high-schoolers.

As it is, The Matrix makes the cut, along with The Lion King, Boyz N the Hood, Rocky, Rudy, Titanic and Miracle on 34th Street.

He divides movies and books into groupings for preschool and kindergarten; lower elementary grades (1-3); upper elementary grades (4-6); middle school; or high school.

A synopsis of each film and book, focusing on why Mr. Gurian feels it builds character, is included, along with "Discussion Starters."

For Bambi, he suggests questions such as: "In what ways is Bambi like you? At the end of the story, who is Bambi most like? What scares Bambi? Does the same thing scare you sometimes?"

For Saving Private Ryan, he asks: "How is this a story about living a worthy and good life? Why is war ever necessary - does this film help answer that question? Are you living a worthwhile life?"

Mr. Gurian says most of these selections would be "fine for girls, too" - but he focused on boys because he feels they are particularly vulnerable to confusing messages of what it is to be a man. He says it's difficult for boys to learn compassion and self-restraint when they see the opposite on-screen.

He developed a specialty about writing about boys for personal reasons.

"A lot of my stuff has been about wanting to understand myself better and helping the next generation bring up boys better."

Movies and books were key factors in his own moral development, he says.

He still remembers the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird as a pivotal experience in his adolescence.

"What got me was the Gregory Peck character. I think it developed my soul to watch him go beyond his peer group and what other people want, to show that you can have an identity that can survive abandonment and rejection to become a man of character.

"I remember this scene where he shoots a rabid dog walking down the street because a man has to do what he has to do to protect those around him, even when it means causing hurt. I remember being scared of Boo Radley, and how taken aback I was at the end, realizing he wasn't really scary."

Mr. Gurian has helped focus attention on boys' development with his series of books focusing on boys' unique moral and emotional challenges and needs.

In The Good Son, he outlines what he calls 10 "moral competencies": decency, fairness, empathy, self-sacrifice, respect, loyalty, service, responsibility, honesty and honor."

In A Fine Young Man, he points to the dangers of overlooking a boy's special needs:

"I have come to understand that unless the natural fire inside a boy is carefully refined by parents, mentors and educators, the physical, emotional, moral, spiritual and social lives of all our young males will be consumed by flames. Some of these flames we'll see quite clearly in adolescent drug abuse, alcohol abuse, criminal behavior, juvenile death, steroid use, media addiction, learning disabilities, brain disorders and obsession with girls."

It's not a leap to see the school shootings by young boys around the country as part of this pattern.

"Others . . . will show up during a man's midlife, when he is more harshly consumed by flames long hidden."

Ironically, after Mr. Gurian married, the specialist on boys didn't have any. He has two daughters. Which has led to a new development in his career: He's taken on a contract to write The Wonder of Girls.

He says you can probably expect What Stories Does My Daughter Need? sometime in the near future, too.