Until recently, my wife and I had allowed our boys to watch zero television – i.e. no TV programs, DVDs, etc.
Most of you out there probably regard the idea of zero television as ridiculous.
Actually, I agree. You’re right.
Television is an absolutely amazing communications medium. It’s capacity to inform, to teach, and to entertain is awesome. I, for one, would hate to turn back the clock sixty-plus years to a time when we had no television.
However, the fact that many (most?) parents do television soooo wrong has caused many of us concerned parents to over-react. According to Nielsen statistics, children aged 2-5 watch over three hours of television per day. The television viewing numbers hold fairly steady at this level for older children, but they come to spend practically all their non-school waking hours in front of screens due to increased exposure to video games and the Internet. Specifically, what’s wrong with this exposure to television? In his article entitled “Brain Development: How Much TV Should Children Watch?“, David Perlmutter, M. D. provides the answer: “The most important issue with reference to children watching television is that the passive act of watching television displaces other activities in which the child could have been participating. When a child is watching television, he or she is not involved in play, not socializing with other individuals and most importantly, not receiving feedback as to the actions or consequences of his or her behavior.”
Unfortunately, I’ve found experts’ advice on how to expose children to television to be quite unhelpful, so my solution until recently has been to totally cut it off. Parents like me are petrified that, if we let our children start watching TV, they’ll quickly become addicted, and we’ll quickly lose control.
I’m very happy to say that I seem to have found a way to incorporate TV into my two oldest sons (6-1/2 and 3) lives that’s almost completely positive. That’s because for them, TV time versus non-TV time is not a zero-sum game. Dr. Perlmutter writes of how TV time displaces time spent on other, more developmentally valuable activities. However, I’ve guided my boys’ TV watching in a way that actually enhances their non-TV lives. In other words, their intellectual, social, and physical development away from the TV is more advanced than it would be if they were not watching TV.
So, what are we doing right? I explained how my wife and I are using TV to supplement our boys’ interests in geology and gymnastics (Parkour/free running) in a previous post entitled Reggio Parenting. Here’s a list of the general principles we’re applying in both cases:
- Don’t let it be a babysitter: My wife and I hardly ever leave our boys alone to watch TV. They have no image in their minds of TV-as-babysitter. To them, TV is what we do as a family, usually after dinner in the winter months when it’s dark outside, for 30-60 minutes a day.
- Use real-world interests to drive content: We let our children’s interests in the real world drive what we choose for them to watch – i.e. we don’t turn on the TV and merely find something that’s on live TV. Believe me – between vast online video libraries like YouTube and all the available DVDs out there, you can find lots and lots of great video content relevant to any possible interest area. Unless you already know that a particular program of interest is scheduled on live TV, it does not work for this approach. Lastly, if we have no video content relevant to any real world interests today, we watch no TV. TV is not a time filler.
- Stop action often to explain: I stop the TV very often, perhaps once every couple of minutes, to explain something we’re watching, or to connect what we’re watching to something else in the real world. Again, live TV doesn’t work well for this. Stopping and explaining frequently is vital to help children with video content that’s not aimed at them. The geology and solar system stuff we’re watching is aimed at adults, but with my active help, my boys are getting a lot out of it.
- Add relevant real world activities after to complete the loop: For example, after watching Parkour videos, my boys go to the basement to work on their moves. Also, now that we’ve watched many video clips about plate tectonics and earthquakes, I’m about to take the boys to the San Andreas fault with a geologist friend.
Our TV-related activities are definitely a work in progress, but I’m thrilled with how things are going thus far. Marco (6-1/2) has been asking for more geology and solar system videos, and yet I haven’t heard a word from him about SpongeBob or the like! He and his brother are caught up in a virtuous circle because their real world activities help them understand the videos they watch, and vice-versa. Far from subtracting from their real-world activities, the TV they watch breathes life into them.