Doing Television Right

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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7 Responses to Doing Television Right

  1. Simon Firth says:

    Mike — great post. I would like to put a word in, though, for dramatic, narrative television (or film). There’s a lot of great stuff out there that simply brings joy to young viewers because the stories are plain funny or engaging and that’s not to be sniffed at. Plus relatively brief episodic narratives can be inspiration for endless hours of creative play (we had that with Scooby Doo for a while). What’s hard about dramatic video, I’ve found, is that when your kids have been exposed to much less TV than their peers,it’s difficult to know what might freak them out. There are some good family-viewing websites out there, however, that will tell you what to expect — I always check Common Sense Media before we get something out of the library.

    One other thought that occurs: I’ve done the same thing as you with looking on YouTube for videos to supplement my kids’ enthusiasms and found that you have to be careful what turns up in searches. There’s some really inappropriate material out there! So parental pre-screening is a must. In a sense, that’s what the best of children’s TV programmers used to provide (I’m thinking PBS and the BBC output for kids that I grew up watching). Unfortunately, I don’t feel like there is any channel I can trust today to always show material that I’d like my kids to see — there’s a buisness op. in there for someone I’m sure!

  2. Mike Lanza says:

    @Simon – You’re right, I haven’t figured out how to do narrative TV right yet, but it’s very important, too. I find nonfiction easier because I like and understand that more, but there’s no question that great narrative stories are very important for kids. At this point, my guess would be show my kids a combination of stuff I’ve seen and know is *great* (e.g. The Wizard of Oz) and recommended content on themes that interest them currently.

  3. Jason K. says:

    Mike, I really like how you’re involved in the experience by watching with them, discussing what was watched and so forth.

    However, I’m curious: how much freedom do you allow your kids to choose what gets watched? Would you put your foot down if they asked to watch something that you consider not worthy of their time?

  4. Mike Lanza says:

    @Jason – Up to this point, they haven’t really demanded much outside of the subject areas I mentioned in the article. Recall that they’ve never planted in front of a TV to watch mindless cartoons for a couple of hours. They don’t know that most of this exists – their only exposure is a few times watching TV at friends’ houses.

  5. Simon Firth says:

    Mike — yes, it can be hard to find good stuff that is also gentle on novice viewers. Even some of the famous Disney classics (like Snow White, for example, and Bambi) have scenes that will totally freak out a child not used to watching film or video dramas. To start I’d recommend the Magic School Bus series, which were really well done and all about science — they have kids-in-peril too, but it’s never too scary.

    Wizard of Oz, I have to say, is totally terrifying in places. I think it’s for 7 yrs and up minimum!

    Pingu is fun — the episodes are just five minutes long and are very silly. And the original Disney Winnie the Pooh movie (which is actually the first three classic shorts stitched together) is lovely.

    We have a family movie night now every couple of weeks — the challenge is getting our kids to see something new. They’d usually prefer to watch something they’ve enjoyed before again — we just saw A Bugs Life, which was great, although Michael (who’s 6) had to run out of the room a few times because the grasshoppers were too much for him.

  6. Aran says:

    We limit our 2 1/2 year old’s exposure to TV and we measure our success by the fact that he almost never thinks of watching a DVD or Netflix unless we bring it up first.

    We tend to do fewer educational videos and focus more on fantasy. We have shown him selected scenes from: Fantasia (Pastoral Symphony and Nutcracker were big hits, Sorcerer’s Apprentice scared him). The musical scenes from Sound of Music (Goatherd, Do-re-mi, Favorite Things) are another big favorite.

    There is an old Czech animation series called Krtek the Mole (check out Mole and the Green Star on YouTube) which is on region 2 DVD only, so you need a hacked DVD player.

    Our son loved “Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” (first full length movie he sat through) and “My Neighbor Totoro”. Both of those are great, because they have a very slow pace and are not filled with the super frenetic slapstick that dominates most other animation. Our son did not like Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland”, however he wanted to sit through the entire movie to make sure it ended happily. The experience with the latter made us realize how important it is to pre-screen movies.

    He does like Pingu, however, he typically wants to imitate what he sees Pingu doing on-screen, and Pingu is not always a good role model.

  7. RobertH says:

    I share everyone’s concern about TV and other screen time for children, and also agree that a zero-tolerance approch is probably not the best option. Zero-tolerance rarely is.

    So, what we have done in our family is very simple. We don’t purchase cable or satellite TV, and as a result my wife and I don’t watch TV at all. For me personally, this is no loss as I can’t stand what’s on TV anyway. She feels differently, but has found online sources for her favorite show, “Lost,” and some other series, which she watches now and then on her laptop. As a result, our kids don’t see US watching TV, at least not on a regular basis and for hours on end. It’s not a family event.

    Instead of watching TV, our kids watch DVDs and also stuff they find on Youtube. My son, a fledgling herpotologist (?), has found an amazing number of quite good snake-related videos on Youtube, which he vastly prefers to anything on TV (he’s familiar with the Discovery Channel from watching at friends’ houses and thinks it’s mostly lame, which it is). He also enjoys looking at herp photography posted on various sites on the Net. We also own a good number of nature DVDs on whales, dolphins, etc.

    My daughter is more of a fiction person, so all she likes to watch are DVDs like N”ight of the Museum,” “National Treasure I and II”, etc. Everyone now and then, we’ll buy a new DVD or rent a few from Netflix. She also enjoys playing certain innocous games on the PC (like those on the American Girl site). The great thing about these free online games is that they are SUPER-LAME, so that they don’t hold her attention for more than 30 minutes, if that (haha). She is actually familiar with “real” gaming through a neighborhood friend, but finds those violent games annoying and pointless.

    Overall, my kids have about 30-45 minutes of screentime a day, and there are days when they don’t have or want any. They never ask me to get TV and when there is a TV available, like in a hotel room, they are always disappointed. During a recent 4-night hotel stay, we watched less than 1 hour total (but we had brought several DVDs of our own).

    Here’s a question for everyone: Are there any GOOD computer games/programs out there? I am thinking something along the lines of a game/program where players are given a certain task to perform with a certain set of resources, for example, designing an ecologically sustainable city or or part of a city. You know, something where kids get to actually create something that has some real-life application. My son would, for example, enjoy designing a zoo or wildlife reserve. In real life, these are actually quite complex projects, with every animal having very specific needs, etc. It would be great to have a program that requires the same type of creative, but also analytical thinking that goes into that sort of project.

    Robert