November 9, 2013 by Julia
Every once in a while the topic of kids and TV comes up at playdate, which is all well and good until things get SPECIFIC. No one wants to be the first to say exactly how many hours a day their kids spend watching TV; I would guess that many of us don’t want to tally it up in our heads and admit it to ourselves, much less to a group of parents who will surely be comparing their own households to ours. (“Well, her daughter potty-trained early, but at least I don’t let my son watch as much TV as she does.”)
To be fair, I’ve only gotten into TV specifics with close friends, whom I trust and don’t often feel judgmental toward, myself – but even then, I think we made each other all say ‘how many hours a day’ simultaneously so that no one could change their answer after hearing what the others said. Ha!
So now, in a show of goodwill and an attempt to de-stigmatize the whole subject of TV and kids, allow me to confess. In the morning, both kids sit on the couch before Fiona goes to school, eat some sort of finger-food breakfast (I tell myself I don’t make hot breakfast for them because they are allergic to eggs), drink sugar-ridden apple juice, and watch two approximately twenty-two-minute episodes of The Magic School Bus or My Little Pony. So that’s 44 minutes. While Fiona’s at school, I might turn on the TV for Jack for about fifteen minutes if I really need to get something done, like put away groceries. After school, Fiona tells me about her day and we go through her folder, and then she and Jack have snacks and watch another two episodes of something. So Fiona gets about an hour and a half of TV, Jack sometimes a little more.
My attitude is kinda…so what? I know what the “studies” say. I mean, I don’t know what any actual, current studies say – do you? I get the sense that we all buy into the general belief that TV is bad, and good parents have strict rules about it, because that’s what “the experts,” whoever they are, tell us to do.
But do we think TV in itself is actually bad for children? Or are we just worried it will take up too much time that could be better spent doing other things? (And let’s assume that we’re only talking about age-appropriate TV, here – of course many adult shows would actually be bad for kids to watch.)
When I think about my own TV viewing, both as a kid and as an adult, I have mixed feelings. Some TV shows have enriched my life. They enthrall me (Breaking Bad) or make me feel less alone in my struggles (Parenthood) or make me laugh (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). On the other hand, I start to get antsy if I watch too much TV in one go. I get bored, especially if the show is of a lesser quality. Which then leads to the obvious question – why not just turn it off and go do something else that is more interesting, more fulfilling, more real?
Which I have been doing more often, lately. My new attitude about TV is that if I’m not thoroughly enjoying a program, just stop recording it on the DVR. I’d started to feel like I had to get through certain shows so we could delete them and have more room for more shows. But once I started blogging here, I had less time for TV-watching, and a lot of the shows just fell by the wayside. I do not mind one bit. Goodbye, Real Housewives, with your fake fights and superficial, sad lives…goodbye Boardwalk Empire, with your lack of interesting characters (except for that sniper with half a face, he’s good), goodbye The Walking Dead, with your ominous sense of hopelessness and doom in every scene, especially the carefree, happy parts, because you just KNOW a zombie is going to pop out the minute the humans we care about take a moment to relax. I know you’re a quality show, and I really enjoyed last season because there was a human villain, and there were things to fight for…but I just don’t enjoy you that much.
Wow, that was a digression. (Can’t resist the chance to discuss current hit TV shows.)
Anyway, kids get bored with TV, too. I couldn’t make my kids watch TV all day if I tried! Are there kids in the world who will actually watch shows all day without moving on to a new activity? I don’t know. My guess is that they would only have that reaction to TV if they were coming off a major deprivation of it.
So I don’t forbid it. After I let them watch an episode or two of something, they hardly ever ask for more. But if they do ask, I usually let them. I just watch to see if their attention wanders, or if they get fidgety, or cranky, or ask for snacks because they’re bored (boredom eating starts so ridiculously young). When they stop paying attention to the show, I direct them to playing that is more fun for them, and turn off the program.
I don’t think TV in itself messes kids up, even at a young age. I do think parents or caregivers who leave the TV on all day are looking for a way out – a way to relieve the pressure of constant engagement with their kids. I’m not overly judgmental about this, because we ALL feel this way at times, and we DO need breaks. In fact, I am a firm believer in turning on the TV if you feel like you’re on the verge of a breakdown and just can’t do it anymore. An episode of Bubble Guppies is going be much less damaging than a mommy meltdown, right?
I think where parents go wrong is in believing that having the TV on for hours upon hours is actually helpful. After a while, all that noise just gets relegated to the background, and the bored kids will start to whine or make messes or demand stuff anyway – they’ll just do it in a more distracted manner. Half-playing and half-talking are not nearly as good as focused talking or playing. And by good, I mean fun, too – I’m not just talking about hitting developmental milestones. Kids will be happier if they get to do a variety of things throughout the day, just like adults. It’s important to me to get my kids out of the house, to make sure they get exercise and free play and socialization and experimentation and fresh air. It’s not so much about forbidding TV as it is about making time for all the other good things in life.
TV can be one of the good things in life, too, though – even for kids.
Some of my best memories are of watching Saturday morning cartoons, or Sesame Street, or movies with my friends. The stories and art in the better shows influenced me. I don’t think my brain rotted or my body wasted away. I think my understanding of the world increased, as did my vocabulary, my empathy for different types of people, and my interest in storytelling. TV at its best opens up new worlds for kids, just like any other art form or science. It may not always go as deep as a book (or real life, ha), but it is often the key, the starting point, to new interests.
For example, when Fiona was about three and a half, she began to show interest in drawing, and showed a unique talent for emotional expression in the characters she drew – which for a long time were only what she called “Humpty-dumptys” – egglike creatures. But when her Madeline obsession began (including the TV specials and episodes), she became inspired enough to try drawing people – Madeline characters, of course. After a year of endless, wonderful drawings and books of drawn-out stories, she suddenly quit. (Probably because she got too much attention for it – she doesn’t even like positive attention, at times.) We were disappointed that she no longer practiced this thing that she was good at and made her happy, and tried to encourage more drawing. Nothing interested her, though, until she discovered The Powerpuff Girls. Weeks after watching the show, she tentatively began to draw them, and to make her stories. Since she has begun drawing again, she has become calmer and, I imagine, more fulfilled by her daily life.
Of course there are exceptions to every rule and every family is different. You know your children and their habits better than I do. Some kids might actually beg to watch endless TV, and then sit and watch it all day, mesmerized. To which I still say: let them, and see how long it lasts! I’m only halfway kidding. Maybe there ARE kids who would never tire of TV…in which case, maybe they’re a J.J. Abrams or Spielberg in the making, which isn’t such a bad thing. When he grows up to make amazing shows or movies, you can say I told you so to all those parents who used to judge you.