Television is here to stay, and parents can choose to deal with it in one of three ways: hate it and see it as an enemy, use it as a default babysitter, or manage it and make it one of many powerful teaching tools.
Like any machine, television is not good or bad, per se. It’s all in how you use it and your attitude towards it. Here are some smart ways to use television so your child is protected from the worst effects (lower grades, poor reading comprehension, and mixed-up morals) and enjoys its best benefits.
1. Use television shows to lead kids to books.
One of the biggest complaints against television is that it’s replaced books as the main source of entertainment and information. The obvious problem is that kids are bored to death in school. Their textbooks don’t come with musical scores and dancing graphics, and they’re not used to having to find and analyze data. Television gives them everything they need, in snappy soundbytes too!
To avoid that, choose shows that are related to books, or use what they watch to lead them to related reading material. For example, if your child loves watching ‘Pokemon’ or Marvel superheroes on TV, then buy him the comic book or graphic novel series. If he’s fascinated by ‘The Magic Schoolbus’ then look for the book version in the library.
You can also use television shows to get your child interested in a particular topic. If he saw a news report on an oil spill, get books on the environment or on endangered ocean species. If he enjoyed a magic show, go to the bookstore to find a book on magic tricks.
2. Talk about what you watch.
Educators and child development experts say that even educational television shows promote ‘passive learning’—your child quietly, mindlessly absorbs the information. He can’t ask questions or participate in a discussion. And he learns by watching, not by doing, so whatever data he gets will most likely be forgotten or misunderstood.
You avoid this by talking to your child about the show. Let’s say you’re watching a movie together. Ask: ‘What do you think the character feels? Would you do the same thing if you were in the same situation?’
Or, connect the information you get to real experiences. For example, if you’re watching a documentary on the Discovery Channel about the Amazon wildlife, you can talk about the animals you saw in the zoo.
3. Limit TV time.
Television is just one form of recreation. Kids are less likely to get dependent on TV if they also enjoy other activities—playing outside with friends, learning a sport or a musical instrument, crafts, reading, doing puzzles, or playing with educational toys like wooden blocks.
You can help limit TV time by placing the TV in a room where it’s easy to monitor when the kids watch, and for how long. Avoid placing a TV in the bedroom.
4. Don’t surf—select.
The worst thing that can happen is for kids to sit in front of the TV, surfing through channels without watching anything in particular, and then (after several hours of staring at the screen) remember absolutely nothing. You also want to avoid leaving the TV on as ‘white noise’—a distracting background to doing homework, talking on the phone, or playing with toys. This kind of TV viewing is as helpful and as healthy as eating cookies and potato chips. It’s got no ‘educational calories’ and no redeeming value.
Control the shows they watch and schedule when they can watch it. You can ask everyone to list their favorite shows and make a schedule: ‘Okay, you can watch this show at 4:30 p.m every day, but you need to do your homework before then.’
Also screen the shows that your child watches. Many cartoons have inappropriate jokes, and some sitcoms have adult situations that can confuse them. If your child really wants to watch these shows—’all the kids talk about it in school!’—then watch with him and talk about it afterwards. ‘Do you understand what you saw? How would you feel if someone said or did that to you in real life? What would you really do if that happened to you?’
5. Go back to the roots of Family TV.
Before, watching TV was a family ritual: everyone gathered around the black-and-white set and watched the same show. Of course, back then, there were less channels and no cable, and most families only had one set.
Today kids tend to watch different shows and parents try to prevent the fights over the remote control by getting several TV sets. What we’ve lost, however, is the chance to use the TV shows to connect to each other and spend time with each other.
Make TV a family activity again. Take turns choosing shows, and then use these as a chance to get to know each other’s interests. Talk about what you see, and exchange opinions and perspectives.