Praise for (limited, supervised) TV for kids (ages 2+)

No one loves books more than I do. But my soon-to-turn-four son can’t read yet. And educational research cannot be clearer that reading comes more easily the larger a young reader’s spoken vocabulary. So I’ve let Daryl spend more time watching TV than reading books. We read several books with him every day, but my wife believes we should be reading more and watching TV less, and my initial instinct — as it is to every “suggestion” she so wisely makes — was to say, “Of course, honey!” But the more I think about it, the more defensible — admirable, even — our current use of the TV seems.

Children under the age of 2 shouldn’t be watching TV. So the following applies only to children 2+.

Daryl’s TV watching is totally supervised. I pre-record shows, and we watch them together. He’ll often request that we watch a particular show (e.g., “Blue’s Clues” or “Team Umizoomi”) or episode (e.g., “the ‘Dinosaur Train’ where they visit Troodon Town”). But they’re all programs I’ve chosen. We also watch some quality children’s shows in Chinese, esp. “Pororo” and “Peppa Pig,” that we bought on DVDs. These boost his Chinese vocabulary and motivate him to speak more Chinese.

I read these good articles on young children’s use of TV: KidsHealth.org’s “How TV Affects Your Child” and PBS Parents' “TV and Kids under Age 3” by children’s media expert Shelley Pasnik

According to these articles, unsupervised TV has many harmful effects on children. But I don’t see any reason for concern about our current use of TV. Here’s why I believe we’re using it appropriately:

  • We shielded Daryl from TV for most of his first two years. TV watching during these earliest years is most detrimental because very young children learn little from watching TV. They learn far more effectively by interacting and communicating with adults.
  • We have no TV on our main floor or in Daryl’s bedroom, and we keep the TV off most of the time. So it’s not a constant background presence, as in many American households.
  • Daryl doesn’t watch ads because most of the shows I record don’t contain them. Otherwise, I skip the ads. When we occasionally watch live TV upstairs, he’s very aware of the ads and how they’re trying to manipulate us because I’ve emphasized that. He’ll ask me, “Are they trying to get us to buy this?” So he’s years ahead of the game (“Under the age of 8 years, most kids don’t understand that commercials are for selling a product. Children 6 years and under are unable to distinguish program content from commercials, especially if their favorite character is promoting the product.”).
  • Because he doesn’t watch ads, has no weight issues, and doesn’t eat while watching TV, the link between TV watching and obesity is of little concern.
  • Daryl watches only quality educational TV because I don’t record anything else and I let him watch only what I’ve already recorded. I first screen shows based on parental and expert opinion at Commonsense Media, and even then I usually watch the show a bit before showing it to Daryl. Quality matters tremendously: “Studies have found that children at 30 months of age who watched certain programs (one study focused on Dora the Explorer, Blues Clues, Clifford and Dragon Tales) resulted in greater vocabularies and higher expressive language whereas overall television viewing (including adult programs) has been associated with reduced vocabulary.”
  • I watch many shows with Daryl, and we talk about them. He asks me questions, and I point out things I notice or explain things I think he might not understand. When he watches the same episode for the tenth time, I’ll either sit next to him and do something else or sit near him. TV’s not our babysitter.
  • Thanks to his current favorite show, Dinosaur Train, Daryl can tell you what “omnivore,” “carnivore” and “herbivore” mean… and even name some animals and dinosaurs in each category. He knows his “bipeds” from his “quadripeds” (and knows “tri-” in “triceratops” means three, as in “tricycle” and “triangle”). He can tell you what a “cryolophosaurus” looks like (and even sing a song about one) and a “deinonychus” and a “giganotosaurus” and an “ankylosaurus” and a “microraptor.” He can tell you several interesting facts about “troodons,” maybe even which dinosaur time period they lived in (correct answer: “late Cretaceous”). He knows that in the earliest dinosaur period (triassic) there were no flowers but there were turtles that could not retract their heads. And his knowledge that there were once no dinosaurs has prompted him to ask how the Earth was formed. He also wants to know how the dinosaurs died. And he can even point out the theropod dinosaurs flying all around us. (Hint: you know them as “birds.” See: http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/diapsids/avians.html) And, besides all the facts he’s learned from the show, Daryl has also learned some excellent everyday vocabulary and watched some positive role models.
  • Daryl’s school friends watch a lot of junk TV. His friends like Batman and Spiderman, for example, which really aren’t appropriate at his age because they’re so violent. If we sharply curtailed his TV time, he’d probably be crying to watch the junk shows his friends watch.
  • Daryl engages with the material. He’s quite curious about dinosaurs now and is eager to visit museums where he can see dinosaurs. He was also excited to borrow a library book on dinosaurs and buy the book we saw recently. We should look through these books with him. TV can stimulate interest that can be followed up in books.
  • Daryl’s becoming sophisticated about reality vs. fantasy. Lately, he has been asking me “Is he real?” and “Are they real?” when we watch shows. I explain that dinosaurs were real long, long ago but that they didn’t talk. I also explain that the kids and the paleontologist on the show are real.
  • We’re beginning to use TV as an effective punishment. When he misbehaves, we threaten to take away TV. And if he persists, he loses his TV. This is a valuable tool.
  • The adults in our house set a good example. Aside from my wife’s parents watching Chinese TV while they watch Lia, we watch little TV until after the kids go to bed. So we’re setting a good example.
  • TV’s not cutting into Daryl’s exercise or creative activities. He’s usually exhausted by the end of a full day of daycare and really needs to plop down in front of a TV set for a bit. And he takes facts he’s learned watching “Dinosaur Train” and weaves them into his imaginary play. When he drives his toy train around, the content now is spun off of things he has learned watching “Dinosaur Train,” so the show has spurred his imagination.
  • Finally, TV encourages Daryl to read. His interest in reading “Green Eggs and Ham” was heightened by a short TV version of the book I recorded. The same is true of “The Zax” and “The Sneetches,” both of which were adapted for TV. Daryl’s interest in the TV shows and the books reinforce one another. (Also, because they differ in significant ways, they implicitly illustrate that stories are stories and can be modified.)

My only concern about TV is that the shows my soon-to-be-4-year-old son is watching aren’t age-appropriate for my 1-year-old daughter. But the older child wins out, and the younger watches. I’ve tried setting her up on a second TV, but they both shout for me to watch with them, and I can’t be in two places simultaneously. Perhaps the answer isn’t less TV but for my wife to join in our family TV watching! Then she too would know the difference between a stegosaurus and a kentrosaurus. (As Daryl could tell you, both have plates on their upper backs but the latter had spikes along its lower back where the former had plates.)

Posted by James on Monday, July 19, 2010