Sometimes a TV is Just a TV
Raising a child, especially in the first two or three years, is particularly challenging—as well it should be. Like any great adventure in life, it’s the challenges that make the rewards all the sweeter. Still, parents today have a great deal for which to be thankful considering the resources and tools available to assist them through the more demanding child rearing years. Pick a question or topic, and sure enough there’s a program, book or website just a click away. It’s very reassuring to have these tools at hand and, in many ways, they can help make you a more confident and competent parent.
But while parenting styles and educational trends come and go, there are a few timeless and hard-earned truths. The most important one to remember, especially as we are inundated with new technology, is that there are no real shortcuts in parenting--or perhaps more appropriately, the shortcuts exist, but they come at a great price.
More than ever before, television is used as a tool to enhance a child’s knowledge of a favorite subject or as a gateway to a new world. It’s no longer unusual for young kids to hone specific skills such as problem solving or counting and sorting from a fuzzy TV show character. Some elementary school teachers are even known to recommend a particular TV program for extra enrichment. Many TV channels offer websites with additional learning tools to make television a more interactive experience. Thanks to advanced technology, parents also have the resources to block inappropriate material and fast-forward through endless commercials.
Sometimes, however, a TV is just a TV.
As with any tool, television works best when used properly. Nothing will ever replace real live personal interaction with a child, even when busier schedules and more programming choices make TV a quick and easy option. Despite any TV show claims to the contrary, the American Association of Pediatrics strongly advises against TV viewing for children less than two years of age. Creative play during this formative time is crucial and parents shouldn’t fall prey to their own insecurities by believing that something dubbed as educational or academically enriching can ever replace that important one-on-one interaction. Introducing bad viewing habits so early in childhood could also be a setup for other problems down the road.
It’s natural for parents to want more for their kids—more than what they had as children. The notion of giving our kids a big head start in life by introducing them to new languages, fine art and music at an early age is enticing, but not if comes from a TV screen. The TV can’t feel, touch or reassure a child in the way that real people can. Even the highest quality, best-researched show will not make your child a genius--although it’s no accident that many baby shows give the impression that you can grow a better kid by offering a special formula of brain-stimulating programming. It’s just not that easy.
These kinds of claims or inferences are meant to be provocative and intriguing, but the current toddler TV boom is more about marketing rather than any kind of educational breakthrough.
What happens between the programs can also have a big impact. The marketing of toys and products has reached a new and disturbing level of sophistication and there are more of them then ever. Keep in mind many young children don’t have the frame of reference to adequately discern a lot of what they see on television. Older kids can infer that certain actions can cause a reaction, but for a toddler who hasn’t learned about cause and effect from experience won’t get the connection when a character leaves the screen or suddenly appears in a new setting. Many can't even tell the difference between a commercial and a show.
That’s not to say that if you park the tot in front of the TV to answer the phone or attend quickly to something else, you’ve damaged your child for life. Anyone who claims never to have used TV as a distraction for their child in a busy household is either delusional or dishonest.
TV is actually a wonderful tool when used age-appropriately and within limits. On average, a great deal of thought and research goes into many of today’s offerings for kids and meet far higher standards than shows appearing just a decade ago. Yet despite all of the advances, parents will always trump television and technology as the most important influence on their kids—even without magical powers, square pants or blue spots. If there’s any doubt whether or not your child is old enough to watch TV, it’s best to stick to yet another tried-and-true rule of parenting: If they aren’t old enough to ask for it, you don’t have to give it to them.
A freelance writer and TV Critic for Daily Variety, Laura Fries has been writing about TV and film entertainment for more than eighteen years. She lives with her husband, daughter and a small menagerie of pets in Alexandria, Virginia.
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