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Tame the TV

By Stephanie Booth

'Tis the season ... to have the TV turned on. If not because of the annual roll-out of beloved holiday specials, then because you desperately need a few minutes peace and quiet to wrap presents or decorate an extended family of gingerbread people.

Fortunately, giving in to a little viewing isn't the end of the world. "It's far better for kids to learn to have a constructive relationship with media, knowing how to set limits and boundaries, than being denied that opportunity while they're young enough to have their parents guide and help them," says Tessa Jolls, president and CEO of the Center for Media Literacy.

So go ahead and allot time for the whole family to watch "Frosty the Snowman." And there's no need to be wracked with guilt if you stuff a DVD into a stocking or two. Just keep these basic television viewing tips in mind:

Listen to holiday music, not the TV. Don't use the television for default background noise. Even leaving it on and turning down the sound can distract kids.

Set TV watching times that work for your family. Let your children know the television will go on only at a set time, and arrange it around your activities (not the other way around.) If you know your preschooler will need downtime after a busy day of mall-hopping, for instance, move his morning TV time to the evening, after you return.

Choose alternatives to regular broadcasting. Stock up on DVDs you approve of and let your child choose from that stash when it's time to watch. Or invest in a DVR like TiVo, so you can record holiday specials and watch them at your convenience, rather than when they're scheduled. (Both options also allow you to keep exposure to commercials at a minimum.)

Do your homework. TV parental ratings are notoriously inconsistent, and while defaulting to a kids' channel seems like a safe bet, there's no guarantee the shows you're watching are appropriate for your child's age or temperament. Seek program suggestions from other parents you trust, or click on websites like this one or the Smart Television Alliance (www.smarttelevisionalliance.org) which offer recommendations for quality kids' TV.

Share your opinions — a lot. It's perfectly normal for tweens to have different tastes in programming than their parents. While you want to allow some leeway to explore, do weigh in on what they're watching. Be specific about which of your values are different than those shown on the screen. ("That was a lame thing to do. The only thing stealing the presents accomplished was to hurt the kids' feelings, and get him in more trouble.")

Maybe you'll get a response to your comments, maybe not, but keep them coming. After all, there will come a day when your son or daughter goes over to a friend's house and watches something you would find completely offensive. "But if they think, 'Wow! Mom would be so mad if she knew I was watching this,' you've won," explains Faith Rogow, PhD, past president of the Alliance for a Media-Literate America. "Although they're watching a show you disapprove of, they're watching it through your eyes."

And what could be a better gift than that?

About the Author
Stephanie Booth, a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in The Washington Post Magazine and online at Salon.com as well as a number of women's, teen, and parenting magazines, is the editor of Smart News, the online newsletter of the Smart Television Alliance. She lives in Flemington, New Jersey with her two children.

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