If you have kids, you have likely had to face the sometimes difficult issue of how much and what sort of TV entertainment is appropriate for children. Television can serve many functions in the household – relaxing agent, babysitter, entertainer, and some claim, educator. If television battles plague your household, or you feel overwhelmed by what to do, here's some things to consider and some choices we've made, and why.
• Use the on/off switch deliberately – One thing my husband and I decided while pregnant was that we were going to kick the habit of having the television on all the time simply as a distraction. I don't care for the notion of television as a backdrop or soundtrack of family life. Instead we are showing our kids that TV is entertainment – turn it on, be entertained and turn it back off! And we find it important to agree to an end time before we start (you can always extend it if wanted or needed), to try and avoid "just-one-more-itis" at the end of program. When that does occur, we let the kids know if TV doesn't go off when we agree, it won't be going on again. We think TV can be fun, but it's just not important enough for our family to be fighting over. If that persists, they'll have to do without.
• Keep programming age-appropriate – As a general rule, we'll read anything to our daughters on all kinds of subject matters, because when we are reading, we have their focus and attention to discuss anything that comes up. But when they are watching TV, a tornado could hit and I couldn't get a second glance. So it's important that both the story content and visual intensity be age-appropriate. We have a hard and fast rule about not watching adult shows in front of the kids – we save those for after bedtime (one notable exception is my husband watching reasonable amounts of sports with the kids if he's involving them and explaining what they are seeing). By making available programming that we do actually like, we've also been able to avoid shows like Hannah Montana, which, while not incredibly objectionable, we feel are themed a little older than necessary.
• Go commercial-free – Our kids' programming is limited to DVDs and programs on the DVR. And we've managed to find enough shows on PBS, HBO and occasionally Noggin, all of which are basically commercial-free, that we avoid a lot of the "I wants" and poor advertising messages found on network and commercial cable TV. I know lots of families that don't have cable at all, and the kids only watch DVDs. My favorite shows are Signing Time (in many markets on PBS, or DVD) and Harold and the Purple Crayon (HBO or DVD).
• Save TV for when you need it – I'm convinced there is no obvious number of hours that is the "magic number" to satisfy kids – TV is just too interesting not to ask for whenever fancy strikes. But there are times when kids (or you) really need some downtime, so if there's no "reason" for TV when they ask, try redirecting and saving TV time for later. Ideally we try to limit overall TV watching to 3-5 hours a week. Some weeks have less, some more, but we try not to give in just because it's easier than providing "real life" stimulation.
• "Educational TV" is still TV -- I don't buy the notion that educational or interactive TV is "good" for kids. No television show can compare to interacting with real people, getting outside, reading or being read to, or engaging in pretend play. Sure, educational TV may be a "lesser evil" than just standard entertainment, but it shouldn't be an excuse to increase or rationalize TV watching as truly beneficial. When our first daughter was born and the Baby Einstein videos had come on the scene, there was a sense that you could actually help your child by parking them in front of these programs. It is my understanding that studies on this sort of exposure have not borne this out to be true. That's not to say that there are no benefits to be derived from educational programming – particularly for older children who might be watching programs on say, nature, science or history. My kids are learning significant amounts of American Sign Language from the Signing Time programs. And my older daughter is enjoying a kids yoga DVD now once a week or so. But it still doesn't compare to learning a language from actual people, or exercising outside if those options are available.
These are just a few of our "house rules" and goals when it comes to managing TV as in influence in our kids' lives. I'd love to hear your feedback, as well as what you do in your family and what has worked and not worked for you in the Early Childhood forum (access the forum by clicking on the forum link to the right of this article).
Here's a few programs that I do personally like when we do turn to television –
Signing Time – great music, and images of real kids – good for all ages infant and up (my husband and I pick up a lot of sign and enjoy the music too!)
Signing Time Volume 1-3 DVD Gift Set
Harold and the Purple Crayon – based on the wonderful book by Crockett Johnson. Lovely illustration and stories. I like a that these shows use a lot of emotional intellegence language (for example, something like "Harold was angry that his friend popped the balloons, but knew he'd feel sad if the friend left the party.")
Gaiam's YogaKids 2 ABCs – my daughter has been enjoying this 40 minute kids yoga session. It's not exactly vigorous exercise, but has some lovely sequences and I like that it gets her up off the couch!