Children and Television – Help or Hindrance?

Screech and T-Rex “cycling” together with the Wii.

I used to be one of “those” mamas.  You know, the kind that smugly says she doesn’t need TV and her kids won’t be watching any until they are two.  If ever.

I only had T-Rex at the time; and, really and truly I didn’t have a need for TV.  But, then I found myself about to have another baby (that would be Screech – and he was scheduled to arrive, ahem, before T-Rex turned two).   One day while making dinner, I suddenly panicked.  What would I do with T-Rex when I needed to feed Screech, cook, or (gasp) have five minutes of time to do something for myself?

All of a sudden TV didn’t seem so “bad” anymore. 

(Just to keep things clear, when I say TV, I mean the actual television set.  We’ve never had cable, and I can’t keep track of air channel listings for the life of me.  We almost exclusively watch DVDs.)

So, I did what I could to encourage a toddler who had no interest in TV to sit still and watch a black box for a few minutes at a time.  I had no idea it would be so much.. work.  Getting a toddler boy to sit down for ten minutes seemed like a serious, award-winning accomplishment.

Fast forward a few years, and here I am today expecting baby #3.  T-Rex is four and a half and will usually watch about 30 minutes of TV if I need him to do so.  Screech, on the other hand, lasts maybe five to ten minutes max.  He’s almost three years old, and he’d much rather destroy the house than watch Lightning McQueen learn to make friends.

Speaking of friends, I one in particular here (she’s American) with three children, ages three to eight.  Her kids will watch TV for hours.  When she told me this, she probably thought I’d judge her.  We do a lot of judging each other as parents which hurts us (because we’re often wrong) and the other person.  I’m sure she was surprised when I didn’t.  Nope – I thought, lucky!

Now, she doesn’t plant the kids in front of media every day.  And nor does she do it so she can lounge in a back room, paint her nails, and check Facebook.  She works from home and due to some circumstances has no childcare for a few months.  She has no family here, and no means to afford a babysitter for even a half day for three kids, five days per week.

Come September, all of her kids will be in school again, she can work during that time, and the hours-long television fests will be a thing of the past.  She’ll only pull that trick out of the bag on special occasions.  But, mostly it will remain a memory of a desperate measure utilized at a desperate time.

Desperate.  Yes.  That’s where I find myself sometimes when I think of how on earth I will get anything done with three little boys under the age of 5.  Quiet boxes, special toys, off-limits games (like the Wii), etc. only work with my boys for so long.

About two months ago, Doc Sci suggested I have the boys choose between reading a book and watching TV every day while I make dinner to help them get used to sitting (somewhat) still for 30 minutes.   (Keep an open mind here..  Remember what I said about judging?)  No matter what the two of them chose, it rarely lasted more than 10-15 minutes.

That is, until family movie night.

We decided one Friday night to do something different with the boys.  We’d let them watch a movie with us during dinner and stay up a little later than usual.  I’m not one for animated films, so I chose The Parent Trap.

To my surprise, my two can’t-eat-enough boys barely touched their dinner.  They were mesmerized.  We only watched about 1/3 of the film that evening, but I turned it on a few times in the next week while cooking dinner.  Each time, they sat there, riveted.  When we eventually reached the end of the film, Screech immediately said, “Watch it again, Daddy!”

And then it dawned on me.  Maybe the key to a longer attention span is not to encourage a shorter one.

Everything that flashes across that screen teaches my boys something whether it be educational, moral, spiritual, etc.  All of the DVDs in my current rotation are children’s programs – short and sweet – ten to thirty minutes tops.  But maybe the propensity to cater to kids’ attention spans actually reinforces their immature tendencies.

I tested my theory this weekend when we watched several Olympic events (a rare time when the “television” function of the TV was actually in use).  Swimming, gymnastics, diving, cycling, tennis – they both sat for longer than I’ve ever seen during each event.  When we turned off the TV, they wanted to act out what they’d seen – especially the swimming and gymnastics.  And, they wanted to do it with us.

TV gets such a bad rap when it comes to children.  Among other things, it gets blamed for childhood obesity and for a lack of connection and communication in families.

I’m not saying everyone needs to train their children to sit still and watch a black box.  If you have a backyard – use it!!! I don’t have one, and I won’t have one any time soon.  If I did, I probably wouldn’t even be thinking about TV as an option to help my household run a bit smoother and my sanity to stay intact.

I’m also not suggesting to throw caution to the wind and let children watch any kind of programming.  Discretion should still be used when selecting which programs to watch.  I just think that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to choosing children’s programming because it’s been marketed to us as what kids want (and should) watch.  Parents should still be in charge of the process, even if they can’t always sit down and watch the entire program (because they’re, say, feeding a new baby or cooking for five).

If television is used as a tool – for a determined purpose and time – I believe it really can be a help instead of a hindrance.

What about you? Do your kids watch TV at home? Have you found some programs to be more successful or beneficial than others?  Do you think the short format of children’s shows helps or hinders their attention span, growth, and development?

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One thought on “Children and Television – Help or Hindrance?

  1. Pingback: Shameless Repost: London’s Coolest New Attractions « Thrifty Travel Mama

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