Children watching TV
TV can be stressful.
Young toddlers shouldn’t watch TV at all, actually. It’s incomprehensible to them, the whole concept. What is here and now, is the only real thing to them, so TV becomes very real to them. The same goes naturally for computer games.
Remember, babies and young toddlers can hardly grasp the concept of time, nor do they fully understand separations. Are you there even when you’re not? It’s scary to them, not being together. What if you never come back? Quite naturally, when they see something on TV, surely that thing is real to them. They know what they see. No matter what you say (of course we want to teach our children the difference between real life and made up stories, but they just don’t get it, not yet).
From age 2 it seems to be okay to watch some TV, but no more than 2 hours, totally, a day. Real life more important you know, keeping you grounded. There are always building blocks to play with, coloring to do and jigsaw puzzles to keep them occupied with in case time feels slow. Or let them loose with some paper and pencil, maybe even scissors (yes, watch out with the little fingers) and tape, and you’ll get all kinds of skyrockets or books to admire and decorate with.
But TV is usually popular, and can offer some relaxation for everyone when the child is tired and food needs preparing. There are some things to consider though:
Young kids do prefer shorter stories, the 5-10 minute kind, because of short attention span. They have trouble sitting still for long anyway and to keep track of a longer, more complicated story is hard. They can easily watch a number of those short ones for an hour though.
Young kids like repeating stories too, because they like to learn stuff. They like the feeling of knowing how it goes, predict the outcome a bit (no wonder, having seen the same episode a hundred times).
We liked shows like “Curious George” (the TV show, with shorter stories and not the feature length movies), “Charlie and Lola” and “Max and Ruby” for starters. They are a bit educational, both with nice role-model characters and stories that explain about everyday life things. There doesn’t have to be any drama to fascinate a 3 year old with moving pictures. Yes, you can argue that they are normative and a bit boring, but that is our adult perspective. My kids just loved them. Children, I think, should be offered a bit of normality and standard definitions first, to challenge later if they wish to. The world is just too complicated to deal with otherwise.
Does TV influence our children? Of course it does! They collect memories, information and inspiration from the stories or programs they watch, just like us – but even more so considering they lack critical thinking and experiences of their own to compare with.
We tend to find it so cute with our 4 year olds dressing up as superheroes and play fighting monsters. But the backside of the story is that the children get impossible rolemodels with impossible standards to live up to, impossible monsters to fight. Of course it scares them – they don’t have superpowers! Also, in those stories, there is only one solution: be stronger, faster and hit harder. Not much role modelling considering constructive conflict solving there…
Many movies or TV shows can be so scary that they cause anxiety and nightmares. The same goes for a lot of computer games of course. Naturally some books and cartoons are just as scary, but usually there is an adult reading to the little ones, and we tend to choose appropriate ones. We’re not always as thoughtful when trusting children’s channels to make good decisions regarding what our children should see or not.
Personally, I want to cut out all violence from children under age 5 (at least, but by then you can have some success in explaining the difference between fiction and reality). This includes the constant action scenes in many comedies like Tom & Jerry, Ice age (the poor squirrel, my son thought, trembling with fear for the ugly little fellow) and such. I admittedly made a mistake with Tom & Jerry, remembering watching them as a kid myself – but turned around to see my sweet little son, 3 years old then, shaking in terror after 10 seconds. It was quickly switched off.
There are a lot of cute TV shows and children’s programs – and there are a whole lot of monsters and superhero fighting ones. There are those with gentle sounds and soft moving pictures – and those that use special effects that feel like they are slamming at your eyes and ears. There are those your child knows well. When you’ve seen them together before and you know the story, it’s much more relaxing than if you’re all tense wondering how things will turn out.
So, choose your TV shows well. Watch them together with your child the first time, to explain things and discuss moral issues (at children’s level: “That wasn’t very nice, was it?”, “What did they do wrong there, do you think?” or “What should you do instead?”).
In the world of computer- and video games there are educational, friendly ones too. A lot of them really. The kids can do jigsaw puzzles, play Memory or grow vegetables in imaginary gardens. They can learn letters and numbers in different exercises or play hide-and-seek with a character.
Only, there are also other games, or pictures, or movies available just a few clicks away. We have the computer in our common room to keep an eye on what is happening there. We’ve searched for games that seem okay and try them out with the kids at first. We also keep real-live Memory in a drawer, real paper and paint to paint with, and we do have real places to hide – the real world calling from just beside them.
I know the children of today needs to know how to handle the computer, absolutely. But I do believe it’s better – for their development, motor skills and understanding of things – to experience things for real. To handle and balance things for real instead of only clicking.
We’ve chosen to put a timer on for 10 minutes once the kids settle down in front of the computer, because it has helped a lot to keep track of time. They switch who’s playing every 10 minutes (well, they are allowed to finish whatever they were doing and I guess as the games grow more complicated they will need more time, but for now it works) and within an hour it’s time to break up gaming-zombie-mode to enter the real world. This part is rarely popular, but given fair warning, it’s a respected rule.
As your child grows more interested in drama and action, keep an eye on what they watch. Remind them what’s fiction. Discuss how they make different stunts or special effects. Keep asking questions about what they feel, what they think the story is about and if they can relate to the stories somehow. It’s educational! It’s good to translate the perceived images to words, to summarize and reflect upon symbols and experiences. It’s a way to keep a dialogue about ethics too.
Oh, what about “But all the other kids are watching …” Well, we don’t need to do what “everyone” else is doing. We are not sheep, and this we can tell our children. But we don’t have to be cruel either. We can read them the cartoons. Tell them a summarization of the story, or fast-forward the parts you don’t want your child to see. We’ve gotten away with Spiderman clothes and toys without ever watching it, and the same goes for Star wars. We will watch it, of course, but later.