Despite its fault, TV does offer access to a wonderland of experiences – sights, sounds and people – that a child can find nowhere else. It can take children to the far corners of the world or even the universe; expose them to the past and the future, the everyday and the exotic, the arts and the sciences. These Ten Commandments will help your family derive the most benefits from this medium with the least risk:
- Establish sensible limits now. If you wait until your child is in school to enact and enforce such limits, the task will be much more difficult. What limits make sense? Before two years of age, it’s best if a toddler skips TV altogether. After this, half an hour a day is plenty. Choose the shows for your toddler until he or she is old enough to participate. At that point, you can offer choices: ‘Do you want to watch Balamory or Sesame Street today?’ As she gets older, you might consider a little more TV, especially on very rainy or bitterly cold days. But allowing hours of TV for toddlers, who should be doing rather than watching is not a good idea.
- Enforce limits. Setting limits is one thing, keeping to them is another. Limits won’t work unless you regularly click off the television set when the allotted show is over, and then redirect your toddler’s interest elsewhere. Having a favourite activity planned for right after television viewing will help to make for a more pleasant transition.
Of course, as with most rules, there are times when your TV rules will need to be broke, as when a child is sick, and has to be relatively quiet for prolonged periods, or when a children’s special is being shown. Just try to make it clear that the rules havent changed and that this is an exception.
- Time television viewing. Avoid turning the TV on during mealtimes, which should be family time; during play dates, when children should be learning social skills; and during family gatherings and holiday celebrations (except for special holiday shows).
- Watch together. Children are much less likely to sink into a TV trance if they watch with a parent, and if there is a lot of interactions related to what’s on the screen: Isn’t that a beautiful horse?’ or ‘That clown is so silly!’ or ‘Oh, what happened to Dumbo?’ You can be doing something else while you watch – either with your child (building with bricks, doing a puzzle) or on your own (peeling carrots, working a crossword, paying bills). Allowing your child to watch TV alone is like leaving him or her alone under the influence of strangers; joint viewing allows you to correct misinformation, monitor commercials, and point out values you share as well as those you don’t. Of course, there will be times when you will have to let your toddler watch alone, but don’t make solitary viewing a habit.
- Make TV viewing interactive. Draw characters from the screen, discuss action and story lines, carry out activities similar to those shown on favourite programmes, comment on and ask question about television shows while they’re on. Motivate to your toddler sing or dance and do arts-and-crafts project along with TV characters. Sing-along or dance-and movement videos encourage active participation. Getting your toddler to talk about a show (in effect, to critique it) when it’s over can turn TV viewing into a valuable education experiences.
- Avoid using TV as a substitute for attention. You wouldn’t hire a baby sitter who talked endlessly, never listened to your child, never responded to questions or fears, and couldn’t deal with your child’s concerns. But if you use your TV as a baby-sitter, that’s just what you’re doing. Employ it in this capacity only when absolutely necessary.
Also avoid using television to calm, soothe, or cheer your child, or to otherwise respond to his or her needs. Try to find out what is bothering your toddler and help him or her deal with the problem instead of sweeping it behind the TV screen.
- Do not offer TV as a bribe or a reward, or take it away as a punishment. Associating the tube with good behaviour (it must be good because only good kids can watch it) or making it more tantalizing by dangling it over your child’s head (‘IF you stop crying now you can watch Sleeping Beauty’) is sure to make it that much more attractive.
- Set a positive example. Your children will be more likely to do as you do than do as you say, so become a model of responsible TV viewing. Don’t keep the TV on for background noise or for round-the-clock entertainment. Except for an occasional special show; save your TV viewing for when your children are safely tucked in for the night. If you don’t like total quiet around the house, switch the radio on for periodic weather or news reports, or play back ground music both you and your toddler enjoy.
- Be selective. Carefully choosing what your children watch on television is as important as controlling how much they watch and how.
Preview. Before letting your child watch a particular show, try to view it yourself first to determine its appropriateness. (If it’s on at a time you are usually with your toddler and you have a DVD recorder, try to tape it for later viewing alone.)
- Counteract the negatives. Television’s negative effects can be wiped out or minimized by:
- Turning the family focus way from TV substitute, instead, activities that bring the family together (cooking, gardening, swimming, art projects, a trip to the park or the museum or the zoo). When you do watch TV together, engage in other activities simultaneously (games, for example), and encourage discussion about what is happening on the screen.
- Building the Toddler Diet habits. Adopt a family lifestyle that includes The Toddler Diet (refuses to buy into, or let your children buy into, those junk-food and commercials), healthy attitudes towards food and dealing, and plenty of exercise.