Parenting Articles

When television works for you

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His blue eyes are open in wonder, and his head moves around as he intently watches what I’m doing.
‘Tape.’ I say.
He passes me tape. I affix a green paper plate onto the cardboard box, which already has 3 wheels, 2 arm straps, a steering wheel, and a cut-out hole fitted to his body.
Finally he talks.
‘Where did you get that stuff from? I mean, where does all this COME from?’
I realize that we have just performed a miracle in his eyes. We have created this monster truck out of thin-air. Thirty minutes earlier daddy had walked in the front door with a box of vegetables, and now – after raiding our paper plate drawer and stationery box, we have a monster truck.

Thank you, Play School.

There are times when I’m grateful for television and I feel I’m a better parent because of the shows I’ve watched. But because of some surprising issues in our family lately, I’ve been weighing up the pros and cons of TV and wondering whether it really has a positive purpose in our lives.

When DS was a baby, we could get away with watching almost anything. DS was uninterested and uninfluenced by what he saw on the screen. Around the time he turned two he started to like The Wiggles and some Disney films. As the months passed and I found convenience in him watching TV while I cooked dinner, his interest grew to ABC 4 Kids. Then we had our second baby, the weather turned rainy and we all caught the flu a few times. Because I needed help with entertaining DS, switching on ABC 4 Kids became easier and easier… sometimes watching TV even replaced our daily craft activity and bedtime story. Little by little, our son’s behaviour changed …

Finally we realized – after detective-like monitoring of when he was acting silly, talking in a strange voice, or not listening / responding to our questions – that TV was affecting his engagement and connection to us! He was imitating silly voices and faces, repeating nonsense dialogue, and his attention span was getting shorter and shorter and he would bounce from one activity to the next without finishing or communicating what he had planned.

We decided to unplug the digital set top box and only watch movies we approved of once or twice per week – and we noticed an immediate and radical difference in our son’s behaviour, personality and attention-span. (If you have ever cut sugar or additives out of your child’s diet and noticed a positive change, you will know the kind of difference I am talking about. You won’t believe it until you try it and see for yourself.)

I realize TV can be a positive learning tool as each show presents a lesson to learn. New concepts such as the weather, and species of animals on Sesame Street, for example. Social themes and understanding relationships within families on shows like Olivia and Angelina Ballerina. Song and Dance with various other shows. And most importantly to us, cooking, craft, reading, dress-up, role-play and music on Play School.

And it is because of Play School that we have a dedicated ‘Play School’ room in our house where we do craft, play, dress-up and story telling, and that I find it so easy as a parent to whip up a monster truck out of a grocery box and paper plates.

But despite the convenience and educational benefits of TV, there are several drawbacks, as well. In addition to affecting the young child, it also affects parents and how much attention and love they are capable of giving. For example, when daddy finishes work and the TV is switched on, he can’t see how desperate DS is to play and talk. Furthermore, the dialogue on the TV can bring energy and ideas into the home that do not belong – such as talk and visions of sickness, conflict, opinions, complaints, sarcasm, humour at someone else’s expense, violence and fear.

So with all this in mind, I have recommended a way of making TV work for us – and I’ll share these ideas with you in the hope you benefit from a calmer, more focused, caring and intelligent child (as we are).

1. Sit with your child through an entire TV watching session and absorb everything that they are absorbing. Realize where they hear certain phrases and where they pick up silly faces and voices. Observe if your child appears stimulated or bored.

2. Decide which shows you feel are appropriate based on how well the characters/actors speak, the messages and themes in the plot or story-line, the amount of nonsense or silly language/behaviour, how stimulated your child is, and the favourite characters that could become your child’s role-model.

3. Observe how your child behaves between shows. Does he imitate what he just watched? Is he aware of what else is happening in the room with other family members? Does he show consideration to other family members or does he seem detached from real life?

4. Pick one or two favourite shows from TV that you truly think benefit your child from an educational point of view. Buy several episodes on DVD. (We chose Playschool and The Wiggles.) Unplug your digital set top box.

5. Watch your chosen DVD’s at appropriate times and always watch the shows together. Sit with your child, show interest, and make conversation during the show about what you are observing and learning. If music comes on, get up and dance. Interact with the characters by laughing and talking about them. Ask your child if he understands what is being said, and the story. Pause the DVD and clarify the meaning of words, and give more detail on concepts your child may not yet understand.

6. Make mental notes about how you can repeat the show’s key concepts in your home. Can you re-do the craft with materials in your play area? Can you prepare the same meals? Can you sing the same songs, do the dress-up and role-play? When doing follow-up activities, stay with your child and guide them so they understand how to appropriately apply what they have learned. Explain to your child that you want to do/make/cook/sing/play just like you both saw on the DVD.

7. When you want to watch TV or movies yourself, pick educational shows that you can watch as a family and talk about. Great TV shows to watch together are cooking shows, Dr Harry Cooper or Bondi Vet, nature/space documentaries, and musical shows.

8. Prove that TV watching comes second to family time. If a family member speaks, press mute or pause and have a brief conversation.

9. If the child loses interest in the show, and is looking for stimulation elsewhere, turn the TV off. Don’t leave it on as background noise or in the hope they will return to it. Offer alternative activities, something to eat, a walk outside, or simply sit together and have a conversation or cuddle.

10. Make your own home movies by recording simple daily life activities in your phone or camera. Then watch them together on the computer or TV screen. Our children’s beautiful little faces light up with wonder when they see their own features and voices caught on film. It’s a good time to talk about memories, and the people, places and pets they love.

TV doesn’t need to be timed or limited to ‘x’ hours per week. It just needs to be USED and made to WORK FOR US. Apply what you see on TV to your life. (Deciding to do this will naturally make you more selective on what shows you encourage your children to watch.)

I feel that TV is very similar to packaged food in the supermarkets. It was a novelty when introduced, yet somewhere along the line it became a habit and we forgot to question whether it was truly healthy and natural. Now is a good time to question whether it really helps your family – or if it’s more like a ‘convenience food’.

I urge you to try unplugging the TV and seeing the affect on your child’s personality. You might find the occasional bouts of tantrums, rudeness, hyperactivity, naughty or destructive behaviour is replaced with calm, mature, reasonable, friendly behaviour. It’s totally worth it.

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Joanna Becker, Author and Wellness Medium
www.joannabecker.com.au

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