Monday, July 11, 2011

The Television Ate My Child's Brain! Or Not.

I've been reading a lot lately about how bad it is for kids to watch television. How television is like an addictive drug that induces a brain stupor for anyone who watches for too long. How kids can't possibly learn anything from watching a screen. How kids love limits and will someday thank me for limiting their screen time. How I should not let my kids watch too much or they might actually be sucked into the screen and disappear forever. Ok, not really that last one.

How can I tell if he is turning into a zombie?

My kids watch television. I'm not afraid to admit it. We love watching it together. We don't have cable, but we do have DVDs, VHS tapes, a library card, a computer hooked up to our television and a Netflix account, so there are almost no limits on the number and range of programs we can access.

Also, they have absolutely no arbitrary limits on how much television they can watch. We let them decide how much is right for them. There are days when the television is on all day. Does this mean my kids are zombies with brains of mush? If so, I haven't noticed it.

Here are some things I have noticed though:
  1. Multi-tasking. Often, my kids are doing other things while the television is on. Especially if we are watching something they have already seen, they will climb and jump on the couch or the slide in the living room or paint a picture at the coffee table or dance to the soundtrack.
  2. Learning. The kids have learned a lot from watching television. Some random facts like the phases of the moon from "educational" shows. But most importantly, they have learned about big things like death and illness and love and loss. They have learned about places we will might never get to visit, like Africa and China and Antarctica. This stuff is in the stories, in the art of the movies we watch.
  3. Sparks. We get ideas from watching television. We pretend to be the characters we love to watch, and we act out their stories. We make props like things we have seen on television. We go searching for things like pogo sticks.
  4. Connections. They talk about connections between movies: the settings, the plots, the characters. They make connections between things they see in movies and things they see in life. the other day Louise (4) asked about a large, pointy object sticking up above the trees along the horizon. When I told her it was called a steeple, she recited a line from a Scooby Doo movie that she had seen two times: When dawn breaks on the summer solstice, the steeple will light the way.
  5. Free choice. My kids willingly choose outdoor activities regularly, defying the supposedly irresistible pull of the evil, unregulated screen. There are even days when we are inside all day, and the kids choose not to watch anything at all.
  6. Power. My kids are not a captive audience when a television is on. They will watch when they want to watch, but they will just as freely not watch a screen that is on, even in the same room. They are powerful to make the choice. The television has no power over them.
  7. Sharing. The kids love to share the things they are watching. They want me to watch with them. To dance with them. To explain the things they don't understand, like what happens to Marlin's wife, Coral, at the beginning of Finding Nemo. Like why Dory can't remember things.
However, I also feel strongly that not every moment in a child's life has to be one of active learning. They need down time too, just like adults. If I were a parent of a child in school, I would be a lot more concerned with how much time my child is forced to sit down, sit still, pay attention, than with how much time he chooses to spend in front of a screen. At least in the latter situation, he's always free to get up and go to the bathroom or get a snack or stretch his legs.

I love giving my children the opportunity to choose how active they feel like being at any given time. For me, it's not about how much or how little television they watch and setting arbitrary limits to achieve perfection. It's about their relationships with television, which are already healthy.

They connect with each other too.

And it's about their relationships with me. I love that every time they make a choice in freedom, they learn the most important things of all:
That I care about and respect their preferences.
That I want them to share their interests with me.
That I trust them to make choices.
Even though it's already not the case, it would be all right with me if these were the only three things they ever learned from watching television.