I am not a silent reader. I respond audibly to my reading material, either sharing it aloud or else groaning or cheering as the case requires.
Had you been in my neighborhood when I read a recent article on children’s television in the Wall Street Journal, you would have first heard a moan followed closely by a growl. The article, entitled, ‘The Turf War for Tots,’ explored the competition for tiny eyes between Nickelodeon and the Walt Disney Company. The battle was presented as pitting educational programming vs. entertaining storytelling.
My moan was precipitated by this sentence, “Preschoolers aged 2 to 5 spend an average of more than 32 hours in front of a TV screen each week, according to Nielsen.” The growl? That came when I read this gem, “…Disney researchers found that when parents were asked what they most want for their children, the most popular reply was for them to be happy.”
Call me a curmudgeon, but I think children’s happiness is a terrible thing for which to aim. Happiness is a delightful by-product, not a worthwhile goal. The more one pursues it, the less reachable it becomes.
In addition to basic needs such as food and shelter, children need a secure, affectionate, structured and responsive environment. If their imaginations and intellects have opportunities to expand and their bodies and souls have room to grow–they will be happy.
TV, I’m afraid, makes achieving many of those goals more difficult. The link between TV watching and lack of physical exercise is often touted. But that is a minor drawback compared to other areas. I can’t cite scientifically based studies and I was certainly not interested in conducting experiments with my own children, perhaps raising half of them with TV and half without. But, having watched my children and those of most of my friends’ grow up without a TV, I saw their creative play and abilities to entertain themselves soar. Rather than self-medicating boredom with a television screen, they responded to the discomfort of being at loose ends with sparks of resourcefulness.
Was the ability to entertain themselves more evident in post-preschool years? Certainly. Books, puzzles, activities and crafts have limited appeal for a toddler without an adult or older child’s participation. Unfortunately, TV is not a worthy replacement playmate. Leaving aside the potential physiological effect on the developing eyes and brain, it makes the preschooler a passive recipient. It may keep the child quiet, but at a cost. Counting to ten with Elmo is not the same as counting to ten with Mommy and neither Dora the Explorer nor Kai-lan Chow, the cartoon character who teaches Mandarin Chinese, do so with hugs and tickles. My personal conviction is that the more TV a child watches from birth to age five or so, the less capable he will be of independent entertainment and learning as he moves beyond the preschool years.
I know first-hand the struggle to find time to take a shower, the mind-numbing effect of reading Hop on Pop hundreds of time and the frustration of trying to accomplish any adult activity with a three year old at hand. With hindsight, I also know how fleeting those early years are and how impressionable minds deserve to be given loving, personal attention rather than an electronic visual distraction in the guise of either education or entertainment.