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TV for toddlers? How our family has used the tube

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently rolled out a number of new recommendations and the one that caught my attention the most was about TV use for children under two. Though I tend to keep my parenting philosophies to myself, this is a subject I am rather passionate about, as I believe that many kids watch far too much TV and it can be detrimental to them. I do allow my son to watch some TV, though, and have since he was very young. I would even say it has helped him learn. How do you strike a good balance?

As one of the 90% of parents who doesn’t follow the AAP’s recommendations for television use to a tee, I do know how the television can be a problem and see wisdom in the guidelines. My son is now three, and this is what has worked for our family.

Keep it educational

Not all kids’ programming is created equal. My son is not allowed to watch fast-paced cartoons with characters shouting obnoxiously and engaging in completely unrealistic situations. I think most kids’ shows claim to be educational in some way, but that doesn’t mean that kids will get the message. These days (especially since ditching cable) we stick with PBS, which offers a variety of great educational shows for different ages. After more than 40 years, Sesame Street has children’s programming down to a science, and it’s still fun for grown-ups to watch, too. My son has also enjoyed Dinosaur Train and The Cat in the Hat, both of which have taught him proper scientific terms. We have also used DVDs to supplement learning–my friend Sophie recommended LeapFrog’s Letter Factory and it helped my little guy learn all his letters and sounds by the time he was two.

Have limits

Most young kids don’t have the attention span to sit in front of the TV for any length of time, and that’s a good thing!. When I notice my son’s attention elsewhere, I switch the TV off. Of course kids don’t always know how to self-regulate, so we have a time limit too. Instead of TV constantly on in the background we either keep things quiet or tune into a kid’s music station on Pandora. He’s able to really focus in on play and let his imagination soar.

None after noon

Like many first-time parents, we learned the hard way how easily young children can become overstimulated. My son was doing great with his sleep patterns, when he suddenly started having a tough time settling down to sleep at night. We were lucky if he was asleep by 10:30 p.m. after a couple hours of fussing, and then he would often wake up again around 3:30 a.m. What was the problem? It finally occurred to my husband and me that the small amount of TV we were allowing him to watch after dinner was completely overstimulating his little brain. Yes, even just a low-key show with cute and fuzzy little animals that like to sing and save the day. We axed TV any time after lunch, and our little guy settled back into a healthy sleep pattern. We replaced his TV “treat” with extra playtime and story books instead. For us, TV time is enjoyed with a glass of milk in the morning.

Watch with them and watch them

Now that my son is getting older and his imagination is rapidly developing, he is more prone to being scared or disturbed by what he sees on even the most seemingly innocuous kids’ shows. When I see his eyes pop open I ask if he’s scared or worried. Sometimes we can talk through it, other times we need to turn it off. Recent “scary” things have included the Big Bad Wolf, Mr. MacGregor being angry at Peter Rabbit raiding his garden, Oscar the Grouch, and people in fruit costumes. You just never know what goes through a child’s mind and what might worry them. Even if I’m familiar with the show, I like to know exactly what my son is watching so we can talk about it. We have steered clear of most kid’s movies (yes, even Disney) until he is old enough for the scary parts. Watching TV together with young kids doesn’t need to be an experience for parents to suffer through–I still love watching Sesame Street, and Mister Rogers on DVD is a favorite of both of us.

Is it all bad?

I know many families do without TV entirely. It’s a personal decision that works for them, and I won’t judge. However, I think everyone learns in a different way and I know personally that TV broadened my horizons, developed my interests and taught me a lot. I am a visual learner and was a little bit weird in that from the age of four I enjoyed watching shows intended for adults that taught oil painting, cooking and home construction. I went on to get a degree in architecture, and I still enjoy cooking and painting. While it’s not scientifically proven that children under the age of two can learn from television, all children learn at their own pace and some earlier than others. My son was ready to learn his alphabet, colors and numbers earlier than I expected and TV helped make it extra fun. That’s why I have allowed my son to watch a limited amount of television since before he was two, and I don’t regret it.

What do you think? Is TV allowed in your house? If so, which shows or DVDs do you love, and how do you feel they supplement your child’s learning?

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