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Raising Smart Kids Without Throwing Out the TV

Updated on February 18, 2010

Hundreds, if not thousands, of studies have demonstrated the deleterious effects of television on young children's minds, bodies, and social life. In most households, children start watching television before the age of two and the average child watches four hours a day. By the age of 18, the average American child will have witnessed 16,000 murders on television, and countless hours of advertisements. Television is blamed for the rising epidemics of obesity, Attention Deficit Disorder, sleep problems, behavior problems and much more.

Personally, I do believe that television consumption should be minimized for any child who has not yet learned to read. The mental patterns and processes that television encourages are detrimental to the development of the attention span and language skills a child needs to read. Encouraging television watching for pre-literate children is akin to offering Hershey's Milk Chocolate instead of Godiva Dark. A child accustomed to the easy pleasures of milk chocolate may never acquire a taste for dark, which may be an acquired taste, but it is, in the end, more satisfying and better for you.

Once a child has learned to read (and to enjoy reading), however, I think that the dangers of television decrease dramatically. In fact, studies have shown that children who watch a limited amount of television often perform better in school than those who watch either excessive amounts or none at all.

Television does offer educational benefits for children, particularly in the form of nature programs and documentaries such as those offered on PBS and the Discovery Channel. And scripted shows are, like movies, just another kind of literature. Here are some tips for how to encourage active, not passive, viewing, and take advantages of the benefits of television without succumbing to "the plug-in drug,"

How Not to Watch TV

Watch Together!

This is the single most important piece of advice I can give. At some point, most parents end up using the TV as a babysitter. However, whenever possible, you should watch television with your kids. So many of television's dangers can be avoided with this simple step alone.

First, when you watch television together, you know what your children are watching, can control how much they're watching, and are able to turn off or discuss shows or events that you consider inappropriate or in need of discussion. My mom did this with me and my siblings and I have to say, it drove us nuts, especially when we were teenagers who thought we'd seen it all, but in the end we were grateful for it. It told us that she cared, and it allowed her to filter the events on screen to us through her own moral values. We gained a better understanding of her beliefs, and thereby of our own.

Secondly, watching television together turns television time into another kind of family time. If you're like me, I tend to shush other people when I'm actually watching a program (scripted programs, anyway), which is not at all conducive to human interaction. However, I also love to mute the commercials and talk about what's going on in between acts.

Calvin and Hobbes, February 15, 1995, by Bill Watterson
Calvin and Hobbes, February 15, 1995, by Bill Watterson

Cliché and Archetype

For those who don't mind talking during the show, sporking is another fun thing to do while watching TV together. To most people, of course, a spork is a hybrid between a spoon and a fork. To fans, "spork" is a term for a good, in-depth mocking. It is a particularly useful tool for advertisements and bad TV, but also works against good programs.

Basically, sporking is a way of looking at what the creators want you to think about something based on how they present it, and analyzing how successful they are at getting you to think what they want you to think. Sporking is a great way to improve your children's analytical skills and also, incidentally, immunize them against manipulation by advertisers, writers, politicians, and other charlatans.

For some excellent examples, I suggest you visit history_spork, a LiveJournal created by three archivists to mock bad historical movies. Their sporking of The Sound of Music is a great one to start with, unless you really, really love the movie.

Another way to start having more fun with your television is to treat scripted television shows like classic literature. Look for the patterns in your entertainment and think about what they are meant to accomplish. For example, Star Wars is famously built around Joseph Campbell's theories about the Hero's Journey. Timeless archetypes like the Hero's Journey appear over and over again in classic literature and popular culture alike, and they are intended to bring with them a specific set of associations and expectations in the mind of the viewer.

The popular TV Tropes Wiki is full of patterns like these: the Accidental Hero, the Love Triangle, the David vs. Goliath... You can recognize and discuss the themes, tropes, and cliches of television as easily as you can in the works of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, or Hugo, and have fun making connections between stories, speculating on the twists that make each individual retelling special, and mocking the bad examples, like the villain who spends so much time torturing the captured hero that the hero's friends are able to get there and help him escape. Obviously he misplaced his copy of the Evil Overlord Handbook.

Calvin and Hobbes, May 5, 1992, by Bill Watterson
Calvin and Hobbes, May 5, 1992, by Bill Watterson

Another way to encourage children to truly think about the characters and plots they watch on screen - to become active, rather than passive, viewers - is to encourage them to write about them.

Fanfiction, which borrows the characters or universe of a TV show, book, or film and expands on them in some way, is an increasingly popular pastime among many media fans because it allows aspiring writers to practice their craft and pure fans to explore the world of their favorite series in more depth.

Another popular fan pastime is meta, which is analysis or discussion of elements of the series similar to a book report or academic literary analysis essay. Still other fans recut their favorite shows or movies to music by creating fan vids.


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