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How to Choose the Healthiest TV Shows for Your Toddler

Updated on January 3, 2016

Choosing the Best for Your Toddler

The toddler years are exponential in terms of learning and progress. Toddlers are more aware of their surroundings, of themselves, and their emotions. In this awareness, toddlers tend to imitate the influences in their environment.[1]

Because toddlers are so impressionable, parents are rightly concerned about the influence of television on their toddler's developing brains. As Vice President of the American Emotional Wellness Organization and married to a prominent psychologist, my husband and I made it our mission to choose the best television programs for our kids. Following are the guidelines we use with our own children. Enjoy.


Why Parents Must Be Vigilant About Their Toddler's Television Shows

Parents of toddlers know that their kids are like walking sponges. They imitate everything around them.

Television has changed a lot in the last fifty years. In the 1960s and 1970s, exposure to television shows was limited to a handful of TV channels and one set time every day or every week.

Now, shows can be viewed over and over and over again, at any time of the day or night. We have recording systems with cable and satellite TV where we can record any show we like and watch it any time. We have moved from VCR tapes to DVRs, where kids have 24/7 access to shows and movies.

It's more important than ever to choose great programming tor your toddler, limiting what your toddler views to hand-picked shows, and within those shows, limit viewing to certain episodes. While I'm fairly certain all show creators have the best of intentions, many shows miss the mark when it comes to toddler shows, because the writers lack the education one needs to understand where toddlers are emotionally and mentally, and lack the help of a psychologist who truly understands what it takes to help a toddler develop an emotionally healthy structure and a sound mindset. They write from an adult perspective rather than a child's perspective. What seems perfectly logical to an adult is translated differently with a toddler.

Therefore, the rules are completely different for toddlers than they are for older kids.With older kids, you can sit and explain the behaviors you think are offensive or wrong, and they'll get it. Toddlers have not yet developed the ability to differentiate healthy behaviors and thought patterns from unhealthy ones, so they are vulnerable to all the unhealthy mental schemas they pick up from television shows.

For instance, I have observed episodes from toddler television shows that teach kids to ruminate (think about negative thoughts over and over again), which is associated with depression.[1].

Toddlers imitate what they see, and these patterns can become set if you're not aware what effect these programs can be having on your child.


Know what elements the best shows contain to promote the mental development and healthy ways to deal with emotions.

What Emotionally Healthy Toddler Programs Should Not Contain

Some people argue that television should reflect real life situations so children can learn how to deal with them. Instances of bullying, how to handle someone who insults you, how to calm down when upset, can and should be taught at home and at school.

However, the individual instruction offered by parents and teachers are not the same as television programs. Parents really don't have any control over the content in TV shows, and unless you watch all shows before you sit with your child, you could be unpleasantly surprised. You have no ability to customize the information to your child's understanding and intellectual development.

Toddler programs have to cater to the age group. If you show a toddler an instance of bullying, such as calling a kid with glasses four eyes, or excluding a child from play, your toddler does not yet have the emotional maturity or know-how to say, yeah, that's wrong. That would make me feel bad, so I won't do it.

Instead, toddlers might pick up on the behavior, especially if it occurs for an entire episode.

It's best to avoid shows or episodes of shows where a majority of the episodes are okay that contain the following behaviors:

  • Saying mean things to other children or other bullying behavior. For instance, if someone says, "You can't play with us."
  • Encouraging rumination. Sure, kids get sad sometimes. It's natural. However, for toddler shows, they should not have episodes where there is a sad, crying kid for the entire episode. If your toddler is a sensitive person, he might get upset and start crying too! Or, you have a character who, despite all his successes or who is practicing a new skill, gives up easily and runs away to sulk, for the whole episode. Showing this behavior does not heal the child of the behavior. During the toddler years, it just reinforces the unproductive behavior.
  • Encouraging fighting. Yes, it's also true that kids get upset with each other from time to time. However, showing two kids in conflict encourages conflict. How about instead showing two kids expressing themselves assertively and resolving conflict that way, peacefully and without anger? Or successfully handling their own anger, like taking deep breaths to calm down? Showing kids that other kids act out and hit or yell when they're angry only encourages abusive behavior patterns. It doesn't matter what you're trying to teach kids after that. By then, it's too late, and your toddler has wandered off to do something else, or might not even be paying attention even when you think he is.
  • Blaming and shaming. Kids go through embarrassing moments at times, and at other times, fail to take responsibility and blame others around them. Again, not the best behavior for our toddlers to model. Blaming and shaming hurt everyone, not just toddlers. It's not productive, it's not an assertive, constructive way to resolve conflict, and this judgmental behavior does not belong in toddler shows.

Toddlers learn through imitation. By providing them with healthy models to imitate, you could be protecting your child's emotional and mental health.

What Toddler TV Programs Should Contain

For older kids, you want to allow some socially negative things to seep into their viewing every once in a while. With older kids, you can discuss and teach concepts like empathizing, kindness, problem solving, social justice, and other techniques that will teach your child emotional resiliency and healthy ways to negotiate life situations.

Toddler programming, on the other hand, should not reflect real life because you will not be able to engage in conversations like this with your one year old. The best toddler programming needs to be unrealistically positive to provide your toddler with the best of behaviors to model at all times.

Some positive behavior models that some programs provide are:

  • Positive interaction. The amount of positive interactions should be the entirety of the show, with negative social interactions and feelings only making an appearance once in a blue moon. It's okay to have story lines where things don't work out for the character, but have the character bounce right back. While it's understandable that people get upset when things don't go their way, who says people have to get upset at all when things don't go their way? There is no need to teach a toddler that they must get upset if things don't work out as planned or they are having a problem.
  • Intellectual development. Programs should be entertaining to hold toddler's attention, but also your toddler should be learning shapes, colors, counting, reciting the alphabet, reading short words, anything that will help prepare your child for school.
  • Emotional regulation. If a child or cartoon character comes across an upsetting situation, instead of responding with anger, a temper, frustration, or tears, the character responds with resiliency, and figures out the next steps he can take to solve his problem. If the writers feel there is an opportunity how to solve problems, a problem is short lived, like under a minute, to match toddler's short attention spans. The best way is to show a character slightly upset, and maybe something negative, but then to have the friend, parent, or teacher right there to tell the child that while it's understandable he feels that way, to offer another way to look at it, and the upset child's spirits are lifted.
  • Empathizing with others. On the flip side of comforting the upset character in story, having the friend there to help right away, listen, empathize with the sad character, and then work to fix the situation is a desirable way for TV program writers to demonstrate concepts like empathy, emotional regulation (such as self-soothing), and problem-solving skills.
  • Assertiveness skills. When people resolve conflict by first calming themselves down, using their listening skills and taking turns to speak, and creating win-win situations, it's assertiveness skills at its best. Why not start toddlers off right and repeat this productive behavior over and over again with their favorite characters so they have a stellar model to use to help them build their communication skills?
  • Problem solving skills. Focusing on how to solve problems, rather than focusing on what's wrong, is a healthy skill to develop in toddlers. Teach this to your kids, and it could help keep them from ruminating and develop a positive attitude.

Provide Your Kids with Excellent TV Shows to Help Your Child Build Emotional Health and Skills

Even if you completely trust the TV program, parents can sit with their toddlers and watch TV with them. Comment on what's happening in the story, such as, "Oh, what a nice friend Casey is. That was a very nice thing to say to Ben." This way, you can reinforce the great behaviors displayed on the television programming.

By being selective, you are limiting information that could do your toddler more harm than good.

Provide your child with excellent materials, and your child will have excellent behaviors and mental habits to model and learn from.

What kids television station do you like most?

What station do you feel shows the best kid's shows?

See results

Summing It Up

  • Toddler's programs need to be created considering the mental and emotional maturity of toddlers.
  • See if your kid's programs stimulate his intellectual development, as well as providing your child with the best models to handle emotions and communicate with loved ones.
  • Watch programs with your toddler that minimize bad behaviors to under a minute of the entire show. Resolutions to problems should be quick.
  • Unproductive behaviors should be handled immediately and not allowed to drag on for a majority of the show. The message will be lost and reinforce the negative behavior.

Great toddler TV shows are like fruits and veggies for the brain.

Do you allow your toddler to watch television?

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