Question: Is television in general considered bad, or is it specifically what children watch? My 23-month-old daughter watches a bit of TV each day and loves it. Is it okay to use it as an incentive to get her to pick up her toys, brush her teeth, etc.? —Jennifer Embree, Sun Valley, Idaho
Expert advice: Television is not bad in and of itself. However, children learn much more from real life than from television, so the more TV they watch, the less time they have for other kinds of experiences. Toddlers can learn things from television programs appropriate to their age, but the way they learn from you, the parent, is more powerful.
Research shows that it takes signifi cantly fewer repetitions for a child to imitate an action when she sees it performed in person than when she sees the same action performed by a person on TV. The child will imitate the action done by the live person immediately. Television isn’t like conversation; it doesn’t offer the valuable back-and-forth, the rich language development that comes with adult-child interaction. When a child says, “Me-meme” and points to a cup, and her mother says, “Oh, it looks like you want more milk—let’s go to the kitchen and get some,” the child learns the art of conversation and that what she says has importance. Content is signifi cant in the shows toddlers watch, and should be appropriate to their developmental stage.
Toddler shows should consist of short vignettes that involve animals, puppets and family situations with parent-child interactions, like a big picture book. Sesame Street is educational, but it’s not designed for a 1-year-old. Arthur is a great show, but it’s for elementary school kids and deals with issues such as friendship. Toddlers have no way of understanding why a character is yelling or crying on a TV show, and seeing this can cause anxiety. The more parents interact with their children while watching TV, the more children will learn. If you see a boy bouncing a ball on TV, you can say, “Let’s go get your ball and bounce it, too.”
This way your child is using her body and her mind. By making a link to real life, you expand your toddler’s learning. If you see a dog on TV, the next time you’re out with your toddler and notice a dog, you can say, “Look, there’s a dog just like the one we saw on TV this morning.” Then you can look for big dogs and small dogs. The more emotionally connected children are to an experience, the more they learn from it. Live experiences are much more effective than fl ashcards or images on a TV or computer screen. Seeing a real train go by in your town has a context. Situations on TV have no context.
Regarding incentives, the problem with encouraging cooperation through rewards in general is that small children will learn to do things only for the reward. They quickly learn to ask “What do I get for it?” when you request their help. I wouldn’t use TV as a carrot. I would offer something connected to real life. You might say, “You have to brush your teeth to keep them strong. If you cooperate, then we’ll have more time to read books.”
You want them to associate cooperation with good things happening in life, such as more playtime or doing a puzzle with you. If you do use TV as a reward, fi rst set a limit on how much you’ll let her watch each day and be firm. You could say, “If you cooperate with taking a bath, then we’ll have time to watch another DVD.” Just be sure you haven’t already exceeded that day’s limit. — Claire Lerner, L.C.S.W.
Jennifer’s feedback: These are great points. I like your ideas for getting her to help. I also have a 5-week-old baby, and at times I let my toddler watch TV while I get the baby changed or pay bills. I limit it to an hour a day of non-commercial TV that’s geared toward young kids, and I do interact with her as much as I can when she’s watching it.
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About the experts:
Tim Craig is founder/director of a 33-year-old nursery school in Van Nuys, Calif., and vice president of the Association of Child Development Specialists.
Claire Lerner, a licensed clinical social worker and child development specialist, is Director of Parenting Resources at Zero To Three, a nonprofi t organization for the well-being of infants and toddlers. She is also a liaison to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Early Childhood Development.