I live in a part of the country where you regularly see a certain bumper sticker that urges you to “Kill Your Television.” It’s well-intentioned. I understand where they’re coming from. In principle, I agree. But I’m not killing my television any time soon. In fact, I love television.
It’s not just for the handful of shows that I enjoy in my frequent exhausted stupor1. It’s because I credit television for teaching Ben many of his most important social language concepts.
Ben learned to answer yes/no questions and how to think in a sequence of events from watching Dora the Explorer. He honed his imaginative play skills and developed a repertoire of all-purpose sayings2 by watching The Backyardigans. He adjusted to riding the school bus by watching Caillou. And now he’s learning cause and effect and social problem solving (not to mention a little Mandarin) from watching Ni Hao, Kai-lan.3
Before I had Ben, I had this idea that my child would not watch much TV. That we would play with nice old-fashioned wooden toys instead of branded, plastic crap from Target. And we would use our imaginations rather than have television prescribe our storylines.
But as fast as you can say, “Cancel my subscription to Mothering magazine” I found myself with a kid who watches, and loves, TV.
When I say TV, I’m not being completely accurate. Ben does not actually know that television is a broadcast medium, nor does he know that Chris and I watch television shows ourselves, since we only do this after he is in bed.4
The television, for him, is a toy that offers shows on-demand: shows that are either recorded via DVR or played from a DVD.5
I think it started with a series of Scholastic videos that were adaptations of his favorite books. I’ve written about how Ben loves the multi-modal approach to stories, watching the video and following along in the book. And these always seemed sort of highbrow and guilt-free. After all, they were adaptations of Caldecott Award winners: videos even a librarian would love.
Then we got a Dora the Explorer video as a gift. As anyone in the 2-6 year old set knows, Dora actually pauses to allow the viewer to participate and interact. And this style of children's program showed me a whole new side to Ben’s relationship with television.
At the time he was somewhere between two and three years old and had almost no spontaneous language. He was fascinated with the video and would ask to watch portions again and again. Then he started responding and interacting with Dora. He was answering her questions.
He had never answered my questions.
That’s when I decided it might actually be good for him to watch videos. And so he does. About 2 30-minute shows each day. Sometimes more, sometimes less.
And he never just watches videos: he studies them. And it pays off. He picks up useful social language that he generalizes to actual situations.6
For example, tonight we were at a neighbor’s house and I told him it was time to go home. He sat down on the stairs and whined, “It’s not FAIR!”
A parent with a typical kid would find this mildly annoying, but it was so perfectly appropriate, in tone and style and context, I was thrilled. It’s a line from a TV show, which Ben inserted perfectly to express how he was feeling.
Think of it this way: If you were just starting to learn French, wouldn’t you rather practice your French skills at home with the Berlitz tape than at a formal dinner party in Paris? You could play phrases over and over. You would be in control. It wouldn’t be so chaotic and unpredictable. It would be less scary. You’d feel more confident.
Learning from television (videos, DVDs, TIVO, whatever) is less anxiety-provoking than learning from people when you have an overwhelming need for your world to be predictable.
Knowing exactly what’s coming up next probably gives Ben a sense of order and control and being able to watch things many times over, I think, helps him to better process and understand what he’s seeing and hearing.
And I’m not a neurologist, but my guess is that when you’re not experiencing anxiety, your brain is far more open to learning.
I might not feel the same way once Ben learns to use the remote and I stop being able to mediate what and when and how much TV he consumes, but for now, I love our on-demand access to a speech therapist (Kai Lan) a play group (the Backyardigans) and social stories (Caillou).7
Now if you’ll excuse me, I've got some episodes of Dinner:Impossible to catch up on.
1. Lost, 30 Rock, The Office, The Amazing Race, Flight of the Conchords (on DVD – we don’t have HBO)
2. Including these excellent opening gambits for playing with other kids: "Arrr - I'm a pirate!" "3-2-1 Blastoff!" and "Yee Haw - ride'm cowboy!"
3. I’m not being paid by the folks at Nick Jr. to say this.
4. We once had the Oscars on and Ben just regarded the television curiously, then ignored it, as if it were broken or stuck.
5. If you don’t know what those acronyms stand for, then go right back to reading that chicken pox party article in Mothering magazine.
6. He also commits them to memory and recites them ad nauseum.
7. We do not allow Barney in our house. We do have standards.