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The best way to approach television is to think of it as refined sugar: You want your kids to enjoy the seductive stuff without consuming it to excess. So you'll need to stay on top of the time your child spends in front of the television. The average American child watches three to four hours a day, despite the recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics that kids 2 and older watch no more than one to two hours daily. The AAP recommends that kids under 2 watch no television at all.
Starting out tough from day one is the key to keeping viewing time under control. It's a lot easier to relax your standards later on than it is to wean a 5-year-old from a three-times-a-day Barney habit. Here are some tips on how to monitor your child's television viewing:
Monitoring your child's TV Viewing
- Limit the amount of TV your child watches. More than two hours a day is too much. To make it seem to your child that they're watching more - and to keep their little brain from going on autopilot as they watch - break up viewing into ten- to 15-minute increments. You should also keep the television out of your child's bedroom and turned off during mealtimes.
- Avoid setting a firm TV time "allowance for your child. This seems counterintuitive, but it's surprisingly effective. You may want to let your child come to you when they want to watch and keep to yourself what the absolute maximum is. That way, you'll avoid tacitly sending the message that there's a certain amount they "should" be watching.
- Make television physically inconvenient. Too often, television is a backdrop to family life: It blares away in the den or great room while the kids are playing, Mom's cooking, or the family is eating. Consider putting the TV in a small, out-of-the-way room in the house (on the second floor, if you have one). Another way to keep the TV from being front and center: Keep it in a cabinet that remains closed when the TV is off.
Choosing what to watch
- Go with calm, quiet programs. Slower-paced viewing gives your child time to think and absorb. Lots of random activity, like the kind in action/adventure cartoons, confuses children. Also, some research suggests that children who watch violence on TV are more likely to display aggressive behavior. Stay away from scary shows, too. Choose simple programs that emphasize interactivity, such as Blue's Clues. Ideal are shows that inspire your child to make sounds, say words, sing, and dance.
- Watch programs, not television. Rather than allowing your child to sit down and watch whatever is on, use the TV listings to select carefully what they are going to watch. Turn off the set when that program is over.
Watch TV with your children whenever possible. Try not to use the set as a babysitter. A recent study looked at three groups: children with unlimited access to television, children with moderate access who watched without a parent, and children with moderate access who watched with a parent. The last group scored significantly higher academically than did the other groups. That aside, just being there says to your child, "What you do is important to me."
Help your child become a critical viewer. Even young children can learn to watch television without "tuning out." Explain what's going on in the show and in the commercials (and clarify the difference between the two). Encourage your child to ask questions and relate what's happening in the show to their own life. If you have a DVR, consider recording programs. Then you can watch when you choose, and you can pause to discuss what's going on.
Make yourself a role model. Children are most affected by the example parents set, so don't channel surf or keep the TV on as background noise. If your kids see you eagerly sitting down every so often to watch a specific show and concentrating on what you're seeing, they'll recognize the potential for enjoyment TV actually promises.