HOOKED ON 'TRONICS: Children, Summer & Television

"I find T.V. very educational. Every time someone switches it on, I go into another room and read a good book.”
                                                                   Groucho Marx
“Billy… Billy! Bil-l-e-e-e!
Ahh…the familiar sounds of summer. A frustrated parent bellowing for her son who, alas, cannot hear her. He is preoccupied. In another state of consciousness: Television land.
Children have an exquisite ability to selectively ignore that which is uninteresting. Such as the call of a parent who, after all, wants something boring, compared to what’s going on right now…television programs and video games.
Television rules! The average child sits passively in front of a TV screen for approximately 29 hours per week. And that’s during the school year!
During the summer, TV becomes a kind of guru, a master entertainer, teacher and a baby-sitter. It’s a kind of addiction. Children will scurry home, perform chores in haste, and “tune-out” in order to “tune-in” their favorite inactivity…television.
Although television can be an excellent source of educational, cultural and creative programming, viewing for such extensive periods also exposes children to negative programming—anger, violence, and topics too advanced for their years. Moreover, it also reduces the likelihood of effective communication between parent and child, or child and anyone else for that matter!
A situation like this can cause a parent to feel out of control. Threatened. Then, many times, the parent who experiences this state of consciousness will attempt to compensate by exerting unreasonable control measures. For example, a parent might respond to her unresponsive child by banning all TV completely…for the summer. Imposing punitive measures vis a vis television may help a parent feel in control again. But it is at best a Pyrrhic victory. In the process, the parent may sustain tantrums, resentment and uncooperative behavior. The move certainly will not enhance mutually respectful communication between parent and child.
In addition, such a power play reflects the failure of a parent to recognize the powerful and resourceful properties TV has in terms of it’s ability to strengthen other more desirable behavior. A long time ago, a psychologist, David Premack, noticed that a “high-probability” behavior, that is, one which a child is likely to perform, can be used in a contractual relationship to increase the occurrence of a “low probability” behavior, or one you might wait a lifetime to get a kid to perform! A parent can generate a list of high- to low-probability behaviors by paying exquisite attention to his (her) child. Or by asking the kid, “Given the opportunity to do anything you want, what would you choose most? Then what? What next?” Right down to what he would do least. You know, homework, chores, answering a calling parent while playing video games, and so on.
In all likelihood, TV and video games will rank high on the list. A method of controlling TV time then becomes apparent.

  • The Deal. Determine how often the child’s low-probability behaviors need to be performed; you know, the ones he would never think to do himself. Daily? Weekly? Allow a certain amount of TV or video game time following the completion of those activities. Be careful of requiring too much for too little! Can you imagine working for the next twenty years for no pay and then receiving $400,000? You would have long since quit your job. It works the same way for a kid.
  • Generate Alternatives. The idea of turning off the TV is teaching a child that there are other worthwhile things in life. “Like what?” He might ask. Be prepared for a discussion. Include the child in generating more ideas and dish out lots of approval for his (her) participation. Puzzles, games, books on tape that can be enjoyed— then discussed— as a family group, are some examples. Furthermore, the alternatives may involve taking children out of the house. But be careful! You could end up “hanging-out” at the mall with your child. The idea here is useful alternatives to TV!
  • Bonus TV. Children can not only earn TV for performing less-preferred tasks, but can now earn additional TV time for engaging in some of the alternatives above. For example, reading parts of a book, helping Mom, working or playing outside could possibly earn TV time.

As we age, our perception of time changes. The fleeting summer of an adult can be endless boredom to a child, mitigated only by TV and video games. A little creative planning may make time pass more pleasantly for all.