T.V. or NOT T.V....?

What can get, then hold a child's attention faster and longer than a mother bearing chocolate chip cookies? Or a serious frown? What is more entertaining to a kid than a birthday party? Or a trip to the mall? What do parents seeking discipline take away more often than anything else? And what, according to many parents, can "rot a kid's brain?" Television!
And what is capable of grabbing attention faster than a raging parent, more powerfully captivating than the most innovative classroom; and able to crunch large segments of time to a mere instant? Television: The Great Hypnotist. Turn it on and the child becomes "glued", undaunted by a parent's call, the ringing of a phone; and especially, the need for a bath at bedtime.
Frustrated by published reports of declining educational standards (i.e., lower SAT scores, percent of high school students who graduate and enter college; increasing violence, missed classes, etc.); and the electronic revolution with it's myriad of alternatives to reading, many parents and teachers fear a loss of influence over children's intellectual development. There are those who consider television, for the most part, a brainless activity-- the evil work of the Devil! Their convictions are supported by several beliefs about TV and children: Children who watch TV are poor readers; unmotivated to perform activities and chores, including schoolwork. And TV turns children into dull "couch potatoes", restricting their ability to make informed choices that otherwise results from reading and other more "stimulating" activities. Consequently, parents and teachers feel a need to limit children's TV diets. But like any "diet", it's maintenance is hampered by a host of temptations, as well as the limitations and beliefs of those who supervise.
Consider weight management. There are people who diet successfully...hundreds of times! If you were to chart the course of their weight over time, the resulting graph might resemble the "Cyclone" rollercoaster at Coney Island! Typically, those who cycle in this manner attend primarily to what they eat, rather than how and when.
A more prudent approach includes the latter two elements by limiting the events or "cues" which trigger eating, and modifying a host of eating related behaviors including the purchase, preparation and storage of food. Thus, when weight is a problem, food need not be eliminated-- just managed effectively. As a medium, TV can play a major role in a child's learning.  That's correct.  There are more useful myths regarding T.V. than the ones about being the work of the devil and rotting brains. The emphasis here is on effective management, not limitation. Encouragement, not restriction. What is appropriate, rather than what is not. The TV can be an effective instrument in a variety of ways when managed effectively:

  1. As a learning tool. A variety of programs, movies, and VCR tapes introduce and reinforce positive values, cultural diversity and learning of subjects such as language, math, science and social studies.  Educational programming can acquire reinforcement value when paired with more preferred programs. This can be accomplished in a number of ways: (a) Show interest in some aspects of a child's preferred programs through discussion and participation, (b) Introduce an educational program with equal enthusiasm, participating in it's content with a child, (c) Establish a contingency in which joint participation in one kind of programming will be followed by that in another, (d) As the child shows more interest, begin to "fade-out" your participation-- not eliminate it. You want to communicate that while you care, your presence is not necessary for the child to learn.
  2. As a reinforcer to increase the occurrence of "lower-probability" behaviors. Given the opportunity to do anything, the probability of watching TV is likely high, while performing chores, homework...or going to bed on time is comparatively low. After identifying one or two behaviors you would like to increase, establish a contingency in which their performance will be followed by a specific number of programs or number of program hours. Keep records that are visible and there- fore, verifiable.
  3. As a healthy diet. Strive for a healthy blend of education and entertainment. Caution: Children are great modelers. What they see is what they do. Just as it is difficult to discourage eating and smoking in children if you are obese and chain-smoke, watching TV that is unrestricted, both in quality and quantity, reduces the likelihood of positively influencing their TV viewing habits.