When it comes to young children and television viewing, parents have a variety of beliefs about what (and whether) their kids should be watching. While some parents don’t permit any television viewing at an early age, other parents allow their children to watch TV as long as the show teaches some sort of lesson and is considered educational.
This is not an article about whether to allow your young kids to watch television. That’s a personal decision which varies from family to family.
For parents who do permit some TV viewing, this is an article about making the most of what your child watches.
Children’s educational programming often ends with a pro-social message about being a good sport, getting along with family members, or treating friends with kindness. That’s what makes these types of shows so appealing for many parents. However, in order to get to the message at the end, children typically witness some sort of negative interaction between the characters first.
In order to understand the moral of the story, viewers need to have some pretty complex thinking skills. They need to piece together the beginning, middle and end of the plot to make sense of how and why the lesson was learned. They need to understand that the negative interaction they viewed was associated with challenges and consequences, and that’s why pro-social behavior would be a better choice.
However, the reasoning skills of preschool-age children are still developing. Because they may not be able to fully comprehend the big picture like older children can, it’s possible that they’re not only learning the pro-social messages from educational television, but also a few negative ones.
In a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, researchers suggest that educational television may, in fact, unintentionally be teaching young children some negative lessons along with the positive ones.
Researchers at both Iowa State University and the University of Buffalo in New York observed preschool-age children in the classroom and on the playground at various child care centers. They also gathered information about the children’s behavior from teachers and parents.
They found that children who were exposed to educational television were more likely to exhibit “relational aggression” than children who didn’t watch these shows. Relational aggression differs from physical aggression in that it involves hurting feelings – not inflicting physical harm. Examples include statements like: “You’re not my best friend anymore” or “You can’t come to my birthday party.” Relationship challenges are common story lines among children's shows. The goal, of course, is to teach children how to avoid and/or resolve them, not to imitate them!
What You Can Do
Before you say goodbye to your child’s favorite characters altogether, there are things you can do.
–Set limits on screen time. Enjoying independent play, interacting with friends and family, and enjoying physical activity have the capacity to teach more valuable lessons than even the most educational television show.
–Choose carefully. Pay attention to the content and message of the shows your children watch.
–Watch with your kids. Talk about what your child is seeing. Explain why a negative behavior wasn’t appropriate and how it might have made the other person feel. Similarly, point out how a positive behavior might have helped solve a problem or strengthen a friendship.
Educational programs for young children can certainly be beneficial and promote all kinds of positive lessons and messages. The key is to take an active and involved role to help your kids make the most of it.