Healthy TV Habits

by Dr. Ray Guarendi

Though youngsters will urgently argue the point, children don’t need television.

They may want it, crave it, even suffer withdrawal during a power outage, but healthy social development is not linked remotely to the number of channels your set receives.

Television is not inherently bad. Unlimited and unscreened, however, it is destructive.

It erodes family life, promotes passive existence, and relentlessly beams distorted reality and morals at children. The key to making the medium work with your parenting goals rather than against them lies in how wisely it is controlled and dispensed.

Awareness of what’s coming into your living room is critical to responsible TV guidance. Filtering out graphic violence or inappropriate sexual content is basic. But don't stop there.

Even seemingly benign sitcoms and cartoons may contain themes and messages that run completely counter to your values. Many parents confess to me that when they finally saw what their children were routinely watching, they sat stunned. They had no inkling of the amount of junk in their kids’ viewing habits.

Even closely screened television should limited. Otherwise, TV can become an addiction that encroaches upon a well-rounded family existence. Here are some possible ground rules:

1. Television is available only after homework and chores are complete. Responsibilities preempt privileges.

2. No television on school nights. This ruling evokes comebacks from kids like these: “There’s not another kid in the whole school whose parents do this. What am I going to talk about on the bus?” Even if that’s true, it’s irrelevant. How your family views television is your decision.

3. Programming can be rationed. Limit commercial stations to half an hour per night. More educational public television shows may be viewed up to an hour and a half.

4. Develop your own version of pay TV. Each half hour costs, say, ten cents. A PBS half hour costs a nickel, not because it’s worth less, but because it’s usually worth more. The money can be accumulated to help pay for a family outing.

One mother told me of an unexpected advantage of closely monitoring her kids’ television, especially on Saturday mornings. They asked for fewer toys because they didn’t see the ads that suggested they needed more. The family also got to talk over a leisurely breakfast and found they actually liked one another.

Wonders can occur when you turn off the tube.

Dr. Guarendi  is a family psychologist and author of Discipline That Lasts a Lifetime (Servant Books, 2003) and You’re a Better Parent Than You Think (Fireside, 1984).

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