Modeling healthy media consumption

Nick shared his musings on how our kids learn from what we say AND do:

I'm smart enough to know that I know nothing – My oldest is only 3, so who knows what our parenting will wreak upon his little psyche. I do know that we have friends who severely limited technology for their oldest kid and he now spends all his time podcasting. Is that a good or a bad thing? I don't know.

Kids learn by example (that much I do know), and they see me at the computer all day long (self-employed selling machine tools on the internet) so it's natural they want to be at the computer too, they see me watch TV, so they want to watch TV, they see me fixing things and making things in my home shop and they want to fix and make too. Oh yeah, and reading – my kids see me read so they see that reading is something one does.

So I think that environment and teaching are really the same things, or rather different sides of the totality of life experience. I'm always amazed when my son turns off the TV or computer – he's had enough or is bored and moves on to coloring or playing with trains. So I think the environment is working, and he is learning that you can manipulate your environment to your needs.

But again, I have no idea – as a great general once said "no plan survives contact with the enemy", and that is certainly true of parenting.

We traded a bit of email on this, and he added:

I do think that people have different ideas about media influence on children largely driven by their own experiences with media – that is if you feel that media has a negative influence on you, you tend to protect your children from it, and if you enjoy media, then you encourage your children to enjoy it.

In my case both the internet and (satellite) TV have had a profound positive effect on my learning and general happiness (in the philosophical sense) that is akin to the effect that books have had.

Check back in three or four years and see if I've had to eat my own words…

Nick's sentiments rung a bell with me, because I often hear myself (and my mom friends) saying, "When I was a kid, I did [insert mildly unhealthy activity here] and I turned out ok." In my case, it was TV. My parents never restricted my TV watching, and I grew up watching game shows, Star Trek and Mary Tyler Moore reruns, and Spiderman cartoons after school. I also read a ton and did all my homework, rode my bike, played with friends, and did all the other things kids do…and I turned out ok.

The "I turned out ok" excuse usually slips out when I'm "caught;" someone observes the kid mesmerized by the Game Boy or eating Capt'n Crunch or engaging in some other activity that's frowned upon in my educated, liberal community. It makes no sense, really, because my friends don't judge me or my parenting. No one cares if my kid occasionally eats Froot Loops for dinner — their kids do too. But I still feel the need to notify the world that this is an exception. Hmm.

I fear I'm going off on a tangent, but hopefully it's good for discussion. What're your thoughts?



  1. Allen Knutson says

    We haven’t had to worry much yet about about our 5-month-old’s TV consumption.
    One very practical reason that I plan to push him towards books rather than TV & movies is that in our culture, people are very often measured (rightly or wrongly) by their command of written English. And that’s only going to be more true growing up with the Web.

  2. Jill says

    I felt that if I kept mine away from the TV/media for their first three years or so that they’d develop other ways to entertain themselves. My ~5yo doesn’t think to ask for TV because he’s never watched it, and goes directly to his art and lego when he gets home. I don’t plan to teach that it is bad (altho I do talk about the purpose of commercials) but just teach him alternatives. I agree that there is a lot of good, educational television out there, but it’ll be there in a few years too.

  3. Patrick Fitzgerald says

    I’m more concerned about the type and amount of TV watched. Luckily in this age of the Tivo we have more control and options – we watch shows that have no advertising, we don’t watch brainless cartoons, but shows like Dora, Diego, and Little Einsteins that are more “interactive” and seem to stimulate imagination.

    During playtime we rescue toy animals; at the park she wants to be a “spectacled bear”; and riding on my back she is a “baby pygmy marmoset” hiding from our dog “the hawk”.

    Considering all that I don’t feel bad about letting her watch an hour or two of TV each day.

  4. Dan says

    I don’t think that “..and I turned out ok” is an excuse. It’s a valid point. There is so much concern today over doing “the right thing” as a parent. Yet looking back on our own childhoods we can see that we were often raised “wrong” yet still “turned out ok”. It’s an important lesson to remember.

  5. decompiler says

    i don’t think it’s so much a question of whether or not you let your child consume certain types of media; i think it’s a question of your presence as a parent, and your ability to help your child learn how to process the media they take in.

    from the time i was 9 on, i preferred all of the most dark, violent, and disturbing forms of media. horror books, comics, and movies; death metal music; violent video games; etc, etc, etc. but my mom was there watching what i was doing, and was constantly talking to me about what i was seeing and its relationship to reality.

    while my 7-year-old doesn’t like anything more graphic than scooby doo or “the lion, the witch, and the wardrobe,” she does see quite a few commercials (and toy advertising is limitless evil, if you ask me). for this my wife and i try to be there for the same type of reality check that my mom used to give me.

    hope i was on topic with this; i’ve only had one cup of coffee… :)

  6. Stu Mark says

    We have two children, ten and fourteen. They both have DirecTV and TiVo in their room. My daughter gets good grades and is creative and energetic and funny and sweet and kind. My son is on the verge of a straight A report card and is also a great artist and he is a dedicated athlete. Yes, I could let them watch less tv, but it makes them happy and that is ultimately what I want for them. Please note: Sincerely, I am happy to be wrong about this, and if you like, feel free to offer public/private suggestions as to how I could be better about this.

  7. Shannon M. says

    We have an 18-month old son, so I don’t know the impact that T.V. watching has had on him yet. But, from my own experience, growing up glued to the television, not encouraged to play outside and not introduced to the library until I was well over 10 years old I think that parenting by example is the best thing that you could do for your children. (Note:Despite my childhood habits, I am a well adjusted person who loves to read, is a fitness/health nut, and still watches a little T.V. from time to time.) We recently read a book titled “Freakonomics” and one of the sections that has stuck with me was dedicated to examples of children who grew up to do more or less what their parents did. I am not talking about job, but their behavior. So, with that in mind, I do think that your children are effected by what they see in the media, but what influences them more is what they see you doing. I also think that it is important to talk to your children about what they see, and honestly answer any questions they may have. Sometimes, I think that in our quest to be the perfect parents and raise the perfect children we lose sight of the goal. Life together should be fun. Building relationships is key. And don’t worry so much about what other people think, this isn’t a contest.

  8. Sara says

    I just finished a paper on this topic for my Master’s program.
    In feel there is something to the nature/nurture debate when applied to this issue. By that I mean, well, the folks who are naturally inclined to having varying interests and a high level of ability are more likely to be successful no matter how much time they spent watching t.v. and eating sugar cereal. Does this make sense? I could be talking out of my a** here, but it’s just an idea I have.
    I think the danger in promoting television/video games as being okay or even helpful lies in the issues of variation and moderation. We know that not all parents are as attentive and thoughtful and Nick; not all people are going to create enriching, balanced experiences for thier children.
    In our house, we read a lot and our 2 year old daughter does not watch t.v. She does see the t.v. on at times, but for the most part we are t.v. free. We are lucky to have a toddler who is happy to read quietly by herself. I’m not sure what will happen if our (possible) second child is a wild-child — I could totally change my mind.

  9. Nick says

    I think that most people who read Parent Hacks are involved enough with their children to moderate harmful influences of any activity, be it media appreciation, sports, school, etc.
    (and don’t think for a second the latter two won’t have undermining influences just as strong, in my opinion)

    Part of our media watching involves constantly talking about how advertising is professional lying – while some products are good, we don’t need the influence of ads to get us to buy them. This paid off the other night when the boy, watching an ad for a limited edition lightsaber, said “That’s crap, we don’t need that”. Now of course we have to work on his use of novel words like “crap”

    I like who I am, and I would like my kid to be roughly compatible, so I want him to enjoy what I enjoy. So when I second guess, it’s usually about my behaviour, not what I’m teaching him…

    But again, who knows how he’ll turn out.