Monday, March 27, 2006


Too young for TV?

There was an article in the Ottawa Citizen this week that I can’t link to yet again, but I can link you to the original source, the Washington Post. The article was about the controversy around Sesame Beginnings, a new DVD series developed for babies between six months and two years old, featuring baby versions of favourite Sesame Street characters including Big Bird, Elmo, and Cookie Monster. (Didn’t we already do that in the 80s? Or am I just imagining Sesame Babies?)

The DVDs were developed in a partnership between Sesame Workshop and the non-profit child development and advocacy program Zero to Three. As a parent, with a staggering array of children’s entertainment to choose from, I'll happily choose something developed by organizations who are reputable in the field of childhood education, rather than simply mass entertainment (call off your libel dogs, I never mentioned Disney or Fox Kids in particular). I don’t suffer from the delusion that they're completely altruistic, but I’m comforted to know that a pioneer like Sesame Workshop is behind the scenes.

There’s a rash of companies on the market in the last five years or so, trying to sell you products to build a smarter baby. Flash cards for three month olds, classical music in-utero… if you have money to burn, there’s a whole market out there full of questionable products for you.

We have a shelf full of Baby Einstein videos. We didn’t buy them because we thought they would make the boys smarter, or that we would give their early learning a kick-start. We bought them (actually, we received most of them as gifts) because the kids loved to watch them. They would both sit peacefully for 20 or 30 minutes and watch the harmless images of dancing puppets or oddly psychedelic spinning toys, giving me the chance to throw together whatever was passing for dinner that night, or toss on a load of laundry, or, god-forbid, take a shower. (whispers) I even used to put them on just so I could read the paper and have a cup of coffee in peace. Scandalous, isn’t it?

That’s why I like the idea behind the Sesame Beginnings DVDs. I grew up on a healthy daily dose of Sesame Street and I’m fine if my kids grow up on it, too. I'm not naive enough to believe they'll help the boys ace their college entrance exams, but if it buys an overwhelmed mother a few minutes of sanity, I’m all for it. And for what it's worth, ask my mother some time; she’ll insist that I graduated university magna cum laude and could read by the time I was four in no small part due to the positive influence of Grover, Oscar, Ernie and Bert.

According to the Post article, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under two should not be allowed to watch any television whatsoever. I think this is an unreasonable expectation and puts an unjust burden of guilt and fear onto parents who are just trying to get through the day. Just yesterday I admitted that I worry that we watch a little bit too much TV - but I cannot fathom a world where Simon would just be getting his first exposure to television today, at the age of 25 months. There's a happy middle ground, I'm sure.

The Canadian Pediatric Society has taken a more reasonable stance on this one. In a position statement on media use by children, they point out that Canadian kids do watch excessive amounts of television, and that can contribute to childhood obesity and other problems. However, they are more realistic in their acknowledgement that TV can also be used as a learning tool for the very young:
Television can be a powerful teacher. Watching Sesame Street is an example of how toddlers can learn valuable lessons about racial harmony, cooperation, kindness, simple arithmetic and the alphabet through an educational television format. Some public television programs stimulate visits to the zoo, libraries, bookstores, museums and other active recreational settings, and educational videos can certainly serve as powerful prosocial teaching devices. The educational value of Sesame Street, has been shown to improve the reading and learning skills of its viewers. In some disadvantaged settings, healthy television habits may actually be a beneficial teaching tool.

So there you go. My guys are a little beyond the target age for the new Sesame Beginnings DVDs, but I wouldn't hesistate to check them out if the boys were younger. And I've still got some thinking to do on the amount of TV that gets consumed at our place, but with the warmer weather finally arriving, that too may be a problem that begins to resolve itself.

What about you? How much TV do your kids watch, and from what age? Do you give any credence to the argument that all TV is bad TV, or do you justify the fact that your kids might watch a lot of TV but at least it's not commercial TV? Is 30 minutes of TV as detrimental to your bright-eyed baby as the forces of guilt would lead you to believe? 'Fess up - it wasn't an accident that time you hit "play continuously" instead of "play once", was it?