TV rules for the kids

Written by malina saval
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How to monitor and control your child's viewing habits

TV rules for the kids
Setting boundaries is the first and most important step when controlling kids' TV-watching behaviour. (Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images)

If kids see a character on TV that they really like, they want to be that character. So you need to be choosy, because not all children’s shows have the same content.

— Shelley Pasnik, director, Centre for Children and Technology, Education Development Centre

If you’re like most parents in the UK, your youngster is more adept at programing the Sky Box than you are, better at configuring the settings on the ever-perplexing, button-overloaded remote control, and faster at finding the corresponding numerical channels for Nick Jr., BBC Kids and Cartoon Network. We live in an age when, for better or for worse, TV has become the new playground, with kids sitting around the box sucking on lollies and shoving popcorn into their mouths as an endless broadcast of popular children’s shows with catchy titles such as “Wonder Pets,” “Dinosaur Train” and “Sid the Science Kid” stream through state-of-the-art flat screens. But while television has much to offer in the way of educational entertainment for your pint-sized media consumer, it can also crack open a Pandora’s box of sex, drugs, violence and F-words. So how do you train your young couch commando to limit his TV intake, tune in to parent-approved shows and understand that the world doesn’t revolve around the loud, clanging theme song from “Yo Gabba Gabba!”?

Start young

The sooner you set up boundaries the better, says Shelley Pasnik, director of the Centre for Children and Technology at the Education Development Centre in New York.

“The reality is that children are social creatures,” Pasnik said, “and the older they get and the more they grow as human beings, the less control parents have over what choices they make, whether it’s imaginary play or what kind of social interaction they have.

“When it comes to watching TV, the earlier you establish guidelines and rules, the easier it will be to enforce them.”

It is recommended limiting the amount of time your child spends in front of the TV to one or two hours a day (and no TV for children under age 2), Pasnik argues that an equally productive course of action is to think about what role TV plays in your child’s life and how to milk that influence for educational benefit.

Different shows for different ages

Your child’s age will dictate what shows he wants to watch and, in turn, help you determine which are appropriate for his stage of development, Pasnik says. “Olivia,” “Barney & Friends” and “Sesame Street” cater to the toddler set. (Elmo, perhaps the most famous red puppet on the planet, was designed with the personality of a 3-year-old in mind, while lovable monster Grover is supposed to be 4).

For the slightly older kid, the series “WordGirl,” featuring a brainy heroine with a fancy vocabulary, and wacky, fun, science-oriented fare like “Bill Nye the Science Guy” and “Beakman’s World” are hits with adults and pre-teen viewers.

“If kids see a character on TV that they really like, they want to be that character,” explained Pasnik, citing Princess Presto on PBS’ “Super WHY!” as a popular example. (She teaches kids how to write letters using her Magic Spelling Wand.) “So you need to be choosy, because not all children’s shows have the same content. And kids imitate everything.”

Schedule kids’ viewing times

As a rule, Pasnik advises parents to avoid shows in which the characters use violence to resolve conflict. Parents can block questionable content using a V-chip, internal technology that allows them to program a TV to display only shows deemed kid kosher.

She also suggests that Mum and Dad select programs and designated viewing times in advance.

“Let them know ahead of time that at the end of a certain show they need to take a bath, or eat dinner, or go to bed,” Pasnik suggested. “Children thrive on following a sequence, so make that schedule part of the rhythm of the family. Give your kids a role in turning off the TV. Let them be in charge of the remote and assist in the shutting-down process.”

Other methods of control

Or, you could just stash the remote where the kids can’t reach it.

“I hide the remotes up high so my children can’t get to them,” said Rachel Panush, a mum of two and owner of, a line of baby slings and accessories. “I also use a DVR to program ad-free shows – ‘Fetch with Ruff Ruffman’ and ‘Nova’ are favourites. My husband and I are able to program a pass code into the DVR so that they can’t turn it on without asking us.”

Panush also suggests drafting “contracts” with your kids so they can’t take advantage of their TV viewing privileges.

“[My kids] have a tendency to behave like angry addicts when I try to turn it off, and they try to steal and hide the remotes, so I treat TV like the addictive crack that it is and put a lot of limits around it,” Panush said. “They never get to watch TV for free. There is always an agreement that either they've accomplished some task, such as homework or getting ready for bed, and they have to promise not to fuss when it's time to turn it off.”

One of the easiest and best things parents can do is to make TV watching an interactive family experience.

“Watch TV when your child does,” Pasnik said. “Ask questions that encourage your child to invent her own dialogue or vary the plot. Some TV conversation starters include, ‘Which character would you like to be?’ ‘If you could make up a new story with the same characters, how would your story end?’ Use what they see on the screen as a springboard for other activities.”

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