Okay, I confess. I let my daughter watch television. If recent media reports are to be believed, this quite possibly makes me the worst mum in the world. Television is definitely the current villain of the piece.
According to a study commissioned by the Australian government, too much viewing delays language development, harms concentration and could lead to obesity. It recommends that kids under the age of two watch no TV whatsoever (bringing it in line with guidelines from the American Association of Pediatrics), and that children aged two to five years be limited to no more than one hour a day.
True, too much television can adversely affect behaviour and development. The first two years of a child’s life are considered critical for the brain and it doesn’t take a genius to work out that if junior is glued to a screen, he’s not exploring, playing or interacting in a way that encourages healthy physical and social development. As he gets older, too much screen time can interfere with physical activity, reading and homework, or simply limit time with friends and family.
We parents know that. We’re not daft, It’s just, well, it’s so darn convenient. And we’re talking the odd episode of Dora the Explorer, not plonking them down for hours on end in front of The Evil Dead. My daughter enjoys it, she learns things (okay, we’re all a teensy bit fed up of the Barney song), I finish my jobs in peace and maybe squeeze in a cup of tea. It has become a small, but important, part of our routine.
Thankfully, parenting educators are on my side. In a victory for common sense, they reckon that, provided mum and dad set limits, television is not going to turn our kids into pudgy, aggressive, social outcasts. ‘I don’t think TV is the bad guy,’ says Therese Sequeira, a parent educator who runs a number of parenting workshops in Dubai. ‘My kids watch TV, but I am discerning about what they watch. They most certainly don’t have free reign.’
Most experts believe that, controlled and managed by parents, telly can actually has some benefits. ‘Children need downtime too,’ says counsellor Helen Williams. ‘Television is a fabulous way of giving kids time out, of letting them wind down and relax. A DVD is fine for a holiday occasion or special treat. The problem arises when parents use television as a babysitter so they don’t have to pay attention to their children’s needs and emotions.’
Emily, a mum of two who has lived in Doha for three years, confesses she too is a closet TV-permitting parent and admits to using it ‘more for my own convenience – to keep them occupied while I’m clearing up or cooking.’ But she notices that her eldest son becomes more hyperactive and is prone to tantrums if he watches ‘zany, mental programmes’. Which is why she sticks strictly to DVDs. ‘We can choose exactly what they are watching, plus the episodes are short so we can say “one more and then it’s bed”.’
This is an excellent idea, says Rachel Waddilove, author of The Toddler Book: How to Enjoy Your Growing Child, adding, ‘Watching television is perfectly okay, so long as mum or dad are around and the TV isn’t left on for hours on end. Suitable, age-appropriate programmes for short periods are absolutely fine, so long as kids know there is an off button.’
Concerned your kids are telly addicts? Write down how many hours a week they are switched on – be warned, you may get a shock – and see how it infringes your family time. Does square-eyed Sarah throw a hissy fit when you call her through for dinner because her favourite programme still has 10 minutes to run? Does grunting Gordon refuse to have a conversation and vanish every evening to watch TV in his room? Perhaps the television is taking over your lives.
Of course, it can be an excellent educator and entertainer for everyone, but keep in mind that kids who watch a lot of TV or other adult-directed entertainment will find it harder to occupy themselves when there’s nothing to do. As Therese says, ‘Do you want to raise TV addicts who can’t think for themselves? Most parents want curious children who are interested in the world and in learning new things, so it’s important to get kids involved in a variety of activities – both high energy burning and low energy downtime.’
Yes, it’s dull to harp on about balance and moderation, but in telly terms, they are key. So, stop giving yourself a hard time. Provided you’re not a lazy parent and you remember that TV is no substitute for imaginative and physical play and socialisation, you’re not going to do them any harm. Now, where did I put the remote?
See Rachel Waddilove’s parenting advice at www.rachelsbabies.com.