Opening Pandora’s Box: My Children’s First TV Experience

So after three years, three months, two weeks and five days of a screen-free existence (not even as background noise), my daughters Quincy and Mendez watched television for the first time. Why did we wait so long to introduce them to videos, movies and television programs you might wonder? Isn’t it educational? Aren’t there benefits? Well, for children under the age of three, not so much. Even The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents wait until at least two years of age.

In the past five years I have spent a lot of time reading research on the effects of television on young minds and have come to the conclusion that children are best served by waiting to watch television until they are at least three years old. I feel strongly about the value of waiting and have written extensively about the reasons I found compelling in my “Dr. Jenn” column in Los Angeles Family Magazine, my book The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy Confident Kids , and in my upcoming book SuperBaby: 12 Ways to Give Your Child a Head Start in the First 3 Years.

But I digress. Back to my own experience in opening this virtual Pandora’s box. Prior to introducing it, my husband and I decided to do a few things:

We made a screen time plan. We decided that television would not be a normal, daily event; that we would only watch it one time each week and that it would only be for a maximum of 30 minutes. We let our children know this plan in advance.

We chose commercial-free shows. By choosing a DVD or a show on the DVR, parents can avoid advertising which targets children, especially children of an age that don’t yet understand the difference between programming and commercials. These damaging, targeted commercials are incredibly effective at convincing them they need to make their parents buy their products and low nutrient foods in order to be happy.

We prescreened the shows. In addition to reading reviews and looking at the literature about children’s programming, we pre-screened the shows to make sure there wasn’t anything objectionable to us or which did not meet our parenting values or philosophy.

We made the experience an event. We decided that television viewing would be done as a family and that the children would never watch by themselves. We engaged our kids during the program by asking them about things in the program and followed up by doing activities related to the shows so that they would have a multidimensional experience.

So what did we watch? This has been the most frequent question I have been asked. The first two times we sat the kids down to watch TV, we watched Signing Time! which is one of my favorite children’s series. The show is filled with catchy music and sign language, the images are not overwhelming, the children are diverse in look and ethnicity and the messages are sweet. Our children have been listening to Signing Time! CDs and reading Signing Time! books since they were babies so this was an easy first step for us. Week one we watched Everyday Signs and week two we watched ABC Signs.

The next time we watched a video called Wonder Pets which is a terrific, operetta-like cartoon about animals who help save other animals. While we watched the show we occasionally stopped to try new signs or talk about what was happening, which took the experience of sitting and watching from being a completely passive time to an interactive and engaging activity and opportunity for bonding and learning with your kids. We also spent some time after watching Signing Time! listening to the CDs and practicing our signing.

So far this has been a very positive experience for both kids and parents. I can see how easy it would be to use the television as a babysitter or to turn it on when we are out of creative parenting ideas (or energy). However, we have made a commitment to do our best to provide interesting and educational moments so it is important to us to make our television experience both entertaining as well as a learning opportunity. I am especially excited for my kids to see things that they would not normally see in their own environment such as baby animals in the Serengeti, Olympic figure skaters, and foreign cultures and locales.