Guidance on how to discuss quality of children's TV with children
October 2, 2022 3:22 AM   Subscribe

I'm trying to find articles by child development experts about how to have discussions with my 4-year-old about which children's shows might be more worthwhile than others.

There's lots of stuff online about limiting screen time, or evaluations of individual shows having appropriate content or not, but those are not really what I am looking for.

This is more a question about helpful phrases or approaches to use with kids when discussing why it would be more worthwhile to be watching show X rather than show Y. The AAP says in this report that we should be watching "high-quality programming." But how to encourage this preference in a positive way? I'm trying to find an expert who has weighed in on helpful ways of how we could talk to our child about why some shows might be higher-quality than others, while being respectful of her feelings and interests.

p.s. Bluey is awesome btw
posted by johngoren to Education (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I think 4 is too young for this. You can and should choose TV that you think is good for her to be watching. She can't be in charge of her own development and boundaries at this age, that's your job. When she is older, can understand abstract concepts, and has a more meaningful choice of entertainment, a guide like this seems helpful.
posted by Balthamos at 3:59 AM on October 2, 2022 [40 favorites]

Best answer: Hello, lifelong heavy television watcher here. This is unlikely to work, let me tell you why.

My mom got a master's degree in elementary education. My dad is one of those gotta-be-productive-all-the-time people and basically never sits down to just watch TV. I had a LOT of messaging growing up, both formal and social, about what was good TV and what was brain-rotting TV.

It worked exactly as long as my parents were the ones who set what I watch. Lots of Mr Rogers and Sesame street, great stuff. Until I figured out how the remote control worked, got to channel surfing, and found Nickelodeon. No one really had a problem with Mr Wizard or the elephant show, but then later on there'd be a kid climbing up a giant nose to find a flag in the slime boogers, and that was a harder sell.

I was a bright kid. My parents had the full tool set and the research. They were saying all the right things, but I wasn't buying it. They tried at times to limit my TV, but that bred resentment. Can't get rid of cable because that punishes the whole family, can't monitor me 100% of the day, that's exhausting. What could have been a better intervention? I don't know, maybe modelling better/different behavior? My mom also watched a lot of TV, things that I didn't think were "quality programming" (except classic Twilight Zone episodes, we always agreed on Twilight Zone), and my dad's hobbies all felt like hard work. So TV = fun for me, and I got an earful constantly about how it was rotting my brain, isn't there something better to watch, etc etc.

Outcomes: I don't know, I'm fine??? I have always had a heavy TV watching habit, usually TV that in no way contributes to my personal development (except for 2-3 years in college before streaming took off, when I neither had a TV to watch nor the time to watch it). I was high school valedictorian, attended an elite university, and am now an adult who has friends, dogs, a professional job, and a mortgage. I don't think my crappy TV has had any negative effect on my life.

So here are some actual things you can do, yourself, that may have an impact: turn your TV off. YOURS. What are you filling your time with, and can your kid participate in that with you? Is the TV on at dinner? Turn it off and talk to your kid instead. When you do watch TV, is it "high quality programming?" If not, why not? Can you explain to your kid why it's different for you? (Protip: "because I'm a grown up" is a famously shitty answer.) Does your family watch any 24 hour news channels? Turn it off. Does the whole house observe a quiet reading hour? If not, start one. You encourage the habits you want in your kids by modelling them yourself, consistently, and sticking to them. Rules for thee but not for me isn't going to last very long, and 4 is about the age where I really started to pick up on that.
posted by phunniemee at 5:07 AM on October 2, 2022 [47 favorites]

Best answer: I tell my 4yo that we watch TV with a calm pace because it helps keep us calm. I also say that overall, too much TV makes our brains get overexcited so it’s hard to relax after.

When he has an occasional meltdown bc TV time is over, we talk about it (later, when he’s calm!) as an example of an overexcited brain from too much TV or from other stimuli like a birthday party, and how TV on top of an already excited brain actually leaves him feeling bad.

But we choose the shows and give limited choices- we do Bluey, Daniel Tiger, Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood, Teletubbies, Blue’s Clues, How It’s Made (manufacturing videos), slow nature documentaries, live acoustic stage shows, and calm videos of people doing things like building, driving tractors, cooking or (a weird favourite) unboxing adult power tools.

Always calm boring stuff. No fast cuts - I aim for stuff where each shot is at least 5 seconds before a cut. I literally watch the show and count the seconds before the shot changes. I think fast cats are what’s overwhelming for a young brain (and an old brain like mine).
posted by nouvelle-personne at 5:08 AM on October 2, 2022 [3 favorites]

Oh and we also don’t have a TV. We only watch on our computers. So it’s easier to select what we all watch- it’s less passive and more of a choice.

When we all have a bit of energy after dinner we try not to spend it on tv- we go for a walk and get ice cream, or play a board game, or do some quiet drawing time together before bed.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 5:14 AM on October 2, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think it's more about giving them critical tools, which means watching shows with them sometimes and involving them in discussion. My parents had a pretty smart continuum, from "actually good" like Sesame Street or The Last Unicorn, to "silly or annoying but mostly harmless" like a lot of 80s Nickelodeon stuff, to "OK we're going to talk about how problematic military recruitment is" with things like GI Joe, which I wasn't allowed to watch until I was 7 or 8.
I think it's smart to frame it in terms of how you feel watching it, like "this show makes me feel calm" or "Big Bird is my favorite, do you have a favorite?" so your kid understands she has her own critical perspective and doesn't just have to passively receive shows (the most important part).

Also, most little kids just love boogers and poop and underpants, but I would not worry too much about those things in your evaluation of "high-quality". I know it can get tiresome, but it's totally developmentally appropriate, and it's not worth creating forbidden fruit just because of some boogers. Your kid is inevitably going to like some annoying silly things, so I would just accept that she's just going to have a few junk food picks in there, just like most adults do.
posted by Nibbly Fang at 5:52 AM on October 2, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Get the book from the International Children's Media Center. It's by far the best guide to teaching kids how to engage with media.
posted by goatdog at 6:09 AM on October 2, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Lots of good advice above.

The most effective modeling I’ve seen was a parent who would say simple statements like, “I don’t like this show because people hit each other in it,” (even if the ‘people’ were cartoon characters, she would say ‘people’) or “I like this show because people are nice to each other.” It was interesting; she didn’t add on any moral abstract, and I think that direct statement of personal feeling landed significantly harder because of it.

I absolutely agree with sneaking in media literacy throughout their older years, once they can grasp the concepts. My mother worked at an advertising company before she had children, and some time in my middle school years, she told me about the principal strategies of marketing (bandwagon, insecurity, etc.) and it felt like a superpower.
posted by Silvery Fish at 6:36 AM on October 2, 2022 [9 favorites]

Best answer: As parents, we are MUCH too eager to school our kids in values and how to make good choices and critical thinking skills etc. and as a result we choose inappropriate times to do this work.

This is a huge, huge lesson I personally have had to learn about raising my own kids. It's taken me a long time to learn that **during a conflict** (kid wants something, I won't allow it) my job is to really listen to what my kids are saying and respond to THEIR needs, not use this moment to fulfill my own desire to teach them good values and critical thinking or whatever.

So here's the deal: when your kids are ready to negotiate or be persuaded, i.e. when they're ready to be even partially responsible for their own viewing choices, trust me, THEY will let you know. In so many words.

My #1 practical tip for you is: you aren't allowed persuade kids who don't use persuasive arguments on you.

"I want it I want it I want it!" isn't a persuasive argument, it's a tantrum. The only appropriate response is to redirect, like, "No, but we can watch this instead! Ooh, look, she's got a wand!"

"But all my friends watch it, why can't I!!!" is a persuasive argument but it's about her need to fit in with friends. So the appropriate response here is to persuade her to find belonging in ways that don't violate your rules, like: "Different homes have different rules, hon, and this is our rule. I know you care about joining in with your friends and all talking together about the things you've watched on TV. So let's all get what we want: how about you call your friends over to watch this instead? We can make brownies."

"You're not the boss of me, I can watch what I want!" is a persuasive argument about the kid's autonomy and independence, and about power sharing between you both. The appropriate response, then, is to persuade your kid to negotiate their autonomy and power with you, like, "Yeah, you know, you have a point, you're not a small kid anymore and you should have more power to make your own choices. Now, about this particular show, I definitely think it's inappropriate for young people your age, I gotta use my parent card there. But overall I think you're totally right, I'm not the boss of you. Maybe it's time for me to not have the passwords to your email accounts anymore? And we can have a new curfew? [Or whatever is age appropriate.]"

"But WHYYY can't I watch it, it looks amazing, you don't even have any good reasons for it, you're just bossing me!" ----> now this is the persuasive argument from a kid where you can respond with persuasion and values-education. Do it in an age appropriate way, and with an understanding of their true capacities. If a 6 yr old says this, you'll respond with "No, I don't think our family should be watching people hurt each other." If a 13 yr old is saying it, you can break out your ethical theory textbooks and your media literacy essays and go to town!

If you want to educate your kid on values and ethics, or about how to critically think about what they see on TV, or about making good choices in media consumption, do it at some other time. Bring it up on your own as a casual topic of conversation during dinner someday or when you're walking the dog or whatever. DON'T do it when your kid is trying to tell you something completely different, like their need to belong or their need for autonomy. In the moment that you're arguing with your child about what they want to watch that you won't let them watch, listen to *them* instead of imposing your own agenda.
posted by MiraK at 7:53 AM on October 2, 2022 [17 favorites]

My stance was to give the kid access to SO many good shows. So many! When they'd finish watching and re-watching one show, I would introduce the next one from my list. This way, they feel no shortage of options and don't settle for whatever colorful thing is out there. Then, when kid would encounter something that wasn't as good, I could just remark on whatever quality I thought wasn't good. Like, "It's a cute show! I just wish there were more female characters." Or, "I love the music, but I find it boring that the story is basically the same every time." Compared to the good shows, a person cannot help but notice what is lacking in the poorer shows. (And, if they don't, then maybe they're getting something out of it that you are not - maybe it's the only cartoon about dinosaurs available and they love dinosaurs. You can then try to seek out a really good program that has the aspects that the kid is drawn to.) Also, I always bought/subscribed to the show - pay the creators, remove ads. That makes YouTube and random tv less appealing because you have to sit through ads.
posted by xo at 8:42 AM on October 2, 2022 [3 favorites]

Slightly tangential, but my parents had a fairly universal "mute all advertising" rule, and while it probably seemed pretty dumb at the time, I appreciate how much it helped reduce the impact ads had on me as a kid. Even if the bright, fast pictures were still there, the lack of sound really blunted their importance. I still find ads really irritating as a result, and it's probably contributed to how critical I am of ads in general.
posted by wakannai at 9:36 AM on October 2, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: So...I tried to do what you're about to do and here was my experience so you can learn from it.

First of all, at 4, you can't put a jar of cookies in your child's room and tell them vegetables are better, and media isn't any different. It's better to keep parenting actively and limit the choice of shows at that age.

But from someone who tried anyway...I always have taken my kids to art shows, performances, events, and films as well as lots of reading where I thought there was value and it's clear to me that for whatever reason, whether it's innate or that, they do have a good eye/ear for quality now. So just a reminder that streaming/TV media is only a part of your landscape. (And in my case, phew.) And yay!

However, I too tried to kind of...moralize or "educate" my kids into watching quality things. I did the "what I like/don't like in this show..." thing, I banned some shows (with a discussion of why, and mostly they were for meanness, some kids shows are sooooooo freaking MEAN)*, I asked questions like is this how you want to use your time.

The results have been...mixed, because my kids have sometimes felt ashamed of what they wanted to watch, or that they didn't want to watch things with me because I would comment on them, or in one memorable instance (because starting in grade one, I promise you, kids have access to media in ways you will not even realize) hiding having watched "1,000 ways to die" on a friend's iPod or something which led to a lot of sleepless nights.

With my oldest about to go to university and my younger son finishing up grade school, what I can tell you is that their passion for other things, if engaged -- getting them into life -- far outweighs the high quality/low quality media thing, and the way they have developed their own unique tastes is by sometimes trying the crap out.

I'd also suggest that you think about what your values are as a family and whether you are expressing them or whether you are setting a higher bar for your child than you would for an adult in your family.

When you say you want to respect your daughter's interests and you? Because there's a big difference between making her banquet larger by presenting her with quality stuff, and banning what's harmful, which I consider essential up to a point, and trying to get her to Maximize Her Time. I actually feel very stressed trying to make sure all my activities are Wholesome and if there's one thing the pandemic gave our family, it was a bit of time to enjoy that too and not have to Make The Most of our Media Time.

Good luck, none of this is easy.

* I do not regret for one minute banning shows on that basis.
posted by warriorqueen at 12:25 PM on October 2, 2022 [4 favorites]

We didn’t get a TV until I was about 8, and when we did I didn’t watch it because I vastly preferred staring into the fire I built in our huge flagstone fireplace out of wood I had chopped and split every night the weather gave the slightest excuse for it. I roasted hot dogs, marshmallows and s’mores, and ate oceans of buttered popcorn I popped in big screen wire baskets. What TV could compete with that? And the fire was so much brighter than than the TV, which seemed dim and wan by comparison.

Then when I was 10 we moved to another house and the first fire I built in the smaller fireplace melted half the paint off it. So I joined the rest of the family in front of the TV, at first mainly for the flickering light.

My point is that a lot of the kids' TV parents don’t like seems to me to be more likely have the flickering photic envelope I craved as a kid, and which is otherwise in pretty short supply in the average modern house. So look at the things she really likes that you don’t and see whether they’re more active visually, and choose the substitutes you prefer with that in mind.

Also try to arrange more time for your kid outdoors during the hours she’s now watching TV. During late Spring, Summer, and early Fall when my parents would whine about huge fires, I stayed out almost every night until full dark watching clouds, wind in the trees, people and cars on the street, rainwater in the gutters and countless other visually stimulating things and had very little appetite for TV when I got home.
posted by jamjam at 1:44 PM on October 2, 2022

Response by poster: When you say you want to respect your daughter's interests and you?

Yes. :(

Lots of interesting answers and ideas here. But I must have phrased my question poorly because many answers read to me as if I am one Ask Metafilter post away from going all Cotton Mather Dad. Was more interested in child development articles about how children think about this stuff, for informing the convos I have with my daughter, than in being cautioned against taking some harsh stand that will make kids feel shame for enjoying Cocomelon! Obviously I agree that's bad.

But thanks everyone.
posted by johngoren at 7:50 AM on October 11, 2022

Response by poster: Sorry did not mean for that to come off as cranky. Sleep-deprived and I really do appreciate all the time people took to talk about their experiences. And I appreciate the spirit of hey, they're gonna watch all this stuff anyway and etc. I mean I grew up wasting years watching Pauly Shore do his VJ'ing and I came out reasonably OK and I appreciate that disposable pop culture gives kids a way to talk to their peers. I know parenting is a really personal thing and it's probably just a matter of how tricky it is to talk about something like child-parent convos in a forum like this. (Oddly enough it doesn't seem that weird or premature for my kid and I to talk about stories we like better than others, but we are weird and story-obsessed)
posted by johngoren at 8:10 AM on October 11, 2022

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