Teaching your children to become critical viewers has never been more important.

father and son watching tv
Credit: Alexandra Grablewski

Be Your Kid's TV Guide

Somewhere along the line, you've undoubtedly heard that television is bad for your children. Plenty of experts would eagerly warn you about the dangers of, say, letting your 8-year-old sit for hours in front of the tube, remote control in hand, while you're upstairs on Facebook joining "fans of Twilight" groups. (Oops...busted!)

If your home is anything like mine, though, TV is a part of your family life. Sure, you know it would be preferable if you all sat around taking turns reading Little House on the Prairie or jumping rope while debating the relative merits of the new economic-stimulus package. You also know that it would be better if your kid never gorged on cookies or touched a french fry. And, really, what kind of life would that be?

But believe it or not, there is good news for TV-loving moms like me. You can have your Ace of Cakes without your child becoming a passive pop-culture junkie, mindlessly jonesing for his next fix of Drake & Josh.

"Our kids are growing up in a 24/7 media-driven world. It's impossible to cover their eyes," says Liz Perle, editor-in-chief of commonsensemedia.org, in San Francisco. "For that reason, it's crucial that you watch television with your kids so you can inject your values and teach them to understand what they're actually seeing."

This doesn't mean, of course, that you can plop your child in front of the flat screen for hours on end (even if you're sitting by his side). It's important to limit your child's TV sessions, leaving plenty of time for more pressing stuff like chores, homework, reading, chores, exercise, and...did I mention chores? (The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours of screen time a day -- this includes not only watching TV but also playing DS and computer games.) But whatever limits you set, as long as you treat screen time like yummy dessert, not the main course, you can lose the guilt. Oh, and I'm not just trying to justify the fact that I love watching TV (which I do!). I actually know that, used properly, the small screen can provide great fodder for everything from critical-thinking skills to talking to your kid about values -- yours and his. Plus, where else could you learn so much about meerkats? The challenge is to make tube time an active experience by watching television with your child and by encouraging him to think carefully and develop opinions about what he sees. Check out these smart ways of building media literacy.

Pick the Programs

Back in your child's toddler and preschool days, you had plenty of awesome choices like Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer, and Blues Clues -- shows you knew were conceived to be a learning experience for a little kid. But now that she's a little older, the options are pretty lame in comparison. There are lots of programs that look like "kids'" shows, but just because something is animated or featured on a kids' channel doesn't mean it's great viewing. "A large part of children's programming requires an appreciation for irony and sarcasm that's developmentally beyond most 6- to 8-year-olds," says Pamela Paul, author of Parenting Inc. So the key is to skip those shows and look for ones that offer material that school-age children will find interesting. My favorites for the 6- to 8-year-old set: Iron Chef, This Old House, pretty much everything on Animal Planet, and, best of all, MythBusters. I'm not suggesting that your kids will be as enamored of these shows as mine were at this age; the point is to know precisely what different programs are about and to select ones you've prescreened.

Keep Up the Chatter

One of the main reasons experts are so anti-television is because they consider it a passive activity. But it doesn't have to be that way. Get into the habit of being a noisy, nosy viewer by adding your own commentary to whatever is on the screen. If you're watching a cartoon and a clam is being snarky to a sponge, pipe in and say something like, "Wow, that's so rude and obnoxious. I don't like it when people talk that way." Or ask your kid questions so his mind remains active and alert. You might inquire about how true to life something seems: "Are your teachers strict like the ones on this show? Is this program realistic?" or "Why do you think the creators of this show made all the grown-ups seem so lame?" When your child begins to initiate the conversation and ask you probing questions, you'll know you're on the right track. When he starts talking back to the screen, you can pat yourself on the back for a job well done.

Analyze Ads

If you're watching a show that you've TiVo'd, you can fast-forward through every commercial and your child will probably be better off. But I personally don't mind watching ads with my kids. It's not so much that I like the commercials themselves (though I will confess to having a few personal favorites).

But when we watch ads, I get the chance to offer a harsh critique. Really, if you don't do a little ad busting every now and then, how are you going to make sure your kid doesn't grow up feeling her life would have been better with clap lights or the Snuggie?

Begin with basics by asking your kid to tell you when she thinks she's watching an ad. (At this age, children are just starting to understand the difference between commercials and programming.) Once she gets the distinction, pose some pointed questions, such as, "What do think this advertisement is selling? Why do you think they're running it during a kids' show? Do you have enough money to buy it? Do you think the person who is selling the wacky gizmo might want you to ask me to buy it for you?"

"If you can get kids to think like this, you'll help them realize that marketers are trying to sell them something," says Paul. "And once they do, they may even stop nagging you to buy them stuff." Because kids hate feeling manipulated, your child just might be turned off when she realizes that advertisers are trying to make her want things she doesn't need. With any luck at all, the days of listening to your child beg for stuff like Floam and super-sweet cereals will be seriously diminished.

Here's another suggestion for making kids aware of what's going on behind the screen: Help your child put together a short commercial of her own. (All it takes is a digital camera and some basic editing software on the computer.) For example, have her make a 30-second spot encouraging you to give her a higher allowance or to let her stay up later at bedtime. As she works on her ad, she'll learn some important lessons about sales techniques -- which obviously you won't fall for...or will you?

When You Turn, It Off, Tune It In

Have you noticed how right after a movie ends the audience is usually buzzing with opinions? But at the end of a TV show, there's typically silence, a snack run, or a trip to the bathroom? In my house, we try to make the most of credit-rolling time by reading the names aloud, then talking afterward about the show we've just seen. Ask your kid to give the program a thoughtful review. Encouraging your child to develop opinions and to express them will likely change what he chooses to watch and how he watches it.

Log On for Wise Viewing

Raise your family's media-savviness quotient by visiting these smart Web sites.


Stay up-to-date on the current issues that affect your kids with The Center on Media and Child Health's site.


Demystify and decode ads by making your own. This site's activities teach kids to be intelligent consumers.


The Media Awareness Network has reviews of movies, video games, and tips for active viewing galore.


Check out this guide, which also includes what newly released movies, TV shows, books, games, sites, and music are appropriate for kids.

Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Parents magazine.

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