Monday, January 17, 2011

Dora Doesn't Teach Spanish, but She Sure is Great Babysitter!

For the last few years I've been waiting patiently for an article to be published that sings the praises of television and toddlers, or at the very least pronounces that I'm not rotting my daughters' brains every time I turn on Super Why.  However, I am beginning to realize that this article may never be written.  So I decided to do what any good journalist/mommy blogger would do, I decided to write it myself.

When preparing for this post I researched the latest articles related to TV and tots.  As I expected, I had difficulty finding experts to back my pro-television stance.  I am not pretending that Baby Einstein is going to make my child smarter.  In fact, there is no evidence that these videos help improve a child’s IQ or vocabulary (they may be making them stupider).  Two professors at the University of Washington found that babies actually learned six to eight fewer words for each hour per day spent watching these types of programs.  Moreover the age with the strongest harmful effects on language is 8-16 months.

According to researcher Dimitri A Christakis, Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine, a toddler who watches three hours of television per day is 30% more likely to have attention problems in school.  It seems that there is a definite link between infant television watching and ADHD by the age of seven.  Christakis maintains that there are a few factors that may be contributing to the attention problems.  First, the baby/toddler brain is developing every moment of these first few years.  Television watching is a very passive activity that does not allow for this brain to grow.  The second factor is that the super fast, ever-changing pace of television shows is unnatural and the child may begin to see this rate as normal, which can cause quandaries when trying to encourage the child to sit still for a half-hour lesson on the letter "K".

Even more unfortunate is that the adult shows that we actually prefer to watch with our children, such as The Real Housewives of Any City and (I'm sorry, my dear husband) sporting events, are even worse for babies than the mainstream children's programming.  This may be because these shows demand more of the parent's attention than The Backyardigans requires from us, meaning that we are even less likely to interact with our babes during this period.  In addition, adult shows use words and situations far beyond the child's comprehension.  All the times that my husband sat with our infant daughters watching the Cubs lose yet another season, the most the girls got from this was visual over-stimulation and pretty colors flashing on the screen.  And even though one of Elana's first phrases was "Go Cubbies", I highly doubt that she learned any new vocabulary from Chicago's WGN.  This research, along with others, has led the American Academy of Pediatrics to recommend that all children under the age of two not watch any television. 

When I gave birth to my first child, I followed this advice as though it was written in stone by God himself.  Elana was sheltered from almost all screen time, with the slight exception of the occasional Sesame Street five-minute pod cast while I answered a few emails.  However, once the second daughter was born I realized the value of a thirty-minute cartoon.

My realization began when the baby was a few months old and I was attempting to get her to nap in her own crib.  Elana was nearly two-and-a-half and in her first month of potty training.  Every time I would leave Elana to play by herself in her room while I soothed the baby to sleep, Elana would pee all over the floor.  She would then run into Maisy’s room and happily share the news.  It was then that Elana started watching Curious George while I dealt with Maisy.
Now, with the second child not yet two I cannot, in all honesty, say that she has been raised with the same values.  I need only to refer my readers back to the Subsequent Children post to remind you that Maisy’s first words were indeed “Elmo” and “Why” (“why” was not in the traditional inquisitive toddler form, but as an abbreviation for PBS’s Super Why). 

According to an article I read on (a completely biased website devoted to killing the television and all those wonderful reality TV shows that enrich my daily life), parents have been raising children for 50,000 years without television, so we can do it!  However, I must take this advice a bit in jest.  We are living in a much different world now than our cavemen ancestors.  These days parents are expected to be much more involved in the intellectual stimulation and play of their children.

Back in the olden' days (those dark, scary times before the invention of the television or the internet) parents were allowed to tie their children to a rope in the front yard while they were off tending the fields.  And, after that became socially inappropriate, they were at least able to use playpens to keep the young children corralled while the moms made dinner.  Neither of these tactics, however sane they may seem, are allowed with the modern parenting movement.

What's more is that we are now spending loads more time actively interacting with our children: Playing with them, reading to them, and even talking with them.  Just yesterday I was on the floor of our garage for 45 minutes painting pictures with finger paint and molding animals out of clay.  This was on top of reading countless stories on princesses, taking the girls to the playground, and helping them dress their baby dolls.   After all that intellectual and creative stimulation, we all needed thirty minutes of Sprout rest time.  Thirty years ago parents didn't have the time, nor the sense of parental responsibility, to do any of this.  With the ever-increasing expectations placed on parents, maybe we also need to allow for some latitude when it comes to allowing parents the occasional break. 

Even though it seems quite evident that the toddler and television combination does not have a lot of supporters, in order to demonstrate balance, I've created a list of the benefits of using television/iPods/game centers/computers with your young child.
  1. A half-hour cartoon show may allow you to shower, shave your legs, shampoo and condition, as well as blow dry your hair!
  2. Children who have early access to technology may be more computer literate than their peers.  According to Melissa Atkins, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Ohio, "Kids that had some access to a computer, either at home or at a family member's house they went to frequently, had higher estimated IQ scores and higher school readiness scores than kids that did not have access to a computer," said
  3. Airplane time is completely unbearable without the assistance of every single electronic, screen-based, equipment available to the contemporary parent.
  4. Screen time (television, computer games, etc) is the cheapest, and most reliable form of babysitting!  This is not something to be scoffed at lightly.  In San Francisco, babysitters charge anywhere between $15 to $25/hour for two kids!
  5. Your one-and-a-half year old has spent the past seventy-five minutes doing what only can be described as self-induced epileptic seizures solely because you refused to give her ice cream for dinner.  Which is better: Setting her in front of Elmo to calm every one's nerves, or locking yourself in the bathroom and repeatedly sticking your head in the toilet to drown out the demon offspring interfering with your sanity?
When it comes to finding an appropriate television show for your family, the task can be quite overwhelming with the numerous options available on Sprout, Cartoon Network, Discovery Kids, Disney Channel, and Noggin, to name just a few children oriented television stations.  So, here is a list of my, and my reader's, favorite tot programs to help you narrow down your choices to a few tolerable shows that will not leave you needing an Irish Coffee.
  1. Yo Gabba Gabba-  This very popular Nick Jr. show has a little something to offer the parents, too.  Jack Black, The Shins, and Tony Hawk are just a few of the special guests that have appeared during their first two seasons.
  2. The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That-  This is a brand new PBS show that premiered in August of 2010.  Because of its sciency/psudo-educational topics, I can pretend that my children are actually learning when I use this handy babysitter.
  3. Rugrats- This fabulous cartoon about a pack of adventurous babies and toddlers was the second Nicktoon, cartoons produced by Nickelodeon.  Unfortunately the show ended in 2004, but Nickelodeon still shows the reruns and a large variety of DVDs are available, including my favorite The Rugrats Movie.
  4. Little Bear- For those of your who prefer your children's programming without adult references or sarcasm, this is the show for you.  Little Bear is just a straight forward, sweet, and simple kid's program.
  5. Sesame Street- This oldie but a goodie, premiered in 1969.  Even though I carry fond memories of watching shows sponsored by "the number 3 and the letter S", I was surprised that I still enjoy watching Elmo and friends, and am as excited as my 21-month-old daughter when Abby's Flying Fairy School appears.  And, Sesame Street books all the big names, from Anderson Cooper to  Margaret Cho!


    1. Penelope has recently decided that Spongebob Squarepants is her one true love. Except when she wants to watch it, she asks for "swidwud and mista crabs." Should I worry?

    2. Only worry if you can't stand Squidward or Mr. Krabs. Otherwise, let her love blossom.

    3. This topic is really interesting and as a mom and educator I believe it is important to recognize two things. First, the research is pretty consistent that entertainment television is potentially harmful to the cognitive development of children under 2, and second that there is a recognized difference between educational and entertainment television.

      In some works Christakis (2007) does find that attention problems are more often associated with entertainment programming and not necessarily with educational programming. A. C. Huston and J. C. Wright also have a body of work that identifies benefits of educational programs and attempts to identify the distinctions between beneficial educational television and potentially harmful entertainment television.

      According to Huston & Wright

      Characteristics of Educational Television include:
      Long zooms
      Moderate action levels
      High rates of child dialogue
      Lower levels of pacing, action and sound effects in general.

      Characteristics of Entertainment Television include:
      High action
      High pace
      Peculiar or nonhuman voices
      High levels of audio and visual special effects.

      While studying this topic and observing my son I’ve been really impressed by the way both Super Why and Dora exemplify the characteristics of educational tv and elicit responses from my toddler. On the other hand I am actually somewhat disappointed in some other programs traditionally viewed as educational. There is something about The Cat in The Hat Knows A Lot About That that is a little too frenetic.

      It's a fascinating and important subject! Thanks for sharing!

    4. Geez! Do I know all about this right now. My husband has been out of town, so I've relied on the TV to watch my kid more often than usual while I shower, do dishes, cook dinner. I'd love to be able to set her up with something non-screen-oriented for twenty minute stretches, but this was not the week to figure out how to do that. Thanks for easing my guilt...