By Jennifer O’Connell
Everything you need to know about child-rearing in the modern age could probably be summed up in a few short phrases. Breastfeeding: good. Sugar: bad. Fresh air: good. Sun: bad. Too much freedom: problematic. Too much mollycoddling: deeply problematic.
But there’s one essential rule of modern parenting which overrides all others. It’s the dictum with which no responsible adult could possibly argue - especially not as they stick another Fireman Sam DVD into the player.
It is the commandment which states that television is always, always bad.
The negative effects of television were summed up by author John Steinbeck as long ago as 1955: “The mouth grows slack and the lips hang open; the eyes take on a hypnotized or doped look; the nose runs rather more than usual; the backbone turns to water and the fingers slowly and methodically pick the designs out of brocade furniture. Such is the appearance of semiconsciousness that one wonders how much of the ‘message’ of television is getting through to the brain.”
And our views haven’t changed much since. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television at all for children under the age of two, and only two hours a day of ‘quality programming’ for older children.
Meanwhile, countless studies have depicted the havoc that television wreaks on children’s waistlines, their behaviour, their sleep habits and their ability to concentrate.
Studies have shown that children who watch more than four hours a day are more likely to be overweight; that children who watch TV are less well able to interact with others; that for every hour a television was turned on, babies heard 770 fewer words from an adult; that even the poor old Teletubbies hamper language development in eight-month to 30-month-olds.
Recently, yet another study showed that children who watch nine minutes of Spongebob perform half as well at tasks involving following rules – and are four times more likely to go out afterwards robbing cars (okay, I may have made that last bit up.)
To make the case in favour of more television is not just difficult: it’s practically heresy. But I’m going to do it anyway, because I think television’s been getting an unfairly bad press.
As a parent, admitting you use the television as a babysitter is akin to owning up to putting chocolate milk in your baby’s bottle, or bragging that you taught your 3-year-old the lyrics to Rihanna’s S&M.
But sometimes the television is the only thing that stands between you and unwashed hair/a hungry baby/a missed deadline/a week’s worth of dirty laundry, or a near total breakdown. And if that’s the case, then I say: bring it on.
Let’s face it, we all use the television as a babysitter from time to time. And I really don’t get why we’re supposed to feel so guilty about it. You won’t find a more attentive or a less expensive babysitter. And there’s no chance the television is going to invite its boyfriend round while you’re in the other room.
But that’s not the reason I really take issue with the anti-television crusade.
The biggest bone I have to pick with it is the notion that TV has nothing positive to offer young viewers, and that the very best you can hope for is that it’s doing them no harm.
I remember meeting a famous actress feeding the ducks in the park with her two-year-old. As the child started counting the ducks loudly and in fluent Spanish, the actress turned around to the assembled, awe-struck parents, shrugged and uttered a single word: “Dora”.
We all got it. It was code for: “Don’t judge me. I’m not a pushy parent. I have nothing to do with this. I just dumped her in front of the TV and this is how she turned out.”
In fact, it’s thanks to Dora the Explorer that every two- and three-year-old of my acquaintance has a handful of words in Spanish and, courtesy of TG4’s preschool schedule, Irish. And that can’t be all bad.
When they were younger, both my children loved a programme called Something Special that goes out daily on the BBC’s CBeebies channel. It’s for children with special needs, and teaches all kids about sign language, and learning to appreciate difference.
Then there’s Pinky, RTE’s own programme – the first in the world of its kind -about a little girl with Down Syndrome.
Or how about Sesame Street, which was my favourite programme when I was a child? Several studies have found that adults who watched it, and other educational programs as preschoolers, did better at school, were reading more books, placed more value on achievement, and were more creative.
Everything I love about Sesame Street could be summed up in an episode broadcast in the US last week. Viewers were introduced to a new character, a red-haired puppet based on a seven-year-old child called Lily. Lily tells Elmo that she sometimes doesn’t know whether there’ll be food for her next meal. “And that’s hard.”
Along with the usual songs, and segments explaining the concept of ‘food pantries’ (food kitchens), there were vignettes filmed with real children who have experienced poverty. In one of them, seven-year-old Josie, says that when her father wasn't working, there was no money for snacks at school. "So what I would do is just drink some water from the fountain," she says, "until my stomach's full of water.”
Should our children really be exposed to notions as difficult as a childhood poverty and hunger?
According to Barnardos, over 90,000 Irish children now live in consistent poverty – that’s more than one in seven. And as many as one in three report being deprived of one or more item children themselves considered essential.
Unfortunately, hunger and deprivation are now facts of life for many of them, and so of course all children should be taught about them - just as they should be exposed to programmes about other facts of life like cooking, simple mathematics, reading, gardening, people in wheelchairs, friendship, and having fun.
I can’t think of a better way to do it than through a singalong with Big Bird. Though even the occasional episode of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers is probably not going to do them any long term harm.
Disclosure: This week’s column was brought to you courtesy of Disney Pixar.
This column first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on October 16 2011.