The first word my daughter said of her own volition was “Elmo.” Both her mother and I grew up on a steady diet of PBS television shows, especially Sesame Street. Madison also immediately took to the show, especially Elmo. He was the first thing she ever laughed at out loud on television (he spit out a ball a baby put in his mouth). His were some of the first songs she learned, and they aided in child development. We were able to use melodies to teach her important things like our phone numbers, songs she still remembers today at age 12.
Still, the scientific community is divided on whether TV helps child development or hinders it. One study says it helps and another will say it doesn’t. For the youngest children, television shows like Baby Einstein, Sesame Street, or other such strictly educational shows are surely safe. Madison’s mother and I often augmented these shows with “lessons”— either from a store-bought workbook or one of our own devising— to reinforce the concept taught on the show.
Kids also love characters and shows like Wonder Pets, Blue’s Clues, and Dora the Explorer are less overtly educational, but remain interactive and deal with concepts (such as hard work, friendship, etc.) that kids need to understand. The shows won’t do the parenting for you, but can be a frame of reference for your kids to further discuss these issues.
Older children tend to find their own shows, usually enjoying what their friends at school watch. These shows tend to be even less overt about their moral or messaging, opting instead to focus on the stories and characters. Just because they aren’t teaching them language or a lesson about “helping,” does not mean these shows are bad for kids.
Shows like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and other “commercial cartoons” are mostly silly and play everything for laughs. Often criticized for just being commercials for toys, that is not to say they don’t have value. In the Pony example, the show constantly deals with interpersonal problems that your child may face themselves (jealousy, feeling excluded, etc.). Especially if their friends all watch the same thing, it can provide a context for their own feelings that we as parents might not be able to.
The last way television can help child development is simply by giving families a passive activity to enjoy together. We’re always rushing around to work, to practice, and social functions, that it can be nice to sit down in front of the tube and experience a story together. For Madison and I, these were often shows I enjoyed when I was her age such as early years of The Simpsons or even more “adult” shows like X-Files and Star Trek.
What television shows, if any, do you watch with your children? Tell us in the comments below!