I struggle with the perennial debate of how much and what kind of TV to let my children watch. There are of course numerous research studies that name the negative consequences of excessive TV for children’s learning, eyesight, and attention, not to mention the ways it might socially shape them.
Disney channel (and all its derivatives) has long been a favorite in our house. We don’t love princesses and we don’t get caught up in the self marketing that Disney does with its seemingly commercial-less format. Instead, the channels often offer shows that a grown-up can sit down and watch as well (not all the shows, but some are worth DVRing). This is a key ingredient to combating the negative influences of TV. Simply being in the room and knowing what’s happening in the shows allows you as a parent to engage your child’s critical thinking about content and images. Disney took a page from Sesame Street by integrating resources and more importantly adding jokes that appeal to all levels. For example, Desperate House Plants is a spoof on Desperate Housewives or True Mud for True Blood and The Voice. These opportunities draw adults attention as much as they do children’s.
Recently, as my children have aged out of Disney, they have been captivated by a whole new TV channel – HGTV (Home and Garden Television). Thankfully, I enjoy watching these episodes with them even more than Disney or Sesame Street. Recently, we were having a discussion about the kinds of people that buy houses on House Hunters. The conversation reminded me of how different television is from when I was a kid. I remember two nuclear families dominating my viewing habits – The Huxtables and The Keatons. Granted they took on major issues related to race, education, and women’s work for their time. But HGTV has gay and lesbian couples, interracial couples; single, divorced, blended families; wildly rich and those on tight budgets. And best of all, my kids notice! About a year ago, NPR did a story on the diversity of HGTV. This isn’t a contrived diversity that comes across on Disney channel.
What they have also notice is that house buying and remodeling are difficult tasks that result in lots of unexpected costs. They are keen to point out how staying under budget is the best option and how you can’t be too picky as a first time apartment renter, condo or home buyer. When we recently decided to remodel a very outdated bathroom in our house, the first question they asked was “what’s your budget?” Fiscal awareness is something many (mostly middle and upper class) kids learn too late in life. I am thankful that watching HGTV has given us the opportunity to talk about financial decisions and how adults manage money.
They have also been introduced to the way people live across the world and what amenities we might take for granted in the United States. This has allowed us to make connections to different cultures and lifestyles, but also recognize how much energy we use in our house or what kinds of things we take for granted like internet, bathtubs, oversized refrigerators, and so on.
HGTV shows have also sparked their creativity. They look at their space differently, which in turn means they occupy space in a new way. They have seen children throw temper tantrums because their room isn’t the right way or they have to move to a smaller space. They comment on how rude and disrespectful people can be when looking at a house or talking about their own home. These moments open up conversations about how we respect our space and what we value about the things we do have.
I will never be one of those parents who thinks that TV is melting my children’s brains or that our society is crumbling because of media. There is definitely “bad” TV out there and I think what we choose to watch matters. But we might actually be surprised by how many life lessons and values conversations can come from a TV channel. The key is: Simply being in the room and knowing what’s happening on the shows. This allows you as a parent to engage your child’s critical thinking about content and images. All the easier if the shows are interesting for you as well.