Saulat Pervez reconsiders the influence of TV on kids by making it a part of their growing up process

Children, who have been taught or conditioned to listen passively most of the day to the warm verbal communications coming from the TV screen and to the deep emotional appeal of the so-called TV personalities, are often unable to respond to real persons, because they arouse so much less feeling than the skilled actors. Worse, they lose the ability to learn from reality, because life experiences are more complicated than the ones they see on the screen, and there is no one coming in at the end to explain it all. This being seduced into passiveness and discouraged about facing life actively (on one’s own) is the real danger of TV, much more than the often asinine or gruesome content of the shows. (Bruno Bettelheim)

When my two older children were small, watching television was a thing unknown in our family. Instead of growing up watching Sesame Street and Tom & Jerry, they found their fun and entertainment in their blocks, train sets, dolls, cars, and above all – stories.

As they grew older and television made an appearance in their lives, it was still a small nuisance, because we didn’t have cable. So they thrived on imaginary games with each other, expressed their creativity through drawings, Play Doh, building toys and continued to find much joy and happiness in the world of books.

But in a matter of time the cable arrived and with it a plethora of viewing options. At first, my children stayed within my influence, watching the more value-centric, educational cartoons. But soon enough, largely through the exposure from more experienced cousins, they were initiated into the tempting world of multi-channeled 24-hour cartoon mania. Still more disturbing, this loss of innocence was accompanied by an obsession to watch television at any and all times of day.

Every time the television was switched off after much cajoling, nagging, or downright threats, it was me against them. You can imagine my horror, as I watched my creative, enthusiastic and resourceful children slip into zombie-like, lethargic and uninterested beings, whose true pleasure now came in simply sitting back and getting entertained without making any effort. No longer were they interested in their toys or their games; suddenly, “I hate homework” comments started sprouting, and shoddy work was no big deal, as long as they were done with their work quickly and could run to the television set. Even reading could not bring them the thrill it once did. Every and any free time they had was spent on watching TV. Temper tantrums would be thrown and whining bouts heard, if they were prevented from doing so.

As a result, they became short-tempered and displayed very little patience, when it came to other activities, such as interaction with each other and those around them. Their cleverness also increased manifold: no matter how much I explained to them that if they watched TV, when they weren’t allowed to, it was tantamount to cheating, as soon as I turned by back, they would find a way to watch it. I naturally felt frustrated, outraged and at times helpless. It was as if all my years of effort in getting them started on a constructive, thoughtful and meaningful journey of life was simply falling apart right in front of my eyes.

My first instinct was to fight back. I would get irritated every time I’d find them in front of the black box. I would throw temper tantrums of my own. But over time, I have come to realize that my approach must be more sensible. No matter how angry I feel or how depressed I get about the situation, the television is here to stay. As the main protagonist in the movie “Quiz Show” put it:, “I thought I was going to get TV, but TV is going to get us.”

After reading “Teaching Children to Think” by Robert Fisher, I am convinced even more that the solution to this problem can be achieved with an out-of-the-box strategy. Throwing away the set or getting rid of cable would be easier, but in life those choices prove more complex.

Fisher advises parents to plan with their children ahead of time, what they wish to watch, and encourage them to think through, why they are interested in that particular program. He says that children take a lot of information from TV but it comes in ‘discrete forms’ with many concepts and important ideas missing. “For the child to benefit from TV,” Fisher states, “it is up to others to help (him/her) make connections, create networks of ideas, and to see significance.”

According to him, television should be a starting point for the building of a child’s curiosity and interest. We can turn TV-viewing into a positive experience if “thinking is switched on, when the set is switched off.” In this way, we can turn our children into thoughtful, sensitive and critical viewers.

This means that we as parents and caregivers must make it a point to spend time with our children, as they watch television, and to talk about their programs with them. It may not always be easy, but if we put in the requisite efforts in the beginning, our children will learn to make those connections and ask the right questions on their own pretty soon. The initial guidance, however, is imperative.

Incidentally, to lure our children away from the television, we will have to do the same: put in time with them. We must supply them with plenty of other options, such as puzzles and board games, and in many cases they will want our participation.

As Fisher recommended, we must teach our children to question and challenge what they watch – and that includes ads. If we manage to make them think as they watch, we have successfully gotten them started on a journey which will, Insha’Allah, eventually lead them to independent perceiving of the difference between right and wrong, the entertaining and the intellectual, the superficial and the insightful. May Allah (swt) help us in this and all our endeavors toward guiding the Amanah He has blessed us with. Ameen.