Kids and Television – How to Influence What They Learn

Kids and Television - How to Influence What They Learn

Television can be a wonderful source of information for our children, but it can also be a gap filler that does little to nurture their hungry minds. Whether we like it or not, screens are here to stay. The challenge is to find ways to make television work for our kids and nourish their curiosity, their wisdom, and their growth, rather than letting it turn them into couch-dwelling little screen huggers. Fascinating new research has found something that can make the difference.

There’s little doubt that too much television, or the wrong type of television, can do damage. It can make young bodies too still and fill hungry minds with too much nothing, or too much of the wrong thing. The right type of television though, can feed those growing minds and encourage adventure, learning, and curiosity. Television is powerful, so we need to find a way to use that in positive ways, and take charge of the influence we have with our kids while we have it.

The research has shown how to make television work harder to help our children spark even brighter, and it’s as simple as sitting with them while they watch tv, rather than leaving them to it. When parents watch television with their children, the capacity of those children to learn from what they see increases. (And before you start thinking, ‘Nup. Tap me out. I love Phineas and Ferb but I love it more when I don’t have to watch it,’ – don’t worry –  none of this means we can never leave our kids alone with their favourite shows. Sometimes we all need a gentle break from the world where our minds can take a rest for a while – and if Phineas and Ferb does to them what, say, US Bachelor does to me some people, there’s nothing wrong with that. Everything in moderation.)

“Researchers have shown that kids are more interested in activities in which the parents are involved, whether that’s at school or reading or whatever. It makes sense then that kids would be more interested in TV if the parent is more interested in that as well. I think parents being involved in a kid’s life means a lot to kids whether they know it or not.” -Eric Rasmussen, assistant professor and co-author of study, Texas Tech University.

Kids, tv, and learning. The research.

For the study, 88 children aged 6-13 years were shown either an exciting clip (Man vs Wild) or non-exciting one (a whale documentary). Each clip was about 11-12 minutes long. The children either watched the show with one of their parents sitting beside them on a couch, or on their own with the parent out of the room and out of sight of the child.

When a parent watched the show with the child, the child showed physiological evidence that they were investing a greater amount of effort to learn and understand. The evidence included higher skin conductance (indicating higher arousal) and a lower heart rate (indicating a greater allocation of cognitive resources.

Assistant Professor Eric Rasmussen, one of the researchers and an expert in children and the media, has pointed out that this generation of children is often tagged as the generation that has become a little lost to media and the influences of it. He’s quick to point out that this thinking is flawed – parents actually have a lot of influence over their children, they just need to know how to engage it.

“Parents parent. The more I learn the more I’m convinced of that. It’s about helping kids know what to do with that content once they encounter it and how they process it.” – Eric Rasmussen

This research is consistent with other findings on the ways parents can influence the ability of children to learn from tv. Research with children aged 5-7 and 10-12 has found that children’s reactions to shows change when their parents speak to them about what they are watching. Another study found that when 2-6 year olds watched ten episodes of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood over a two-week period, those children who watched the shows with their parents showed higher levels of empathy and self-efficacy and a greater ability to recognise emotion, than those whose parents didn’t talk to them about the shows.

For kids, spending time with their parents would be up there with their favourite things to do (even if they don’t always let us know!). Because of this, parents have enormous capacity to influence what their children learn from television and the messages they take from what they see.

Research has found that this influence can also nurture a child’s emotional and social intelligence. When small children are exposed to more background television, or when they have a tv in their rooms, they tend to show a poorer ability to recognise that other people sometimes have different thoughts, feelings, needs or wants to their own. On the other hand, when parents engage with children about what the children see on tv, those children show a greater capacity to see that what they are feeling and thinking isn’t necessarily the same for everyone else. 

Being able to recognise that other people might think and feel differently to you is a key component of empathy and positive social relationships. Young children tend to view the world from the inside out. This is a great thing for little people – it’s how they come to understand the world and their place in it. First they have to understand how they work, and then they can start to think about everyone else. Even though this is something that all kids do, parents can help to shift this heavy focus on the self and nurture the development of social and emotional intelligence when they speak with their children about what they are watching on television. 

And finally …

As with so much of parenting, if not all of it, it’s never enough to set the rules and let the rules take care of things from there. If only it was that easy, but then it would be called magic, and not rules. Setting rules is important, but there are ways for parents to increase their influence and have screen time work harder more for them and their children. Sitting with kids while they watch tv, and chatting to them about what they seem, is a powerful way to help kids learn and expand your influence. This becomes more important as kids get older. As they move through adolescence, we will have less control (kids will do what they want if they want it enough), but what we can have is influence. 

It’s important to do what we can to protect our kids from certain things they see on tv, but even with our best efforts, we won’t be able to protect them from all of it. What we can do though, is empower them. We can influence the messages or the information they take in, or the way they make sense of what they see. By speaking with them about what they see in shows, in commercials, in the news and in the way people are represented on tv, we can start to have a powerful influence. It can be an important opportunity to share our values and to start empowering them with important information. Whether it’s heavy stuff like what they see in the news, or how you feel about the latest burger in the fast food commercial, your children want to know what you think, and they need to know.

Young children love time with their parents. They especially love it if you’re meeting them where they are and doing something they want to do. It seems like such a small thing, but it’s these small things that can make a big difference for our kids. Watching tv with them and chatting about what they see can help to lay solid foundations for the way they read the world, relate to it, and establish their very important place in it.

11 Comments

Jean Tracy

Great article, Karen. Thanks for researching the stats. The results make so much sense. I’ll be sharing this on my social media sites.

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Ian Anderson

Been doing this for years. We tend to do about a 60/40 split between shows and nature/science stuff.

Children spend so much time away from home these days (school, after school, sports, hobbies, friends houses, birthday parties, etc. etc.) why would you waste what precious time you have with them? Plus, you can’t control what they’re exposed to during all that time away. Even more important then, that you teach them how to make sense of what they see.

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Karen

Thank you for these little reminders Karen! Each of your articles is like a bit of nutrition for my parenting brain!

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Anne

I have family game night with my 10 year old twins. We play board games that they want to play, then make pizza together and sit down to watch a movie that we all agree on. They love this time together, and we have great conversations about school, friendship, and what’s going on with their lives that otherwise we wouldn’t have the time to get around to

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Skeeter Buck

Such a great reminder of quality time with your child. I will no longer bring my laptop or iPhone to the couch when I agree to watch a movie with my son.

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Nicole

I’ve just signed up to your emails having found an old link I’d saved some time back on an “Age by Age guide of what to expect” which I keep coming back to each time one of my boys does something I don’t quite know how to manage (which is reasonably often – currently we’ve got 7 year old rage!) I’m a single working mum with 2 feisty boys and like most single, working mothers, beat myself up relentlessly about what I’m doing that’s not good enough. My time and energy is so stretched it’s sometimes painful. These posts feel like a practical, non-judgmental way I can actually help myself feel like I’m doing a good job and connect to my boys. It’s smart stuff without making the reader feel stupid. Thank you so much. You’re really making a difference.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Thanks so much Nicole. I’m so pleased they’re able to give you some comfort about what you’re doing. Parenting is hard! One of the things that makes it so difficult is the way it’s so easy to doubt ourselves and whether or not we’re doing the right thing. You sound loving and open to your gorgeous boys – that’s the most important thing. It sounds as though they are in wonderful hands.

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Anxiety shows up to check that you’re okay, not to tell you that you’re not. It’s your brain’s way of saying, ‘Not sure - there might be some trouble here, but there might not be, but just in case you should be ready for it if it comes, which it might not – but just in case you’d better be ready to run or fight – but it might be totally fine.’ Brains can be so confusing sometimes! 

You have a brain that is strong, healthy and hardworking. It’s magnificent and it’s doing a brilliant job of doing exactly what brains are meant to do – keep you alive. 

Your brain is fabulous, but it needs you to be the boss. Here’s how. When you feel anxious, ask yourself two questions:

- ‘Do I feel like this because I’m in danger or because there’s something brave or important I need to do?’

- Then, ‘Is this a time for me to be safe (sometimes it might be) or is this a time for me to be brave?

And remember, you will always have ‘brave’ in you, and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.♥️

#positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #parenting #childanxiety #heywarrior #heywarriorbook
The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️

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