Television for Toddlers: Even When It's Good It's Still Kind of Bad

miffy and friendsCan watching TV ever actually be good for toddlers? I wondered this as I read Emily Nussbaum's article on the children's television "renaissance" in this week's New Yorker. Emily's enthusiasm for kids' TV surprised me -- Wonder Pets is "witty and emotional ... the emphasis is on teamwork, empathy, and working through frustration." Ni Hao, Kai-Lan "teaches kids social skills." And all the shows have a narrative and visual sophistication that is totally new and refreshing for children's television.

Wow, who knew toddlers' programming had gotten so ... wonderful? So why don't I feel better about my kid watching it?


For several years we were a dual-freelancer household. That means on days when there was no preschool or summer day camp, my husband and I were juggling childcare and work without the safety net of a nanny (not in the freelancers' budget). And that means sometimes we plunked our son in front of a movie. Not ideal, but I figured if it was a Hayao Miyazaki movie, it was okay.

So when a critic for the New Yorker gives Miffy and Friends her imprimatur, parents like me may breathe a sigh of relief. Farah Miller says, "Amen to that. At last, an actual television critic has said it -- this stuff that we let our kids watch is good. Or, shall I say, at last a parent has said it -- we can talk about television for toddlers without bringing up pediatric guidelines or mommy guilt." Parents love getting a pass on the guilt. 

We killed our cable before our son was born, and we still don't have cable. But we did catch some of the new children's television -- and the accompanying games -- online. I think if anything Wonder Pets and company aren't "good TV" per se. They're kind of more "less-bad TV." I mean, it's TV. It's still your kid zoning out in front of a screen. And while it's wonderful that Phineas and Ferb models imaginative free play, wouldn't you rather your child actually engage in imaginative free play rather than watch it? Especially for the first five years of their life? I know I would. 

As for the idea that Phineas and Ferb might be "the first children's series in which the moral instruction, rather than the jokes, is aimed as much at parents as children," that assumes you're watching television with your children. Which brings us back to why we may have our kids watching television in the first place -- because we need a free babysitter. Or because we'd like a few minutes to ourselves to read a New Yorker article. 

This whole idea of easing your guilt because the TV is good -- eh. We feel guilt because we have high expectations for ourselves. And that's okay. Anyway, have you read how art critic Dave Hickey defends old-fashioned Tom & Jerry cartoons for the way they help kids acknowledge and alleviate the anxiety caused by pets dying? Really, if you want to, you can justify anything.

And TV, well, it's just a show. It's entertainment. Harmless in small doses (like sugar), harmful if guzzled down for hours every day mostly because of what kids aren't doing while watching it than because TV is in itself poison. I want my son to see TV as an indulgence, not sustenance. I'm not sure I'm doing such a great job of teaching him that lesson, but it's the ideal for us. 

How do you feel about letting your toddler watch television?


Image via OfficialMiffy/YouTube

Read More >