Television, Children and Making Decisions Rationally

In an online discussion on TV and unschooling, Vijay Owens gave some wonderful responses about children learning to make their own choices, and in the faith she has in her children's learning. The other mom's quotes are italicized and indented; the others are Vijay's. —Sandra

If we don't let our kids determine for themselves what is crap and what isn't how will they ever know the difference? Will they always look to someone else to tell them what their opinions are if we choose to do it for them? I want my kids to have their own opinions.

Do you think my not having a TV will prevent my kids from having their own opinions?

That's not what I said. I just want to get in the habit of letting my kids make up their own minds in general. Food, bedtime, books, tv, whatever. Within reason. Obviously this is not an "anything goes" situation, I use my judgement. If you want to make up their minds for them on the issue of television, that is your choice.
Do you think there's not other kinds of crap to weed through in life besides what's on TV?

Of course there is crap in other areas of life! Some books are crap, but that is just my opinion. It doesn't mean that I think they shouldn't exist, or that people shouldn't read them. Many times I've started to read a book and then thought, you know, this just isn't doing it for me. So I put the book down. I don't burn it, or write angry letters to the author or publisher, I just put the book down. Same with TV. If I think a show has potential and I start watching it, if I don't like it I turn the channel or I turn it off. I don't give away my TV or tell other people that they should to, or that they are somehow damaging their children by letting them watch Sesame Street.

Some toys are crap IMO, but if my daughter wanted one I might just buy it for her. So she can figure it out for herself. Or maybe she would love it. So bonus, she gets a toy that she likes, and I get a daughter who has her own thoughts and opinions that are different from mine. That is okay with me.

Should I intentionally expose my young children to crap on the theory that they need to learn to discern crap from good stuff?

I don't *think* I said you should intentionally expose them to crap, I try to expose my daughter to things that are healthy and educational now when she is young (which is all she likes at the moment anyway, as I mentioned) in the hopes that when she is old enough to decide what to watch she will know the difference. It's like food. I was never allowed to have any sugar or candy or sweets when I was little. So when I got an allowance, I spent the whole thing every week on sweets. I got fat. I was unhappy. I think it would have been better if a cupcake was just a cupcake instead of the holy grail of foods.

Same with TV. After watching nothing but Baby Einstein and Sesame Street for a while, she may try these "crap" shows and not like them because there is no substance to them. Like the difference between some nice casserole and some cupcakes. She may like these fluffier shows. But I don't think that many unschooled children given the choice to watch anything they want (within reason) or to eat anything they want would choose a diet of only cupcakes. I could be wrong, I'll keep you posted.

Note from Sandra Dodd in 2017, ten years after this page was created:

I'm glad Vijay put "crap" in quotation marks. Looking at the exchange in retrospect, it was quite a crapstorm! Because the forum in which it originally arose is gone, I can't check back to what started it, but just in this section, that word was used nine (9) times. It's disturbing.

But there is a page on my site which I coded in as SandraDodd.com/crap and (it turns out, coincidentally) it's also about TV. More specifically, it was a mother insulting her child's interest.

It's linked at the bottom of this page.

If you think about what's on TV, even those educational shows have had millions of dollars poured into researching how to get your kids glued to the screen, and in most cases how to get them to buy something.
Really? Well it's not working because she's not glued to the screen. Plus I am wracking my brain and I can't think of what the heck they are selling on an Elmo's world DVD — other than more Elmo DVDs, lol.
Seems to me unlimited TV viewing could lead to just the opposite of free thinking -- brainwashing by the corporate culture.

Ooh, brainwashing, now we're really getting into it. Hm. Unlimited TV viewing leads to brainwashing...I'm going to go with no. Show of hands?

[Vijay earlier]:
I'm not talking about letting them watch graphic sex or realistic violence when they are young enough to be traumatized, but about watching age-appropriate cartoons, movies, or sitcoms or educational shows and things along those lines and letting them figure out what appeals to them and what doesn't.
In case someone missed my reason for mentioning Mander's and McKibben's books earlier, let me just say that content is NOT the whole story behind why I don't have TV. It has to do with brain research, what happens in young children's brains when they watch TV, and lots of other stuff. If anyone is really interested in finding out, there are plenty of resources and books to read.

Oh now we're getting into the studies. Okay, I'll play. I especially like the one at www.tvturnoff.org/research.htm entitled "TV May Increase Risk of ADD in Children" where they said that kids who are allowed to watch a lot of TV (regardless of the content) at a young age may have suffered ill effects in part because of neglectful parents who provided an environment that aggravated behavioral and attention problems. Oh, and they also mention that ADD has a high heritability factor.

So it's partly the parents using the TV (including violent, sexual or otherwise inappropriate content) as a babysitter that damages these young minds, and the lack of a stimulating environment outside of TV, not *just* TV itself in my opinion. I don't think there are many (if any) unschooling parents in this group who neglect to provide a stimulating environment for their kids or who allow their toddlers to watch shows with inappropriate content.

They have actually demonstrated in these same studies that Sesame Street and other educational shows (far from leading to ADD and other similar problems) actually *increase* children's attention spans and learning. What that tells me is that people are actually *underestimating* the negative effects of the inappropriate content and rapid-fire editing of commercials and other programs. Because the children whose parents only allowed educational shows would actually balance out the others in the study, KWIM? So if they are positing that every hour of TV per day that a kid under age 2 watches increases by 10% their likelihood of developing ADD, it's more like 20% or 30% if you take away the kids in the study who watch educational shows.

The difference between the average Saturday morning cartoon and Sesame Street is very apparent to me. Sesame Street characters speak slowly and clearly, and the scene only changes every few minutes. OTOH, there are sometimes 20-25 cuts — maybe more — just in a 30 second commercial on regular Sat am tv. Which is not to say that I won't ever let my daughter watch them, but just not right now. Which is fine with her because she doesn't care for them anyway, even the PBS cartoons like Clifford and Sagwa that don't have commercials or lots of rapid editing.

[Vijay earlier:]
It has been my experience that children and teens who watch TV indiscriminately and unceasingly are those whose viewing is restricted.

I don't restrict viewing, I just don't have a TV.

How is that not restricting their viewing? I don't understand how you could possibly restrict it any more than by not having a TV.

My kids watch TV at other people's houses occasionally. I don't forbid it. But my experience with other parents who do have televisions and who do restrict it is not in line with yours.

Well that just goes to show you that you should *never* make sweeping generalizations, lol. I think all people who make sweeping generalizations are always wrong. ;-)

So I rely on specific examples. I am not going to make the error of stating or thinking that one or two specific examples would prove anything, it's just to say, "Here's what I'm basing my decision on. Hundreds of unschooling families have decided not to restrict TV viewing and they've explained why it works for them. Their explanations struck a chord with me, and I've decided to try it myself." Like I said, I'll keep you posted on how it works out for me. If my daughter ends up with ADD you can say I told you so, how's that?

[Vijay earlier:]
They live in constant fear that someone is about to march in and turn the TV off, so they watch hungrily no matter what is on (my 15 y.o. sister is like this).

Sounds like a sad existence. I don't think it's an inevitable result of restricting television, though.

I agree, I don't think that's the whole story either. I think it's partly a need to escape from reality. I plan to help my daughter have a life that she doesn't feel the need to escape from.

[Vijay earlier:]
If you want to talk to them, you have to stand in front of the TV or turn it off because they turn into zombies and cannot snap out of their trance.

Yeah! That's what happens with TV. It affects your brain waves, and it especially affects developing brains.

I guess I need to read up on this more. I keep hearing this, and I don't know what to make of it. Doesn't everything we do affect our brain activity? Being excited, or scared, or bored . . . looking at a painting, listening to music, going for a walk in the woods, reading a book . . . aren't all of these things part of brain activity? Just because something is colorful and flickers and is made up of millions of tiny pixels of light I don't see how it would negatively affect our brain waves. You don't seem to have a problem with computers, and those flicker and are made up of millions of tiny pixels of light . . . what is your stance on movies?

[Vijay earlier:]
In theory, unschooled kids don't *need* TV for the same reasons and thus can take it or leave it.

In theory, maybe. When you're raising kids it's interesting to think about theories, but at some point you have to look at what's actually around you.

But I DO look at what's actually around me. Well, what's *actually* around me literally is just a bunch of trees and fields and dogs and chickens, but I mean that I learn from these groups what other families are doing. I resent the implication that I am making all of these decisions in some kind of vacuum without giving careful thought, or doing any research. I am starting to get a little insulted that you think I am gambling or experimenting with my daughter's brain or well-being without "looking around me" first.
I think some kids are more vulnerable to TV than others; by that I mean the addictive aspect of it. I haven't grilled all the parents around here about their practices regarding TV, but I can think of two unschooling families off the top of my head that I know a little bit about. Both of these kids I've known for years, and both are older teens (16-18). One mother restricted TV when her son was young; her son really likes TV now, and since he's 18 she doesn't restrict now, and he probably watches it more than she would like, but he's not a zombie and he doesn't constantly sit in front of it. For instance, he has a job.

I'm glad that it worked out for them. I am the last person who thinks that there is a one-size-fits-all solution for every family. You must have me confused with someone else. I was the one who said that choosing to have a TV or not or choosing to restrict it or not is a very personal choice that every family has to make for themselves, remember?

I agree that there are some people who are more prone to addiction that others. My mother, uncle and grandmother were all alcoholics. I dodged that bullet, but it is clear to me that there is a genetic component. My husband and I both have a problem with food, one that we hope to not pass on to our daughter.

So far, letting her tell us when she's hungry, decide what she wants to eat, and stop eating when she's full seems to be working pretty well. She's a big girl (95% for height and 75% for weight) but not fat (well, a little baby fat of course, she's still a baby) and I hope she never becomes obese through eating for the wrong reasons. Just as I hope she doesn't become a TV zombie through watching TV for the wrong reasons.

The other kid, who is 16, was never limited at all around anything including food and TV, and he spends most of his time watching TV and eating junk food, and appears to have very few interests outside of that. What do these examples prove? Nothing, really. Certainly not anything I could generalize about.

Exactly! These examples on their own don't prove anything. Maybe he watches TV to excess because he is depressed. Maybe he craves junk food because he has a nutritional deficiency that manifests itself in a craving for salt or sugar, it's not uncommon. Maybe he is just going through a phase, as teenagers do, and he's suddenly going to find his purpose in life, lol, and put down the cheetos, turn off the TV and cure cancer. Who knows? I don't judge.

[Vijay earlier:]
--It's just like reading a book and having someone explain what the picture is when you point. Nobody that I've ever met says that they don't allow books!

Actually, there are schools of thought that believe even books limit the imagination of a child. They would advocate oral, live storytelling.

Well, I don't often do this, but I have to say :-P to those people. I mean come on. There are also people who think that the earth is flat, or that their Mother Ship is coming back for them, or that the men landing on the moon was faked.
I'm not one of those people, but they are there, and I see the difference between reading a book to a child and telling that child a story. There's certainly a difference between reading a book to a child and watching a TV show with a child.

Actually, when the "show" in question is just a series of images set to classical music (baby einstein) it is very much like paging through a picture book with music playing on the stereo. I was talking very specifically about certain educational DVDs, not TV shows in general. She has no interest in TV shows. Yet. 🙂

[Vijay earlier:]
I would hate to be the only kid on the playground who had never watched television because I would feel like all of the other kids had a common point of reference that I just didn't get.

But you're not worried about your kid not having school as a common reference point? Interesting.

No, I'm not worried about that, it's different in my mind. I would even "let" my kid play with the kids who go to school or who don't have TV, lol, because I'm sure they'd find other things in common besides school or TV. But I am just saying. *I* would have felt bad if I was on the playground as a child and everyone was talking about the funny thing that happened on Welcome Back Kotter, or if they were all singing the theme to Good Times together and I was the only one who wasn't in on the joke. KWIM? I would have survived my childhood if we didn't have a TV of course, but as a pretty shy kid I wouldn't have had a way to break the ice in certain circumstances. "Hey, cool Charlie's Angels lunchbox, did you see the one . . . "

[Vijay earlier:]
I've tried to get her to watch Reading Rainbow or Clifford, or I've had the Today show on and she won't even glance at the screen.
Have you tried Teletubbies? I bet she'd love it. They spent millions figuring out how to pull in one-year-olds.

No, haven't yet. They don't have it on our local PBS station. I'm content with Elmo and Baby Einstein for now, and more importantly my DD is content with them for now. Maybe I'll see if they have a VHS of it at the library so I don't waste my $ on something that she won't watch. Right now we're spending a lot of time outside, but maybe in the winter time she'll want to watch more TV.

[Vijay earlier:]
Of course this is a personal decision for everyone to make for their own family
I agree.

Cool. I may not get back to this group until tomorrow, so please don't think I'm snubbing you if you don't hear from me for a while. It is sooo nice out and DD will be up from her nap any time now.

Best wishes,


This exchange seems to have been from November 2007 (maybe). Because I can't find it, it must have been in a now-defunct forum (there are a few). —Sandra

P.S. in 2017...

"Have you tried Teletubbies? I bet she'd love it. They spent millions figuring out how to pull in one-year-olds."

Wait, wait, wait—"they" who spent HOW much and why!? Teletubbies was a BBC production.

In April 2017, I found this line and realized it had not been challenged. A discussion arose in which someone defended the claim (not very well) and then it turned out the woman disrupting my topic was childless, and not married, but thought she should qualify to discuss it because she hopes to unschool her own children someday, she is close with her nephew, and she's a nanny.

Those are not NEARLY qualifications for knowing the benefits of TV in an unschooling family.

If facebook is still there, if Radical Unschooling Info is still there, the discussion might still be there, and most of it was good.

Back to the TV page

Making Choices / "Have To"

Raising a Respected Child

What can happen when a mother says a child's preferences are "crap" or "stupid"