MomTalk: Television and Movies: Who's The Boss?
This week, the esteemed moms from Mom's Talk take on the question of television and movie viewing. We're not talking about screen time, we're talking about content. How do you decide what's OK to watch and what's not?
Tasha Schlake Festel
Of all of the punishments doled out in my house, one you will never hear is revocation of television privileges. I mean, really. Who does that punish? That’s right: me, far more than the children. I’m pretty sure I could not make it through the day without my children “vegging out” in front of the boob tube.
The television is my friend, but we have a tumultuous relationship. While I need it as a parenting tool like I need to exercise, breathe, eat salami and drink tequila to live, I also hate it and the things it has taught my children. When I was able to limit their viewing to PBS Kids Sprout and the mindless and inane little-kid-appropriate shows like The Wiggles, Fireman Sam and Bob the Builder, it really was a win-win. The kids loved the all of the wholesome crap those shows put out there and I knew that they were learning wholesome crap, not how to give me attitude or lie to their parents or sneak out to meet boys at the mall. Sure, my mind rotted a bit with the simple story lines, but I found things I could appreciate on the shows. (The Wiggles: Anthony is objectively attractive. Fireman Sam: Who doesn’t like a man in uniform? Bob the Builder: the sexual tension between claymation Bob and Wendy is palpable.)
The kids are older now – wise and worldly at six and eight – and that wholesome crap on Sprout doesn’t cut it anymore. My Kindergartner should absolutely still be OK with Kipper and Sesame Street, but he has an older sister who has friends with siblings in middle school, and well, that little kid stuff just plain isn’t cool. And he is nothing if not cool. We’ve moved on to iCarly, Wizards of Waverly Place and Good Luck Charlie. (As I have previously confessed, I have a slight crush on the big brother on iCarly, Jerry Trainor.) These shows are fairly harmless. Sure, they teach teenage attitude, but so do the middle school kids they see lounging about at the library or loitering around Cravings downtown.
I don’t let my kids watch shows where anyone is mean-spirited (Kick Buttowski) or that’s too completely stupid (The Suite Life, Pair of Kings, SpongeBob). When they want to add a new show into the rotation, I have to watch it with them. My rules are somewhat arbitrary, I won’t lie. Like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, I just know it when I see it, or hear it, in most cases. It’s often in the tone and nuances in plot. For example, Jessie is dumb and annoying, but allowed, and Kickin’ It is dumb and annoying and not allowed. It all comes down to how people treat each other.
Movies are much easier. After all, there is that handy dandy rating provided by the Motion Picture Association of America. While there is still some gray area for me, I can generally say that “G” movies are safe. I’m starting to notice, though, that most kid movies are “PG.” Movies like The Lorax, The Muppet Movie and Mirror, Mirror are all PG and totally appropriate. But other PG movies like Napoleon Dynamite or Groundhog Day or Ghostbusters are not OK for my kids to watch. I’ve also found that “animated” or “Disney/Pixar” doesn’t necessarily equate to “OK.” Take, for example, Up or Rango. These were two big flops for us. For generally tough and unrattleable kids, these two movies conjured either tears or fear and they’ve begged me never to watch them again.
Now, if I need them to behave, instead of threatening to take TV away, I threaten to make them watch Up or Rango and they fall in line pretty fast.
My kids don’t watch a lot of TV. Not the way I did, anyway. Pretty much everything they watch is on demand, streaming on Netflix or on DVD. They never just plop down in front of the TV (like I did) to see what’s on. I used to stumble upon Scooby Doo, or reruns of the Love Boat or Three’s Company, or if I was really lucky, the elusive After School Special. What I also saw were commercials. Tons and tons of commercials for sugary cereals and toys and Ronco egg scramblers. Thanks to modern technology, my kids can watch individual shows or movies, but they never just “watch TV.” Lucky for me, no commercials means very little begging for toys and cereals and bendaroos and whatever else is advertised during kids’shows.
That said, there is a fair amount of disagreement around here about what to watch. There are a lot of movies that I think are appropriate for my 11 year old daughter and are totally inappropriate for my 7 year old son. He saw most of the Harry Potter movies (all the ones that were out, anyway) by the time he was in kindergarten.
Now, never in a million billion years would I have let my daughter watch movies like that when she was so young. She was still watching Little Bear and the Backyardigans. I don’t think he is going to watch a movie like Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and think what he’s seeing is real, just that it has some pretty dark and scary imagery that doesn’t belong in a five-year-old’s mind. My husband read all the Harry Potter books aloud to the kids, so they were familiar with the story, but I still thought the movies were way too intense for a kid that little.
TV shows are a little easier to agree on. All my kids like Phineas and Ferb, Avatar, the Last Airbender, Cupcake Wars, Sweet Genius, and pretty much any other cooking show. They also all love American Idol. We have somehow been spared the whole Disney Channel lineup from Hannah Montana to iCarly. I never kept my kids from watching those shows, but they never really had any interest. Most of the time, TV is a half hour or so of downtime while dinner is being made or early in the morning when everyone is up, but no one is really awake. My kids are happier reading, or making up games or playing outside, all of which I would prefer to hanging out in front of the TV.
I am a mean mom. I don’t let my kids wear what they want to wear. I don’t let my kids eat what they want to eat. And I don’t let my kids watch whatever they want on TV.
I grew up in a house where TV watching was kept to a bare minimum. My brothers and I were not allowed to watch any TV during the week and sparingly on the weekends. My memories of television growing up consist of Three Stooges marathons on Saturday mornings and begging my mom to let me watch Beverly Hills 90210 during the week like all my other friends! I remember not being happy about the television rule but when it comes down to it, it doesn’t dominate my memories of my childhood. I also loved to read (and still do) and so I spent a lot of my free time reading and playing with friends.
As a parent, I want my children to be able to entertain themselves. Whether it be choosing to read on their own, color or paint, play legos, go outside, or whatever their creative little brains can come up with, I want them to use their thoughts and their bodies and create entertainment. Of course, like most adults I know, the kids just need some down time where they can veg out in front on the television. They don’t want to think of another game to play, or another model to build and so wrapping up in a cozy blanket on their favorite spot on the couch is the perfect choice.
Once the kids get the ok to sit down and watch television, the next decision is now what to watch? There are so many choices of shows for the kids to choose from. I’m not a big fan of cartoons or live action shows that don’t have some meaning or education behind it. For the older kids, we stick to Disney Junior or PBS. Some of our favorites at the moment are Octonauts (a cartoon that educates about sea animals), Imagination Movers (4 men who come up with some creative solutions to problems through song), Wild Kratts (two brothers who explore the wilderness and the animals that inhabit the globe), Jake and the Neverland Pirates (young pirates working together to thwart the evil Hook), and most recently Doc McStuffins (a young girl who doctors her stuffed animals and toys). I wholeheartedly approve of these shows, they all have some sort of educational aspect. Also the songs that go along with them, I can’t get them out of my head, and it doesn’t really bother me! Creature report, creature report!
If the kids hear of a new show that their friends are talking about then I will check it out first before I add it to the DVR list. A few weeks ago, Ryan came home talking about a new Ninjago show that ALL the boys were talking about, even his very best friend (who I know the mom is just as strict as I am!). Sooo, we were at the Cape last week and I let him watch one episode. Overall, it was ok, a little violent for me and there was some language I wasn’t thrilled with (I think they said idiot once). We decided to make Ninjago a special Cape show and therefore it would be sporadic watching. There is a lot of communication between the kids and my husband and I. It’s a constant conversation of how much and what can they watch.
Moviewise, these kids are a mystery! Ryan can’t handle the emotions on Toy Story 3 but can watch Darth Vader die a thousand deaths and not shed a tear. Nemo getting pulled away from his dad, makes him hide his head in a pillow, but Peter Venkman blowing a ghost to bits, no problem! Lily has lately gotten hooked on High School Musical and I am thrilled about that, mostly because I have a huge crush on Troy Bolton. We’re willing to explore different movies, depending on their interest.
Tom and I are always looking for the next teaching moment. We teach them what clothes look nice together so that when they choose for themselves they have a better chance of not looking like ragamuffins. We teach them how to eat healthy so when they are put in a position of making food choices they will make good ones. Hopefully, by teaching the kids which shows are appropriate and which shows are not, when they are on a playdate and Spongebob comes on, they might stand up on their little soap boxes and explain how fresh the show is and then ask for a nice healthy snacks of carrot sticks!
My two year old really, really loves Elmo, but he has never seen one episode of Sesame Street. I personally find Sesame Street annoying, but I am not the reason for the lack of Sesame Street-ness in our house. No, it’s because his five-, seven- and nine-year old brothers are too cool to watch a baby show like Sesame Street.
This is also why the two year old goes around the house singing the theme song from Phineas and Ferb, and why he loves to play Ninja Warrior in the back yard.
There is a basic group of shows in our house that our kids watch that are also mom-approved. They watch them on Netflix or On Demand. Hence, no pesky commercials and no advertisements for other shows that are not mom-approved. This greatly reduces the number of times I have to tell them “No!” in a given week. No begging for the hottest new toy. No begging for grocery items plastered with tv show characters (which distract from the spurious ingredient list on said grocery items). Well, at least if they ask for tv-branded grocery items, they are used to the question, “And why do these companies put tv characters on the boxes?”
They answer in a resigned and dejected tone, “So kids will ask their moms to buy them but they are junk. Sigh.” End of story.
If my two year old watches some shows that are for older kids, it’s also true that my older kids watch shows that are probably geared to younger kids. There is still a lot of Dora, Blues Clues, Thomas and Team Umizoomi happening at our house.
Basically, I screen for content and reject any shows in which the parents look like idiots, the kids are brats or sarcastic or in which there is too much violence. I also reject shows that are just pure foolishness or which reinforce potty talk or such behavior. (I’m lookin’ at you, Spongebob…)
I used to be much more vigilant about strictly rationing tv time. There are still plenty of time limits, but these days I’m more apt to use tv time as a motivating force, allowing them to earn time with good behavior or efficiently-done routines or chores. Hey, I love to veg out in front of the tv and so do my kids. In our family, we just balance it out with lots of inside and outside play time that engages their imaginations and gets them moving. And yes, I sometimes use tv as a tool to buy me some peace and quiet. And I’m totally okay with that!