I think the general consensus in America is that television is an inferior, and perhaps even a detrimental pastime for our nation's children. (There's no official statistic with this, I'm just basing this on anecdotal evidence, really). There's sort of a common theme around parenting land, and probably beyond, that television is an entity that needs a LOT of heavy parameters and regulation and time limits. Like, don't let your toddler watch any before the age of two, or limit your kids to 30 minutes a day, or maybe only on the weekends.
I get the feeling that television is sort of treated on the same scale as junk food. And this is nothing new. If you've read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, the Oompah-Loompahs go on a huge tirade against television. Essentially "it rots the sense in the head! It kills imagination dead!" and so on (It's a long poem, so click here to read it - it's pretty funny.)
My wife and I have had discussions about this quite a bit in our marriage, and over the years, we've come to our own consensus about television. And now I'll share it with you.
Well, as in all things (including books), there is good television and there is bad television. When our kids watch television, we like them to watch shows with not only good content, but also a good aesthetic. What do I mean by that? Well, we want the shows to be morally clean and teach a good lesson, but also have a good story, good dialogue, if it's a cartoon, good animation. We do not want them to watch shows that will encourage them to be obnoxious, mean-spirited, or too-obsessed with trendiness and pop culture. And, if the plot is just inane or incredibly shallow, we don't like that either.
It's really this: we recognize that television and movies are just another form of art in the modern western world. And actually, much of my graduate schooling was spent watching/analyzing films and television and learning to write for them. Wouldn't it be a little hypocritical if I then banned our children from watching because it was so detrimental to their well-being? So, there's my bias, I guess. But, in our society today, television and films are ubiquitous. And, short of an apocalyptic societal meltdown, that's just the way it's going to be.
So, back to Roald Dahl's assertion that television "kills imagination dead." Well, I don't really agree. I think that if that's the main thing that your child does for entertainment, then yes, it probably will. We have a phrase that we like to use around our house: "No more screens!" Because kids do seem to easily gravitate toward them and it's up to us as parents to help them learn self-control. It is usually the lazier option for all of us just to switch on the television and mindlessly wile away the hours in a semi-vegetative state (I've been there, especially when a new baby comes along and everyone's sleep-deprived), and that's a horrible habit to get into.
But I would argue that even reading too much can be detrimental to a child (but admittedly, this is not as much of a problem nowadays). And so can too much "playing pretend" if that's all that the kids do.
I know that when I was a kid, watching certain TV shows would light a spark in my brother and me to go and play. If we watched a G.I. Joe cartoon after school, we always wanted to play with our G.I. Joe toys afterward, or we would run outside to play Army. My girls are the same way, although, with Netflix, it requires vigilance on my part to make sure they just watch one or two shows and not an entire season worth's of episodes in one sitting.
Animation (which is primarily what our kids like watching) can make a child interested in drawing or painting. Watching a documentary on wildlife allows a child to see animals that they would never see in the real world (we have limited funds that make travel and even zoo admission not feasible). Often, we watch travel shows to make our kids aware of the diversity of the world in which we live. Even some reality shows can be good - Shark Tank gives them a perspective of what it would mean to become an entrepreneur and cooking shows always inspire them to want to help cook or bake something.
Mostly, though, a good movie or television show can enable children to see a new perspective, or visualize something in a beautiful, well-crafted way. It's a relatively new medium that I believe is getting better and better as more artists and writers embrace it. I say, don't banish it for your children, but make sure that they are only watching the best of it.
Although, just know that the pull toward My Little Pony will be strong and fierce if you have little girls like I do - allow it in small doses and eventually they will come to see the asinine plots and mediocre artwork for what they really are and shun it themselves.
Meanwhile, the theme song is still stuck in my head.
Scott Keen is the author of three young adult fantasy novels, Scar of the Downers, Rise of the Branded, and War of the Downer King.