One time I was doing laundry while my girls were watching TV.
I was busy separating colors when something suddenly caught my attention. I stepped out of the laundry room to see what they where watching.
It was Barbie Dreamhouse, so I figured it would be fine. But after paying closer attention, I realized that it wasn’t something particularly wrong or inappropriate about the show. The problem for me was that I didn’t see anything good about it, either. The dialogues were dumb, the interactions between characters were superficial, and the storyline was very unimaginative.
I changed the program and we found something more interesting.
I don’t know about you, but I struggle with limiting their screen time. My kids always seem to want more. There are days that I practically have to force them out to the backyard to play. We have a one-hour limit during the week and allow a little more time on the weekend.
I figure that if they’re watching TV we could at least find some good programming.
But what does good programming look like? There is so much content and so many streaming platforms that it may seem overwhelming.
A more efficient approach is to curate what they are already interested in and afterwards, introduce them to some new shows that you find appealing and add value.
TV Parental Guidelines have two elements. The first refers to the audience its suited for and the second will rate the content. Here’s a breakdown:
Y: All children including ages 2 to 6. Content will not frighten the little ones.
Y7: Age seven or above. Content may frighten little children.
Y7-FV: Seven or above with Fantasy Violence.
G: General Audience. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the content is for children, but most parents would find it suitable for all ages.
PG: Parental Guidance Suggested. Recommended that you watch the program with your children because some situations may raise questions for your little ones.
PG-13, TV-14: Parents Strongly Cautioned. Strongly urged to monitor the program because it may contain intensely suggestive dialogue, violence, sexual situations or strong language.
MA, (R, TV-MA, NC-17): Mature Audience Only. Designed for adults and unsuitable for children under 17.
D: Suggestive Dialogue (usually means talk about sex)
L: Coarse or crude language
S: Sexual Situations
FV: Fantasy Violence (children’s programming only)
Netflix uses the same system and divides it in 3 categories Kids (TV-Y, TV-Y7, G, TV-G, PG, TV-PG) Teens (PG-13, TV-14) and Adults (R, TV-MA, NC-17). A more detailed description will appear at the top corner of the screen at the beginning of each title or episode. Disney Plus, for the moment, doesn’t have content that is rated beyond TV-14.
It is important to note that TV commercials are not required to have ratings, so even if you feel sure of the content of the program, you may still want to keep an eye or an ear out. Also, ratings on shows vary from episode to episode.
Consider these four criteria, when looking at a new cartoon or movie: Age-appropriateness, role model characters, structured content, and interesting subject or theme.
This one may seem obvious, but it is the first and easiest filter that we can use when we are curating what our kids are watching. If they are old enough to understand, use this as an opportunity to teach them about the rating system. When kids understand the reason behind the things we do, they’re more likely to take a cooperative stance. Not only are you protecting them from undesirable content, they’re also becoming advocates for themselves.
2. Characters as Positive Role Models
One thing that stuck with me when taking parenting classes is that children mostly learn by modeling behavior. Have you heard the expression “your child is your mirror”? They mostly model the people around them, but they are surely influenced by what they see on TV as well. When watching a show, ask yourself this question: Would I want my kid to model the behavior of the hero or the main character this show is portraying? For example, even though Masha and the Bear is a very popular children cartoon, I wouldn’t want my kids to model Masha’s behavior. There is a show on Disney Plus called Bluey that I absolutely love. The dad is my favorite role model, he’s playful, patient, and teaches his daughters life lessons in the cutest way. My kids can relate to the family dynamics they experience and have even started playing the same games they play on the show.
3. Structure or Storyline
Watching a movie or an episode of a cartoon is not the same as watching an endless stream of thirty-second TikTok videos or an hour of a kid unboxing toys. Positive parenting coach Karen Zaltzman says that it’s important for children to identify the narrative arc. Look for programs that have an introduction, problem solving, and an ending. Think of Paw Patrol or Sofia the First—shows that follow a storyline and even have cues for the introduction and ending of the show. Children may also learn to be mindful of the time they spend on their screen if they are watching a structured program says Zaltzman.
4. Interesting Subjects or Themes
This last category I would consider as optional. If they are learning about the African savanna or the solar system at school, finding a good program on the subject may inspire them to want to learn more on their own. For instance, each episode of Octonauts features a different animal, and some of them I’ve never even heard of. The Magic School Bus, Story Bots, Our Planet, and Brainchild are examples of shows that incorporate science and nature in their content.
Once you’ve made sure that whatever they’re currently watching aligns with your family values, you can introduce new shows. I could make a list of my favorite shows but instead I will give you what I consider the best resource for this. It is a website called Common Sense Media. Not only do they have extensive reviews on movies, TV shows, books, apps, and games, they also have a search tool that categorizes programs by age or interest.
If I had to recommend one show for parents of preschoolers, it would be Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. It’s from the same producers of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, and it focuses on real life situations and teaches kids and parents about emotions and feelings. The “Grown Ups Come Back!” song, the “You can take a turn, and then you’ll get it back” phrase or the “Try a New Food, It Might Taste Good!” tune literally saved me and still do on many occasions. I could literally write an essay on this show but I know from the reviews I read that many parents don’t like it. So, I’ll leave my two cents here, and slowly walk away.
My intention for you, dear reader, is not to tell you which shows to watch but to provide you with tools so you become the best guide for your family. Your family values, your beliefs, and your way of parenting can either be supported or challenged by what your kids are seeing on TV.
It is important to state that, as a major in communication studies I value and enjoy good media content, but If I have to choose between hearing my kids play outside or not hearing them because they are watching TV, I will always choose the first option. Nevertheless, there are times when the TV will be there to function as a babysitter, a rest and peaceful activity, or even a bonding family activity such as movie night in my bed. And when that happens, I know that good programming is there at my disposal. I am just the gatekeeper!