When people find out that I study children and media, they often say something like, “So, I bet your kids don’t watch a lot of TV.” I’m writing today to clear up that misconception, and to also provide some encouragement to parents who don’t know if they’re parenting efforts will ever make a difference.
The other day we had some friends over and we got talking about children and media. Conversations in our home also seem to drift toward that, probably because it’s always on my mind. Somehow the conversation drifted toward the children’s program “Dinosaur Train.” And then, almost as if on cue, each of the kids and even a couple of us parents starting singing the Dinosaur Train theme song. I can’t remember the last time our kids saw the show, but each of them remembered the entire theme song. At first, I was sort of embarrassed that my children—children of someone who is supposed to be an expert on children and media—could remember so much from something they saw so long ago. As if I expected my kids to not be affected by media. That, of course, is not true. So, I decided to a little research project of my own to see what comes to my kids minds when they think of TV.
Here are the results of my impromptu research project. I share this with my kids’ permission, of course.
When she thinks of TV, my 6-year-old said, “Toyota—Let’s Go Places.” Then she rattled off each of the PBS shows that she likes and what she’s learned from each.
My 9-year-old said “Chevy drives Texas.” She told me that commercials try to make you buy things. Then, she too, mentioned all the shows that she likes.
Wow, you think we see many car commercials?
And our teenager said “TV is interesting to watch, but it doesn’t have a point. It’s probably a waste of time but I still want to do it sometimes.”
So what can we learn from this unscientific research project? Well, my kids are just like any other kids. My profession does not make them any different. My youngest is learning from TV—which is what TV should be used for at her age. My tween daughter is already developing a little critical thinking about TV, and my oldest is learning about the value of TV in her life. I suppose each child’s response is reflective of a typical child their age.
So, how can we really know if our media parenting is actually making a difference? What I’m learning is that kids grow little by little. Just as we don’t notice changes in their height from one day to the next, I think our efforts as parents aren’t always immediately seen. And just as some of the best research takes a longitudinal approach, I think we need to look at our parenting through a long-term lens. When you feel like your efforts aren’t paying off, I think it’s wise to remember that kids will be kids, and that our efforts to steer them and guide them take years. We shouldn’t become discouraged if we don’t see the progress we’d hoped for. A majestic oak doesn’t grow overnight. Neither do kids. I may never know if my media parenting makes a difference. And because they can choose for themselves, my kids will likely end up different than what I expected. So the thing that keeps me going, even if I don’t ever know if my efforts change my kids, at least my efforts might change me. And if I can be changed, there is hope for my kids too.