Thursday, April 22, 2010

"educational" television

            Over the last two summers, I worked as a nanny, caring for four children, ages one through six. On my first day, their mother gave me the house rules— dress the three year-old in pull-ups during naptime, dispense healthy snacks whenever the kids were hungry, discipline by time-outs or calling a parent, watch out or the baby will climb everything in view. The last thing she told me sticks very clearly in my memory— “And we try to limit their television-watching.” I was perfectly fine with that; in my house, we had the TV off more than on, and tried to stick to an hour or less of watching per day. I soon found that this family’s definition of “limit” and my own definition were extraordinarily different. “Limit” to them meant “only allowing the TV to be on for an hour or more after breakfast, while we make lunch, after naptime, while we’re making supper, and after everyone is ready for bed.” It meant that, each time the eldest daughter got too stressed out (she struggled with anxiety and behavioral disorders) she would beg for me to turn on the TV—and if I did not comply, she would find the remote and punch buttons until she hit the right one to turn on the TV. Most of the television programs the kids watched were “educational,” incorporating bright colors, easily readable words, age-appropriate science or math concepts, bilinguilism, and good morals. Because of this, I have had recent, first-hand experience with children’s programming, and am not basing my ideas on abstract concepts.
            I do not believe that “educational” TV shows are entirely beneficial to children. Instead of teaching children to persevere in seeking out the answers to their questions, “educational” TV leads them to believe that any questions should be solved in fifteen to thirty minutes or (God forbid) an hour at most. Instead of teaching them how to cope with real-world emotions and situations, “educational” TV teaches children to live in a world of fast-paced interactions, where the most difficult relationship one might encounter is trying to shout through Oscar’s trashcan lid when he slams it shut (and even that is easily solved). Instead of teaching them to move and emote and act and create and explore and play on their own, “educational” TV teaches children to live vicariously through others’ lives. Instead of teaching them to connect and integrate information, “educational” TV teaches children to learn through disjointed, fractured mini-bites of facts. Instead of showing them reality, “educational” TV presents children with a sanitized, attractive world which is solely focused on entertaining them.
            Despite all this, I am pragmatic about the issue of “educational” TV. I did watch these sorts of shows when I was younger, and many of them were delightful and probably introduced me to science, math, and English concepts that I still utilize. However, all of the information I received from these shows, I can say with certainty I could have learned from a documentary, or even a book. Possibly, I would have remembered these things better had I “discovered” them through my own work and study, rather than having it handed to me through a quick-firing half-hour episode.
            Should children watch “educational” programming? I think the answer to this is no, not as a main staple of their “educational diet.” The problem is, we have become a culture of Sesame-Street educated adults, used to bright colors and pretty shapes, accustomed to having information presented in a quick-fire unrelated fashion. In order for children to grow into adults who can function in our fast-paced information-logged technology-based culture, I think it is necessary for them to at least be exposed to “educational” TV.
            Will my children be allowed to watch “educational” shows? Probably, but in a limited amount and only with my full knowledge. Instead, I hope to be able to expose my children to life concepts through real-life exploration and personal involvement. There are things that, practically, I will not be able to show them in person (like the Australian outback, for instance), and I am comfortable using educational TV for those sorts of things. However, if at all possible, I want my children to gain their education through love-guided experience and exploration— not through bright flashing colors on an impersonal electronic screen.

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