Last week’s 58 minute presidential address to Congress included a few electrifying moments on early childhood education. It was glorious to hear the most powerful man in the free world talk about taking time with his kids, and how important it is for all parents to read to their kids and help with homework (take note, helicopter parents: don’t help too much).
Here’s what Obama said :
“We've dramatically expanded early childhood education and will continue to improve its quality, because we know that the most formative learning comes in those first years of life…there is no program or policy that can substitute for a parent, for a mother or father who will attend those parent-teacher conferences, or help with homework, or turn off the TV, put away the video games, read to their child.”
I agree wholeheartedly with Obama -- except for “turning off the tv.” Now, nonstop tv viewing has its downside, no matter how old you are. But I take issue with the broad and inflammatory anti-tv movement, and the sensationalist news headlines on the topic. There’s good tv, bad tv, boring tv, educational tv - and every mom I know is smart enough to tell the difference. I could not have raised my three kids without a television set. I could not have taken a shower without Sesame Street or Teletubbies. My children were introduced to Bach, Beethoven and Mozart through Baby Einstein videos , a welcome addition in our house, where neither my husband or I know much about classical composers.
Unfortunately, Baby Einstein and other early childhood programming have been unfairly maligned by media reports  distorting research into kids’ screen time. The lead researcher on a recent Harvard/Boston Children’s Hospital study explained that her data shows watching tv doesn’t offer “any benefits or harms” to children, yet the news headline was “Allowing toddlers to watch TV could interfere with development.” This type of misreporting builds on a seriously flawed study in 2007 by researchers at the University of Washington who claimed in a Journal of Pediatrics  report that watching videos temporarily delays children’s speech development. (Given how adept my children have become with verbal negotiations, I’d occasionally welcome speech delays in my household.) The widely-disseminated University of Washington study was based on telephone interviews with parents asked to self-report retroactively how much television their children had watched and to recall when their children began speaking certain words. Huh? Do YOU chart each day’s activities? Remember precisely when your child first said “cat”?
Hardly reputable research, yet it got national attention and ominous headlines in Time  and The New York Times . Dimitri Christakis, the lead researcher, was widely quoted with the bold, completely unproven causal claim “The more videos [babies] watched, the fewer words they knew.” Right.
Come on -- how can watching classical music and stuffed puppets, or Big Bird, Elmo and Teletubbies be evil? Do researchers and mainstream media really believe that we mamacitas are so stupid we fall for this guilt-trip? The subtext here has nothing to do with tv. It has more to do with making moms feel guilty. Moms – not dads, of course.
However, most moms I know have a brain. We use it to make hundreds of decisions a day, including when to turn the tv on and off. The American Academy of Pediatrics has been virtuously recommending no screen time for kids under two for the last ten years, yet 68% of kids watch some amount of tv. Thank god, because otherwise, how would all these universities conduct the surveys in the first place? Good moms know that sometimes, in the midst of our 24/7 marathons, we need a respite, to take a critical phone call, wash our hair, fold the laundry, or heaven forbid, rest our drained brains and refill our patience reserves.
And guess what? Our kids need a break too. No child benefits from nonstop flash card drilling and one-on-one adult interaction, no matter how much guilt our country’s early childhood researchers and headline writers pile on us. Babies and older kids need to learn to entertain themselves occasionally, to use their imaginations, to zone out with a little Beethoven and Bach or even Zach and Cody. A critical part of growing up is learning that mom sometimes needs to take care of something besides you, and that you can take care of yourself for a few minutes. We – and fanatical no-tv proponents -- do moms, our children and our culture a disservice by insisting that television is an unmitigated evil. I believe that we – and our kids – are too smart for that.
Graphic accompanying this piece from Funny Papers  by Betsy Streeter. For more on the TV topic, read A Yabba Dabba Do Time  by Christie Mellor.