This is the second post in our new series CCFC Q&A: Commercial Quandaries for Modern Parents. Click here to read the first post.
Q: I struggle with exposing our 2-year-old son to Curious George. I recognize there was a study out of New Hampshire that indicated children did well in school if they had viewed this program. However, as much as I enjoy the problem solving on the show and the use of the character as a springboard for learning, I get uncomfortable when my toddler can't take his eyes away from the screen. We try to limit screen time, but it seems to relax him so much after a day at his early childhood center. Recently, he didn't even greet his father after he had been gone for two weeks on business because... You guessed it... Curious George was on. Advice? –Leah BouRamia
A: It’s certainly disquieting to see how mesmerizing screens are for some children. What’s great about two-year-olds, however, is that despite their “terrible twos” reputation, they’re still pretty malleable. It’s not too late to make changes in your toddler’s screen-time habits. And one thing you absolutely don’t have to worry about is that depriving your son of the Curious George television program will harm his future school performance. It won’t! But more about that later. Meanwhile, here are a couple of options for you:
- Establish a new, screen-free routine for late afternoons. Your son may fuss at first but if you’re worried that he can’t tear himself away or that he struggles a lot when it’s time to stop, you can choose to significantly limit or eliminate his screen time until he’s older. If the first few days away from Curious George are hard for him, he may need extra cuddling or need for you to spend time doing other things you know he loves to do. If you believe that watching the show has helped him relax after day care, make sure that other relaxing activities are always available when he firsts gets home—books, music, blocks, or art materials are just a few suggestions. If you need to cook dinner, try spending a few minutes with him until he’s settled before you begin or move activities into the kitchen so he has your company.
- Set clear, consistent limits—and stick to them. If you want your son to continue watching Curious George, remind him beforehand that he’ll have to stop when the show is over. Let him know that you understand how much he enjoys the show but that he still needs to stop when it’s time. Make sure that you and his father are in agreement about your decision and be prepared to follow through consistently even if your son protests. Remind him of the other fun things he can do next.
- Continue your son’s relationship with the character. Whatever you decide, remember that giving up, or limiting, the television needn’t deprive your son of his delight in Curious George the monkey. Let him know that it’s his television time you’re concerned about—not his feelings about the character. Characters like Curious George can be important to children and they can get a lot of pleasure in reading and playing about them. He can build houses for George, cook him food, and pretend all sorts of things. And by all means, continue reading him the books. Remember, a relationship with George doesn’t depend on buying the all the licensed toys associated with the show!
Now, about that study you mention. It’s important for you to know that it was focused solely on 4- and 5-year-olds—children significantly older than your son. It was funded by PBS to determine whether older preschoolers who watch the program and read its associated books learn the math and science concepts taught by the show.
One problem with studies like this is that they don’t compare kids watching a program with kids having some other comparably-educational, non-screen experience. They compare it to no enrichment at all. It’s not surprising that kids who watched the program and read the books had a better grasp of the concepts being taught than those in who had absolutely no special math and science experiences.
Well thought out educational, non-commercial media can be beneficial to preschoolers but I have yet to see evidence that—unlike hands-on, creative play, and time with caring adults—any kind of screen experience is essential to their health, learning, or wellbeing!