Rule 8: There’s nothing wrong with &#8216electronic babysitting&#8217

Ignore the organic-obsessed supermums and mumsy officials who say kids shouldn't watch TV: there's nothing wrong with electronic babysitting.

Jennie Bristow

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In her monthly column, Jennie Bristow sends today’s parenting fads and panics to the naughty step. This month she assures parents that letting your kids watch TV is not the equivalent of serving them crack cocaine for dinner.

Do your children watch telly? It sounds like a straightforward question; but in self-conscious, status-seeking Mum World it is one of the least likely to get a straight answer.

I have heard of a few people who piously withhold the delights of any screen-based media, generally with the same kind of purist zeal with which they only buy and cook organic. Most mothers prefer the approach of the defensive shuffle: ‘Yes, but only when they’re ill/only for half an hour maximum/only when somebody else is looking after them/only when it’s CBeebies.’ This is generally accompanied by a faint blush and a failure to meet the eyes, as if to acknowledge their personal parenting deficit.

The more I have experienced the defensive shuffle over telly-watching, the more mystifying I have found it. Why, even though most children do watch television, is it generally presumed to be a not-so-good thing? The Times (London) recently published a series of thoughtful, interesting articles about classic children’s TV – how it was then, how it is now, what’s been lost, and what’s got better – which is a great reminder that children’s telly is not some great malign Influence, but a series of quite different programmes (1). Television has been around for half a century – it can’t be the technology that freaks us out, surely. And while some children’s programmes are rubbish, only a complete ignoramus would fail to recognise that others are extremely good.

As with many of the anxieties that preoccupy Mum World, the telly thing is not really about what is showing on the box, but what is going on in our heads. Somehow, parents seem to have internalised the idea that handing your child over to the ‘electronic babysitter’ is a mark of parental failure; that while your child might seem perfectly happy watching Charlie and Lola, deep down he or she is being damaged by your lack of hands-on involvement. More to the point, the fact that you want your child to watch Charlie and Lola (or any bloody thing that’s on!) shows that you’re too knackered/bored/busy to want to be involved in them, which makes you the kind of person who really shouldn’t have had kids in the first place if you can’t be bothered to interact with them.

This idea that the only good parent is the Continually Involved Parent is a prejudice that looms large in policy circles, and has particular resonance with those of us who make use of paid childcare precisely so we don’t have to interact with the children 24/7, and can do something more grown-up instead. It was what lay behind, for example, UK education secretary Ed Balls’ exhortation, in November 2007, that parents should turn off their children’s videogames and spend ‘at least 10 minutes a night’ reading to them (2). As Times columnist Martin Samuel remarked at the time, if kids are struggling to read, a half-decent education secretary would turn his attention to the crisis in schools: Ed Balls’ ‘dumping the problem on the parents is … an abdication of responsibility on a grand scale’ (3). Well said.

But when policymakers harp on about the need for parents to read to their children, the reading skills of children is only part of their concern. If anything, they are more worried about the parenting skills of adults – who, they assume, need to be dragged kicking and screaming into engaging with their children. Books are perceived instrumentally as a useful prop in structuring the way that parents engage: patiently, wholesomely, around a dialogue created by somebody else.

Reading to your kids demands that you stop what you are doing, sit them on your lap, and read the familiar words over and over and over again. I know, because I do a lot of this; and it only makes me appreciate the value of TV more. When the children are tired after a long day being creative, energised, played with, read to, and generally developed at their excellent nursery, and I am simultaneously trying to run a bath, make their tea and prevent sibling warfare from breaking out, the idea that plonking them down in front of Dora the Explorer is not a good idea seems patently ridiculous. Adults watch TV to be entertained and to unwind: why shouldn’t children have the opportunity to do this, too?

There is a gulf between the way that children’s TV-watching is perceived by policymakers and guilt-tripped parents, and the commonsense reality of how families manage it in reality. A major study in 2003 by the US Kaiser Family Foundation, titled Zero to Six: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolers, examined the ‘major and continuing concern’ that parents use television as a ‘babysitter’ – a notion that ‘conjures up an image of children spending countless hours watching television or playing videogames with no adult presence or guidance’ (4).

The study found that TV does play a big role in the lives of young children, who spend an average of about two hours a day with screen media (including computers and videogames); and that 45 per cent of all parents report ‘that they would be very or somewhat likely to sit their child down with a video or a television programme if they had something important they needed to get done’. However, the study also found that 85 per cent of parents reported that most of the time, the child was watching with someone else; and that 69 per cent reported that they were in the room either all or most of the time their child was watching. ‘[I]t appears from these reports that the portrayal of television-watching among young children as a highly solitary activity is not accurate’, concluded the researchers.

In addition, it is worth noting that ‘almost all parents’ have rules about their children’s use of media, both in terms of the content of what they are watching and playing and the time spent doing it; and that ‘reading or being read to remains a constant in most children’s lives’, with 65 per cent of children aged 0-6 reading or being read to every day, and another 26 per cent being read to a few times a week.

The Kaiser Family Foundation findings seem to indicate that, as with most areas of everyday family life, parents are pragmatic, sensible people who take their children’s need for a variety of activities seriously at the same time as appreciating the importance of giving the kids – and themselves – a break. Television is accepted as a part of life, to be used when appropriate and turned off when not. In this sense, to say that your children watch television should be no more embarrassing or controversial than admitting that they play with Lego or enjoy making cakes. But because so many parents have bought into the misplaced ideal of the Continually Involved Parent, and because our confidence is so easily knocked, confessing to TV-watching is like owning up to serving crack cocaine for dinner.

When I was a child, there was a sizeable gang of militantly liberal mums who were fine with children’s telly when the BBC produced it, but viewed ITV as commercial garbage that should never darken any respectable living room. The version of this articulated through today’s defensive shuffle is to admit to telly-watching while protesting that the kids are only allowed 10 minutes a day, painful ‘edutainment’ such as Fun With Phonics, or selected items on CBeebies, but none of the nasty American animation that you get on Sky. The arguments why can be quite eloquent, but they all boil down to recycled snobbery. To deny children television – or even to deny them Disney – means more work for you, and less fun for them. How strange that this is supposed to make you a better parent.

Jennie Bristow is former commissioning editor of spiked, and has two young daughters. She is a freelance writer and researcher, editor of the bpas journal Abortion Review, and a member of the Institute of Ideas Parents’ Forum. Email Jennie {encode=”jennie@bristow.com” title=”here”}.

Read on:

A Guide to Subversive Parenting

(1) Kids’ TV series, The Times (London), January 2008

(2) Parents urged to make children log off and listen to bedtime story, The Times (London), 29 November 2007

(3) Blame schools, not PlayStations, The Times (London), 30 November 2007

(4) Zero to Six: electronic media in the lives of infants, toddlers and preschoolers, Kaiser Family Foundation, Fall 2003.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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