Setting Limits: TV-Watching Is Not a Constitutional Right
by Steve Johnson
When I talk with groups of parents, one of the great worries they express
is about TV watching: How much is too much? How can I get my kids to watch
In a certain sense, these question aren't about TV at all; they're about
setting and respecting limits, about living with moderation, about understanding
that entertainment may be a pleasure of life but it is not the purpose
Before I launch into some suggestions for how to accomplish these goals,
I want to reframe the discussion to address all media, not just TV exposure.
That would also include time spent on video games, movies, radio, maybe
even communication like telephone and Instant Messenger. According to
a Kaiser Family Foundation study conducted in 1999, American children
spend an average of more than 38 hours a week consuming media outside
We can take two approaches to this problem: 1) What are the important,
growth-producing activities that your child should be engaged in that
aren't entertainment or media consumption, and how can you encourage these?
And 2) What is an appropriate limit on media consumption, and how can
you enforce it?
The first approach reflects the old saw, "Sometimes, the best defense
is a good offense." Media are often just the way kids fill in unstructured
time when they're bored. You can usually cut down on media exposure just
by keeping your kids busy with growth-producing, mutually beneficial activities
that will bring them into adulthood as healthy, whole people.
Let me give some examples of these activities: homework, household chores,
reading, service to the community, service to one's own family. Is enough
time being spent on these important things? Often, TV time comes pretty
directly out of the hours that could go to these other beneficial areas.
Part of raising whole, healthy people means never letting one side of
their livessuch as entertainmentso dominate that the others
You need to help your children stop thinking of media and entertainment
as constitutional rights, of which they will no doubt protest they are
being deprived unjustly. Instead media may be thought of as a reward for
diligently doing the other growth-producing activities.
On the enforcement side, a common-sense limit for media is probably something
like two hours a day. Sometimes parents ask me, "How can I enforce
that rule because I'm not there all the time?" One tack is to make
this issue part of what you're teachingthat children follow the
rules they've agreed to even when you're not there.
Another idea is to insist that media consumption can only take place
when you're around. There's an added benefit to this approach. Media influences
are tremendously powerful, and what is consumed really does need to be
discussed. You can use TV watching, video gaming, and other media experiences
as opportunities to challenge your children. How real is what they are
seeing? How worthy are the characters of being copied? What would they
do in the situations portrayed if they were to happen in the children's
That way, instead of just being a battleground, media can be another
tool for you to help your child build character.
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