For my kids, summertime means lazy mornings, running through the sprinklers, and trips to the library. And in our home, it also means that we often hear the two words that parents dread the most in the summer: “I’m bored.” I’d be a gazillionaire if I had a nickel every time my kids said they were bored. And inevitably when they’re bored, my kids beg to watch TV.
Kids’ summertime boredom brings many parents face-to-face with their love-hate relationship with the television. It is so easy as a parent to turn the TV on and let the kids plop down on the couch and idle away the lazy summer afternoons. At the same time, however, there’s a little angel standing on my other shoulder telling me that too much time in front of the TV is not good for my kids. The conundrum is real and is the source of unwanted parenting guilt.
New research shows some TV helps kids
Fortunately, a new study by researchers at Texas Tech University has found that not all TV is bad. I know, that is news. During a conversation not too long ago with some research colleagues I discovered that several of us had children who were really into Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. My then 4-year-old daughter seemed to be especially enamored with the show — she sang songs about counting to four to help her calm down, about flushing the toilet and washing her hands, and about grown-ups coming back. Knowing that very little research explores the effects of TV shows that try to teach social skills to kids, we decided that we just had to conduct a study about Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. Here’s what we did:
- We enrolled 127 preschoolers and one of each of their parents in our study.
- Over a two-week period, we had some of the kids watch Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood for 30 minutes each day, while some of the kids watched 30 minutes of a nature documentary each day.
- We then interviewed the kids and played some special games with them that allowed us to measure certain social skills—empathy, recognizing emotions, and social confidence. Each of these three skills are part of what makes up “school readiness,” and are good predictors of success in kindergarten and beyond.
So, did watching Daniel Tiger help kids learn these important social skills? The short answer—yes. The long answer—there’s a catch. Here’s what we found. Kids in the study who watched Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood had higher levels of empathy, were better at recognizing emotions, and were more confident in social situations than the kids who watched the nature show. This is especially true for low-income children and kids ages 4 and younger.
The catch? Kids experienced the above benefits only when their parents regularly talk with them about what’s on TV. In other words, the study found that it was the combination of watching Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and parent-child conversations about TV that produced increases in children’s social skills. Neither watching the show alone, nor talking alone, was enough. It takes both.
Other studies show the same thing—parent-child conversations about media content help children learn the good things that shows like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood teach. Here are some ideas to help you get these much-needed conversations started:
- Point out the good things that TV characters do. If Daniel Tiger shares a cupcake with a friend, tell your child that you love it when people share.
- Repeat the lesson being taught by the show. If Daniel Tiger calms himself down by counting to four, help your child do the same the next time it’s time to calm down.
- Ask your child questions about content in order to get them thinking about how they can apply the lesson in their own life. If Daniel Tiger isn’t sure about whether or not to apologize, ask your child what s/he would do in that situation.
Whether you use these ideas or come up with your own ways to reinforce positive TV messages, the important thing is to start talking with your kids about what they see on TV. The more conversations the better.
Why does Daniel Tiger help?
Many of us grew up watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. You might remember that Mr. Rogers often visited the Neighborhood of Make-Believe where he interacted with several puppet friends. Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is the cartoon descendant of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. The show is designed using Fred Rogers’ social-emotional curriculum for teaching skills to young children. Each show is carefully researched and scripted in order to maintain children’s attention, encourage interaction, and reinforce specific lessons.
Just last week I spoke with Angela Santomero, the creator of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. She was not surprised when I told her about our research, including the essential role of parents in helping kids learn from media. “I agree that parental involvement with media makes a huge difference in educating our kids,” she said. “We are told time and time again how much preschoolers and parents are using our strategies in their everyday lives.”
The parenting takeaway
So parents, take heart. All TV is not bad. When your kids hit those mid-summer doldrums and want to lay around and watch TV, you have options. There are shows that you can let your kids watch without feeling guilty. And as long as you stay actively involved in your kids’ media experiences, those lazy days of summer can turn into valuable learning experiences for your little ones.
To me, that doesn’t sound like lazy parenting. It sounds more like smart parenting.