Ah. The TV. I love watching it. When I watch television, depending on what I watch, I am entertained, informed, amused, educated, moved, excited, included, inspired.
But when it comes to my children, I always worry that they are watching too much (well, the oldest. The youngest is only six months old and, except for the theme tunes, is more entertained by the washing machine than he is the TV).
I feel guilty if I let R have a 'lazy day' and alternate between watching Fireman Sam, playing races with his cars and eating Hula Hoops on the sofa. I feel like I should be continually entertaining him. I should be painting, baking, making things from the boxes in the recycling, planting things, going to the park, drawing, playing games, teaching numbers, building towers.
Or I used to feel like that.
Until a couple of weeks ago, after a busy Tuesday blackberry picking and visiting relatives, a Wednesday and a Friday at nursery and a Thursday with grandparents where he went out for the whole day. On the Saturday when I enthusiastically suggested we do some painting, he said;
"Mummy can I have a rest?"
He had been stimulated all day every day for four days straight, without a chance to just stop and chill out. He wanted to relax. He wanted to be lazy. He wanted to not have to think carefully and take on new information and learn and discover every moment of the day.
And that's ok isn't it? It's ok for a child to sit and watch TV if it's balanced with input from other sources. Because we read two books every night before bed. We go on a family day out every week. We take him abroad where he hears other languages and experiences different cultures. We paint and draw and plant and visit the park. We learn our letters and numbers.
But aside from all that, TV is not quite the mind numbing, child dumbing device I used to think. It's ok for my child to watch TV because, when he watches it, he is;
Entertained - he enjoys watching it. We only put it on when he asks. But it entertains him and he likes to talk about the stories we are watching.
Informed - what R can tell me about steam trains and diesel trains, courtesy of Thomas the Tank Engine astounds me sometimes. He can explain how the coal is used to make a fire, which creates steam, which rises and prompts the piston (yes, he uses this word) to go up and down, which turns the wheels and makes the train move. He understands how to use different vehicles for different jobs courtesy of Bob the Builder and will gladly explain how a cement mixer combines water and concrete and a steam roller flattens tar to create smooth, flat roads.
Amused - it's ok for children to laugh at things they see on TV. I'll take my children happy and laughing any day of the week.
Educated - we don't just plonk him in front of the television and leave him to it (not always anyway - sometimes I do have the washing to hang out!). We talk to him about what we're watching. And we teach him how to control the TV. So he knows that to turn the volume up he has to press the 'add button' because add means more. To turn it down he has to press the 'take away button' because it takes the noise away. He knows to press the triangle to play something, the square to stop it, the two rectangles to pause it and the two triangles to go backwards and forwards.
Moved - not in the same sense that I cry at the Pride of Britain awards. But he can recognise his emotions when watching something. He will tell us if he doesn't like it, if it scares him, it if makes him happy or sad or worried. He is developing his emotional literacy.
Excited - R recently went to the cinema with Daddy for the first time. I was dubious. I didn't think he had the skills necessary to successfully cope with a cinema trip. Oh me of little faith! I didn't think he could concentrate on one thing for over an hour. I didn't think he could avoid visiting the toilet. I didn't think he would be able to follow a story line. I didn't know whether he could separate reality from fantasy, especially on such a big screen and I was worried he might get scared by the huge picture and the loud noises. But he proved me wrong on all counts. He loved it and still talks about it frequently. He can tell me the whole story too. So he wasn't sitting watching it passively. He was actively engaged.
Included - a new boy started at R's nursery last week. R became this child's 'best friend' at nursery because they had bonded over knowing the names of all the Bob the Builder vehicles and racing them with each other. The nursery staff said R had been wonderful at helping the new child settle in and had been confident and friendly. Proud mummy moment. Might they have bonded over doing a jigsaw or something? Maybe. But they didn't. The Bob the Builder toys were out and my little boy made a new friend because of them.
Inspired - we have visited so many places off the back of R's developing interests. And a lot of these interests stem from the TV. He has visited Great Central Railway and seen steam trains, diesel trains and ridden in the driver's cab of one. We have visited Crich Tramway Village and he has loved riding on the trams, learning about the old ones and following the woodland trail. He plays with his toys, using TV programmes and films as starting points for storylines. He tells stories with different voices and expression because he's seen the way different voices are distinguished on screen (as well as from us, when reading to him).
Are there other ways to feel excited, to learn things and to develop emotional literacy which don't involve a screen? Of course. We take him to farm parks and soft play and swimming pools and parks - not inspired by TV.
So should we deny him the TV? Deny him the chance to unwind when he asks to? Deny him any input at home other than us, ourselves and the things we insist on him doing?