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I Let My Babies Watch TV. And I Regret Nothing!

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On Tuesday, the American Academy of Pediatrics reaffirmed a longstanding statement that children under the age of two should not watch television. This is not exactly a new position. Doctors and development experts have urged parents to keep young children away from screens for years. And the AAP itself made much the same statement about a dozen years ago.

I knew that. I was writing about TV professionally when my kids—now seven and ten—were babies. I let them watch anyway. And I would do it again.

Let me say this up front: I am not a doctor. I only occasionally even watch Grey’s Anatomy. And while I someday hope to engage my children in rousing debates about Breaking Bad and the moral fallibility of the everyman, my being a professional TV critic does not make me an expert on the psychological effects of TV any more than it qualifies me to install a satellite dish.

Whether TV is good or bad for kids—for anyone—is a medical and psychological issue. My field is judging whether TV shows are good or bad, period. So I usually resist the urge to play doctor or Supernanny, to judge whether reports like these are valid, or to tell other people how to raise their kids.

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But I am always amazed—though not surprised—at how intensely people always react to pronouncements like the AAP’s. From a commenter at the New York Daily News: “Who made these recommendations? A bunch of MEN who’ve never spent all day long with their children on a daily basis I’m going to assume. Give me a break.” (Note: I am not aware of the gender breakdown of the AAP.) From the New York Times’ discussion: “Television is the cancer of the world.”

Having a kid means knowing that you are suddenly responsible for keeping a tiny person alive, that there are a billion ways to screw it up and that there are a billion people ready to tell you you are doing it wrong. And I agree with the AAP’s principles: that interacting with a parent is better than vegging in front of a TV (and much better than having your mom or dad veg out in front of the TV); that it’s hard for anything in the real world to compete with the megastimulus of a Hollywood production; and, especially, that no one should kid themselves that those freaking puppet videos are going to educate their babies. (I don’t expect that exposure to Baby Einstein taught my kids anything except to believe that classical music has the effect of a mild hallucinogen.)

But as a parent, you learn that sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good. And sometimes the perfect is the enemy of your getting to take a goddamn shower.

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So yes, many was the time I put on a baby video to buy that most precious parenting asset: a few minutes. Did that help my kids? I am not going to lie to myself. Did it harm them? Not in any way I can ascertain, but I’m not a physician, and anyway, of course I would say that, right?

In the end, I take pronouncements like the AAP’s like I take so many guidelines for parenting: as Platonic statements of an ideal that I will continually fall short of. I implement them—like parents do advice about food, sleep, discipline, &c.—using a combination of half-informed memories of newspaper clippings, my even less-informed gut feeling about what feels like common sense and my hazy memories of how-they-did things-when-I-was-a young-‘un-and-I-turned-out-fine.

That gut feeling tells me that it’s naive to treat electronic media as if they have no effect, and useless to take the absolutist stance that they’re the digital equivalent of cigarettes. My kids would have been fine without any TV in their early years. They also would have been fine without cake.

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But they each had cake at their first birthday parties. (I will never forget that eyes-bulging look of “Why the hell have you been hiding this from me all my life?“) And my entirely unscientific philosophy is that it’s my job as a parent to teach them that you don’t have cake all the damn time. My kids are going to grow up in a world of media, and I want to raise them as smart media consumers as well as smart readers.

None of which do I mean to minimize the AAP’s concerns. (Let me stress again: Not a doctor!) I love TV, but that means I believe it’s best watched actively, not passively—that you should engage with it and talk and think about it. Babies don’t do that. And my wife and I are lucky enough to have jobs and lifestyles that allow us to spend a decent amount of time doing things with our kids—it’s much tougher for single parents or cash-and-time-strapped parents who end up turning to the cheapest, most available babysitter.

So, by all means, take the baby-TV guidelines seriously. But do you really want to help parents, AAP? Maybe you could offer to watch the baby next time while we grab a shower.

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