Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Being With Our Toddlers as They Explore the World

Growing up, television was still a relatively new thing, at least around our house. The only reason we came to understand that our black and white Zenith wasn't state-of-the-art was because NBC started promoting itself as being "in living color." I remember asking dad why our pictures were still black and white, when the announcer said it was in color, which is how I learned that we would have to buy a whole new TV if we were going to see living color in our own den. I learned a lot by asking mom and dad questions about the programs we watched.

Watching the "boob tube," as mom called it, was usually a family affair. We sat together and talked about what we were watching. Conversation was what made me, as a boy, prefer television to going to the movies where you had to sit quietly in deference to all the other people. The highlight of our television week was The Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights. Mom would pop up a big bowl of popcorn and slice up some apples for dinner and we would all settle in for an evening of running commentary. 

Without really thinking about it, I carried the watch-and-talk tradition into my own parenting. I automatically sat down with Josephine to watch Barney or Teletubbies or Powderpuff Girls, and we would talk about what we were seeing, thinking, and feeling. I had studied "mass media" in college and in the way my own father, a transportation engineer, would educate us about the nuances of transportation design as we drove around town, I would deconstruct the advertisements we watched, pointing out the half-truths, weasel words, and outright fabrications. Sometimes she would argue with me, insisting that I was wrong and that if we bought the toy on the screen her life would be more complete. I thought I was trying to push water uphill until one day she was watching a baseball game with me. A beer commercial came on. It featured lots of young men drinking beer being fawned over by young women drinking beer. She said, "That's not true! Drinking beer won't make people like you!"

That's when I realized I was raising her to be a media critic rather than just a passive observer.

In their book Media Exposure During Infancy and Early Childhood, researchers Daniel Anderson and Katherine Hanson tell us that co-viewing media with toddlers promotes both critical and creative thinking. Believe it or not, as important adults in children's lives, we remain far more influential than media messages, but not if we leave those who would "target" our children alone in the room with them. When we're there to offer our insights and opinions, to answer their questions, to scoff, joke, listen, and generally connect with our children over this mutual experience, we start to equip them for their future in which navigating the media will become increasingly vital. The window for us to "curate" our child's life influences is very limited. They will soon enough be exploring the darkest corners of the internet on their own no matter how much we limit them in their preschool years and it's in their best interest that we strive send them off into that world with the eye of a critic.

There are many of us who look at the world through our screens, say, "No way," and turn them off altogether for our children. It's a natural response, but I'm not sure it's tenable, knowing as we do that more and more of our lives are going to be taking place online. It is, whether we like it or not, an increasingly important aspect of "real life." We owe it to our children to prepare them for it by being there, holding their hands as they explore it, answering their questions, and showing them the ropes as best we can. Their own ability to navigate the new world will quickly surpass our own and when it does, they are on their own, but we can prepare them by joining them on their journey, talking and listening, for as long as they'll permit us.


Teacher Tom's Play Summit emerged from the idea that our youngest citizens need us and that there is no force on earth more powerful than parents and educators united. This is nothing less than an attempt to bring the full web of the early childhood world together with the mission of defending childhood by transforming the lives of young children and their families. It's a chance to listen and learn about best practices and new ideas from around the world from a wide variety of perspectives. Please join us for this important free event. To learn more and to get on the waitlist, click here. If not us, who? As the great children's troubadour and summit presenter Raffi sings, "Together we can turn this world around."

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