Things that make you go, “D’OH!” (#1 Suspect)

This is a new theme I am going to revisit on occasion, focusing on some of the things we parents do (and maybe even get tricked into doing) that make the act of parenting and relating to our children considerably more difficult. I don’t want this to feel chastising, but I do want to be honest about these things because I think there is a lot of nonsense with which the majority of parents deal that could easily be avoided — if only they knew…

I am going to start with the behemoth double-agent. Not only is it almost everyone’s best friend and welcome in every room of the house, it’s also one of parents’ worst (but most tolerated) enemies — it’s that mainstay of American culture and entertainment — TV. (Gasp!) I know — for those of you who haven’t previously decided to do without the so-called “idiot box”, the idea of its being your worst enemy is — well, a joke. And for those of you who use its services regularly to keep your kid(s) company while you whittle away at the current to-do list, the same idea is even comparable to “fightin’ words”. And to all of you, I respectfully say: “I double-dog dare you to find out more about what TV is doing to your children.” To the rest of you, who might have an inkling that TV isn’t the best thing in the world for your children, but also don’t think of it as much of a negative influence on your relationship with your kids, or on their futures, please read on.

Fortunately for all of us, (TaDuummm!) there has been a ton of research done on the subject of how TV effects humans, and our children in particular. There has been research on everything from how it influences our ideas about life, the world in which we live, and the other people with whom we live, to how TV effects our sleep, our eating habits, our brain development, and our self-image. And it doesn’t take long when looking at the results of such research to figure out — TV is effecting us, and it ain’t good.

(P.S. The hypertext links above represent only the first set of water molecules on “the tip of the iceberg”. So have at it. If you are interested, there is a mountain of information to be had.)

Although I do believe that all of the above areas can and do negatively influence our relationships with our kids, I think there are three things about the nature of television itself that create the most issues for parents:

First, as you can easily find out above, TV messes with our bodies. (CRASH!) Take sleep patterns,  for example, TV a/effects how we rest — whether it is lulling us into a lower brain activity state than sleep, or disrupting normal neurotransmitter cycles that tell our bodies when to go to sleep and how deeply to go into sleep. That is asking for trouble – emotionally, psychologically, and physically. The effects can show up immediately following any period of TV watching — like when your kid is miffed and frumpy from the instant you turn off the TV, even when he isn’t bothered because you turned it off. The effects may last several hours, when he is restless, excruciatingly bored, incapable of exerting the energy to entertain himself, and irritated (as though from lack of sleep or just waking). And if he is watching TV in too close of a proximity to bedtime, it can make it nearly impossible for his body and mind to relax enough to enter sleep easily (because the frequency of TV light tricks the brain into thinking it is day, and time to secrete brain chemicals for maintaining alertness, etc., rather than time to secrete sleep-inducing ones). Regular disruption of proper sleep can have seriously debilitating effects that worsen during the course of a lifetime and culminate in early death. And all of those effects make relating with, and actually “parenting” our children more difficult. Think of it this way, if you are consistently not getting enough of the right kind of rest, what are you like? Now imagine that feeling in a little kid body, with hormones whizzing around like mad, and emotional reactions typically feeling stronger, and coping skills almost unknown (and certainly unpracticed).

Secondly, TV gets in the way of relating with our kids by literally being in the way — distracting our kids from being with us at all, even when we are sitting right next to them. (Wah-BLAM!) Perhaps you’ve experienced this: you walk into the room where your child is happily lost in the world of a TV show, and you begin to do everything you can think of, short of blowing your own head off, to get the kid’s attention, only to find that you will be forced to walk over and stand in front of the TV or turn it off completely if you want her to hear anything that you are saying. Most adults can share a TV experience, talk about it, and still feel as though they are watching together. Kids have such a small distinction (if any) between fantasy and reality that they almost disappear into the TV experience, and they damn sure don’t want to interact with you. This can be seen as an advantage if you want your child to be distracted from you (e.g. so you can focus on that to-do list). However, TV is incapable of giving our children the kind of interaction they need for proper development. And the trouble is two-fold, because not only is she not interacting with you (i.e. not bonding with, nor learning from you as she was designed to do until at least age 7), she is also distracted from interacting with the real world. She isn’t getting to fully, deeply explore life, and the mental map she is making of existence is thus incomplete and distorted. And both of these “distractions” will negatively a/effect the relationship you share.

Finally, and this is the biggy, TV is a crappy role model. (POW!) Just watch some of the shows kids watch and you’ll see what I mean. Actually, get a piece of paper and divide it into two columns. On one side, make a list of all the things you see the TV characters doing that you want your child(ren) to do, and on the other, make a list of all the actions you see that you don’t want your child(ren) to do. If you’re being honest with yourself (and you aren’t a psychopath) you’ll notice that the “don’t” list gets several times longer than the “do” list, and in record time. For some reason, and with very few exceptions, TV shows and movies (especially for kids) model the absolute worst choices, the most painful reactions, the least logical, ethical, or empathetic responses, and the least wholesome attitudes possible. Pick any show, even the most innocuous (with the notable exception of the thimbleful of movies like My Neighbor Totoro, and Ponyo), and you’ll see one or more of the following: kids making poor choices; kids acting in ways that are painful to themselves and others; kids and parents mistreating and mistrusting each other; parents not believing kids; parents being too busy to care for or connect with the kids; kids having to “do it on their own”; kids lying; kids doing something that they or others will regret; and then in the very final moments of the show, a rapid turn around and “closure” that neither explains the previous poor choices, nor adequately involves reconciliation, nor communicates any “message” about more empathetic choices with enough vehemence to outweigh the rest of the show’s modeling. So 90% of any kids’ show is teaching (i.e. modeling) really troublesome actions and responses, on the part of the kids in the show in particular, and without nearly enough of the opposite to counter-balance those, thus further distorting our children’s understanding of how the world works, and how they should act in relation to the world.

All three of these dysfunctions of television make parenting our children exponentially more difficult. And even if it buys us some time to do things that are really important to us (and even to our family), one must consider whether, in the end, what TV allows us to do is worth what TV does. Is having a moment to do some project or allowing our kids some time to “veg out” (with TV) worth what that does to how they see and respond to the world and themselves. We don’t really want the “idiot box” to be in charge of that. Do we?

(Deee de-dee de-dee… Deee de-dee de-dee…) This just in!

It’s now 2013, and I just wanted to add another quick point that has come to my attention in the couple years since I wrote this post, one that I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about in research on TV in the future. That is, how the experience of TV triggers our mirror neurons. As I now understand it, we humans have a subset of the motor neurons that fire when we perform any action that also fire when we see, hear, or imagine that/those action/s. So, when you see someone pick up an apple and lift it toward her lips and open her mouth and begin to take bites — and even now just in reading my description of it — your mirror neurons fire and your brain does a quick automatic simulation of apple-eating. This happens every single time we experience or witness actions taking place. Therefore, when we and our kids watch TV, our brains are actually experiencing every action we see enacted. Someone on the TV gets mad: our brains get mad; someone yells — our brains yell and get yelled at; someone punches another — our brains punch and get punched; someone kills someone else — well, you get the point…
I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t want my kids feeling, or for their brains to be simulating, much of anything that shows up on the TV these days. Obviously this is more of a program issue than a “TV or not” issue, but it still makes me even more wary of letting my kids watch!
Where’s the program that shows people hugging, talking things out, making healthy choices, being empathetic, experiencing wonder, and enjoying life?! Some would argue that that would bore our brains out, but I’m not so sure… Once you get off violence, and war, and torment, and romantic disappointment, and adrenaline rush — once your tolerance has come waaaaaay down — there’s a richness in subtlety that comes to the surface; a richness that is otherwise washed out in the garish entropic drama of modern programming. We’ve gone most of a year now of watching almost only happy movies or shows when Natalie and I curl up for an evening together, and we absolutely do not miss more gripping, gritty, or grotesque programming at all. Personally, I’m feeling just fine about my mirror neurons skipping the latter 2/3 of Revolutionary Road, or holding off on going through No Country for Old Men, or never experiencing The Passion of the Christ

Thank you for your attention, we now return you to your normal programming.

This episode of “Things that make you go, ‘D’OH!'” has been brought to you by Parents for Easier Parenting. 😉

Be well.


P.S. For a TV-alternative during those desperate moments when you need your child to be occupied (e.g. to feed yourself), you can use your computer to play audio (and in some cases, visual) books. The audio ones actually feed your child’s brain by using his imagination. Story Nory is a fabulous, free service for this. One More Story is a stellar audio-visual one, but you have to buy a membership.

About Nathan M McTague, CPCC, CPDPE

I am a full-time parent of three, Writer, Life Coach, Lecturer, Parenting Mentor, and Shamanic Practitioner. In all of the above, I am seeking to assist my fellow humans in their processes of claiming and unleashing their highest potentials.
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8 Responses to Things that make you go, “D’OH!” (#1 Suspect)

  1. I wanted to just let you know, in our home, we watch no TV shows. We do have a movie night each week though. The girls agree on a selection from a group that we have pre-approved (which has gotten rather small because of how sensitive our youngest is). This past year we tried letting Echo (3) watch some kid shows (like Sesame Street, or Peep and the Big Wide World — which are actually pretty decent shows), but the addictive quality, and the effects that even a little TV has on her mood and ability to entertain herself convinced us to stop.
    Just thought you might be interested…

  2. DrMarty says:

    When my first child was born, we didn’t have a TV. We had a fish tank. The cool kind, w/ salt water. Anyway, you are spot on about the mood altering that goes along w/ TV. So, now we have a TV. One thing that I find valuable about TV is looking at marketing. I show my kids how the toys often don’t actually do what the ad is telling them (this happens a lot), that the ad is trying to get them to eat more sugar, and that the goal is to make them want what they didn’t want a moment ago. My kids feel sort of 1 up on the marketers. Nice post. Thanks.

    • Yeah, my older two have been exposed to a good deal of television in their other homes, and I have used the same opportunity to talk marketing with them. Great point, there, Martin. Thanks for the contribution.

      Be well,

  3. TV is for sure toxic for Margot, made completely apparent last fall when I got really busy with work and relied on pbs to occupy Margot during Ruby’s morning nap so I could work. Totally great programs…Sesame Street, Dinosaur Train. But the fallout was unbearable. She was a different person, unwinding for hours after 45 minutes of tv time…my husband and I decided to end the little amount she watched and it changed everything for the better.

    I am on the hunt for movies that don’t make my kid devolve…Ponyo and Totoro have both been recommended. Another I recently came across that is WONDERFUL: Babies ( It’s a documentary about four different babies from different parts of the world. No narration, just observation. Margot loves it.

    • Yeah, Nici, we’ve run into that same type of scenario over and over again. And though we aren’t usually so hard headed when it comes to things that just don’t work for our family, each time, we’ve found ourselves staring down a deadline that doesn’t accommodate our kids and we’ve tried it again. Our most recent episode was over the winter holidays, Natalie and I had to get all of our cabinets primed and painted over a weekend so that our remodel could continue on the following Monday. So we brought the TV and a bunch of movies and episodes of Peep in the Big Wide World (a pretty solid PBS show) to basically usurp all of the kids’ attentions while we painted our brains out. It was awful for all of us, and a great reminder that no program really makes up for the negative effects of the TV unit itself. There’s something in the light and high-pitch whine of the actual thing that overules just about all benefits of decent programing.
      That being said, we do still have movie night once a week, without too much trouble. And we love love love Ponyo and Totoro (I think you and I were both in on a FB conversation about them once…) And we recently did see Babies as well with Romy et al one night — totally awesome and wonderful. Our kids also really love Planet Earth (the BBC series), and Charlotte’s Web (the live action version). Then we have a second tier of movies that don’t totally suck, but pretty much require adult help in processing or kids wind up getting the wrong idea(s) about how to treat each other.
      It’s one of my goals as I become an incredibly wealthy philanthropist to create movies and books for kids that actually model the way(s) we would want kids to behave, and healthy relationships and interactions. It’s possible that we’ll create a genre of the most boring movies of all time… but at least (as you say) they won’t cause our children to devolve during the time that they’re watching!

      Thanks for joining the discussion, Nici. (And if anyone has any other good movie ideas, feel free to pass them this way!)

      Be well.

  4. jo johnson says:

    great post, nathan. funny that you should mention ponyo and my neighbour totoro…i came downstairs from getting my baby to sleep and my boys were watching the latter!

    thanks for being direct and upfront about tv. it’s a subject that gets pussy-footed around a lot.

    we don’t really do tv (and have terrible internet connection; irritating for work but handy for protecting young minds!), mainly because the constant monologue i find myself feeling like i have to provide exhausting and fairly pleasure-killing for anyone actually trying to concentrate on the storyline etc. we sometimes watch sporting events (tennis, football) and we love a good nature documentary (also “the human planet” series – check it out if you don’t know it; my boys LOVE it). and spongebob squarepants, for whom we make an unapologetic exception. but in general i consider tv to be so much propaganda, particularly as regards gender. when my eldest was little, i remember finding the gender stereotypes of kids’ programmes so hamfisted and clunky and so far removed from the reality of my clever, sensitive, energetic boy that it was offensive. now that he’s older he can be quite insightful about character portrayal, blatant advertising etc. and, i do think it’s extremely important for us all to be able to critique culture, now that we live in an image- and media-saturated world. so a little viewing from time to time seems important.

    my boys are also extremely sensitive to image and i think this is partly the result of being largely kept away from tv as littlies. evan, who’s 10, reads way beyond his age; but he can’t handle watching stuff that seems pretty tame. i love that about him and i think that’s a healthy 10-year old mind – although i know some people think there’s something wrong with him! 🙂


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