In the poem "Jimmy Jet and His TV Set" (from the book Where the Sidewalk Ends) Shel Silverstein describes a boy who watched too much TV. Jimmy Jet watched so much TV, in fact, that he "grew a plug that looked like a tail." So the family plugged him in. Now instead of watching TV, "we all sit around and watch him."
When I read this poem to my fourth grade students over a decade ago, I never thought I'd one day have "Jimmy Jets" of my own. But when television viewing got out of control in our house, I sought a way to shove Pandora back into the electronic box.
I was especially concerned about my preschooler's preoccupation with television. According to the Media Awareness Network, this is the age when a child's viewing habits become entrenched. They report that from this point on, "it will become more difficult to enforce restrictions or influence [a preschooler's] tastes." I was also concerned about the hypnotic state my 4-year-old entered when she watched television. It turns out that this is a phenomenon unique to preschoolers. In Children's Understanding of Television (Academic Press), researchers call this "attentional inertia." The longer young children watch, the more mesmerized they become.
Improving your preschooler's habits will take time and creativity. Here's an idea I used with my daughter that yielded great results.
Have your child pay you a "chip" (a poker chip or Tiddlywinks?use a different color for each child) whenever she watches a half-hour program. Every day I gave each of my children two chips. Upon paying the final chip, they turned off the TV.
I explained that PBS programs (e.g., Arthur, Dragon Tails) counted as a "two-for-one" deal and they could watch two shows for one chip. This encouraged them to watch programs I preferred. Also, they experienced the rewards of making good choices.
At week's end, tally unspent chips, with each chip counting as one point. When your child has earned seven points, let her pick from a basket filled with motivating items such as cool pencils, stickers, sugarless gum, or collector cards.
This approach surprised me in a few ways. First, my daughter learned how to plan ahead. She prioritized programs so she wouldn't waste chips on least-favorite shows. Second, negativity decreased in our home. I wasn't nagging about turning off the TV, and she wasn't whining in an effort to keep it on. Finally, I delighted in watching imaginative play increase between my daughter and her siblings. Initial TV "withdrawal" was rocky, but with guidance my children rediscovered how much fun they had together. Also, my daughter discovered toys that had long been ignored and became better at playing alone.
Most importantly, I achieved my goal of taking our house back from the clutches of the electronic box. I no longer live in fear of raising "Jimmy Jet," and my daughter realizes that life is more exciting when it's lived rather than watched.
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today Magazine.
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