For your viewing pleasure

How and when should my baby become acquainted with Television?

Few questions are likely to provoke such debate amongst a group of parents as this one.

In my admittedly limited experience, there are always some aspects of child-rearing that a person can’t get too excited about. Although it differs from individual to individual, you can usually assume that not everyone will get really worried about the precise temperature of baby’s bedroom, or how long they should stay, uninterrupted, in their car-seat.

But everyone, everyone, has a position on Television.

Unscientific as it is, my own process of holding numerous conversations about the topic has led me to believe that there is an approximately 80-20 split amongst prospective and new parents about their offspring’s desired viewing habits.

  • 80% feel that television is the devil. It will rot the tiny, perfect brain they’ve spent 9 months gestating so carefully. They visualise a life in which junior watches at most 30 minutes of TV, with exclusively educational or cultural content, per day.
  • 20% feel that television can be fun for kids and useful for parents. They don’t feel that modern TVs will damage their children’s eyes, like the clunky models of the ’80s, or their brains. They visualise a life in which junior watches TV as a leisure pursuit, with no hard and fast limits on the time spent viewing.

It pains me to admit that, for all I like to consider myself a laid back liberal, I fall instinctively into the first category. I imagine David slumped in his chair, pumping a vast, sludgy river of ‘Dancing on Ice’ and ‘The Only Way is Essex’ down his optic nerve and into his vulnerable young consciousness; then, white with terror, I use this nightmare endgame to justify asking pointed questions of my partner about whether he should really be watching an episode of  Waybuloo every couple of days.

While this kind of thinking is popular, I’m beginning to accept that it’s also pretty daft. There are a couple of big problems with the puritanical anti-TV approach:

  • For my own generation, TV formed a huge part of our shared experience. Starting at primary school, where an in-depth knowledge of He-Man and the A-Team was a prerequisite for social interaction, and reaching into adulthood, which in my case has been utterly immersed in pop-culture references, a good chunk of our ability to relate to each other has been defined by the TV we’ve mutually watched. In my experience, this connection has largely been a force for good, building bridges between those who might otherwise have little in common.
  • It’s not terribly pragmatic. Do we, the new-parent TV puritans, really believe that all those mums and dads who allow their kids to watch the box are irresponsible and weak? Do we really think that, as our kids become more demanding, we won’t crave a few minutes of peace to get things done or collect our thoughts? Do we look forward, eagerly, to the clashes that will ensue when our offspring start to compare their privileges with those of their friends? I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’d find it difficult to say ‘yes’ to any of these questions, never mind the full triumverate.

These considerations have started to turn my opinion, like some vast and stubborn supertanker, onto a new course.

Of course, the small matter of my own hypocrisy has lent a rather large helping hand.  Allow me to explain…

This weekend, my partner finally agreed to go on a well-deserved night out and leave David in my sole care until the next day. Presented with an opportunity for us to spend 24 hours uninterrupted together, I realised there was only one appropriate way to spend our time: absorbing the ultimate exploration of Father and Son relationships, Star Wars.

Armed with this tenuous premise, I proceeded to share the original trilogy with my first-born in its entirety – albeit liberally broken up by spells of eating, sleeping, singing, dancing, funny faces and any other device I could think of to make him laugh.

It was everything I thought it could be.

David was wide-eyed as the iconic opening scenes of Episode IV brought an imperial Star Destroyer rumbling over his head; his face spilt into a joyous, gaping smile as I sang along to the theme tune and incidental music; he laughed out loud, unprompted, when he saw his first Ewok in Episode VI. I knew that he was far too young to follow the narrative – he struggles with Goodnight Moon at present – but I wanted him to start absorbing the sheer mythological grandeur of a narrative which, I hope, will become a shared passion of ours in the years ahead.

As I bounced the boy on my knee to the closing score of Return of the Jedi, a little voice asked me why the hell it was OK to watch 6 hours of classic space fantasy in a day, but suspect to catch the occasional 30 minutes of children’s programming?

Hands up, dear reader: I couldn’t give any justification stronger than a sheet of wet tissue paper.

Having accepted that I was operating a chronic double standard, I decided to take a fresh look at one of the iconic points of TV concern in our house: Waybuloo.

I should state upfront that, when I was tutting, shaking my head and worrying about the effect Waybuloo might be having on my child, I hadn’t seen a single episode. In this respect, I’m much like a procession of Tory MPs and Daily Mail headline writers, who have understood for many years that it’s unnecessary to be familiar with material before condemning it as morally abhorrent. I am not reassured by this comparison.

Eager to redeem myself, I decided to watch an episode of Waybuloo, so that I could make an informed judgement. I anticipated an entirely acceptable but tepid children’s programme, which I could grudgingly concede didn’t quite constitute the brain-rotting bollocks I had previously expected.

What I got was something altogether different: a genuinely magical 25 minutes, which dripped with colour, character and mystic wholesomeness.

If you are the parent of a young child, but haven’t already watched this show, do so as soon as possible. Populated by sunny, child-like, benevolent spirits which partake in a Jedi-esque Yoga session (amongst other pursuits) every episode, this programme is the poster child for the sort of TV I want my son to enjoy. There is enough in the way of socialisation and education to make it helpful in his development, but enough fun and wonder that he will also find his right-brain suitably enriched.

I have never felt such a comprehensive twat as I did when the end credits rolled. If this was what I had given my partner a grilling over… suffice to say, I had mastered the art of overreaction.

What I’ve learned, that I already knew, is not to make sweeping judgements.

What I’ve learned, for the first time, is that TV can actually bring something wonderful to my child – but that I’ll need to do the spadework and assess each programme or film on its own merits, rather than lazily giving everything the thumbs up or thumbs down.

If a little bit of donkey work is all that stands between me and a Father/Son trip to the lightsaber ballet, I guess I can live with that.

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