My wife & I were the sort of annoying pre-parents who made all sorts of proclamations about how closely we'd be regulating our son's TV viewing, how he'd be limited to 30 minutes a day, how we'd drop everything to read to him when he got bored, all that crap that everyone who hasn't had a kid yet promises themselves and others. When the reality of child-rearing hit in 2003 - well maybe a year and a half later, when he had formed into something more than a blob on the blanket on the floor - it became obvious that television was a godsend, a magical device that instantly gave the parent the opportunity to eat dinner in peace, to wash dishes, to even read the paper for a friggin' change. Hey, 30 minutes is nothing - another show couldn't hurt, right? And maybe another after that? "Sesame Street"'s an hour - surely we can get a bunch done during that time? Wow, it works! And he's digging it, too.
What has helped calm us both is the fact that 38 years after the first episode of "Sesame Street" aired in 1969, there is actually an abundance of quality educational, instructive, sunny, not-too-annoying shows out there for the preschool set. When I counsel myself about his mind rotting from the TV he's watching, I look at the actual product on the tube, and it's truly hard for me to see where the damage would be coming from. See, we have a Tivo, a lifechanging device that you can get for fifty bucks & then another 12 bucks a month after that. That allows us to pre-screen the shows for the ones without commercials, store up the ones we approve of, and dole them out as we see fit. We also still keep the TV viewing to about an hour in the morning and another hour in the evening, always with us supervising in the room & sometimes watching with him (and of course, all rules such as those are made to be broken). My son totally goes berzerk when we watch a rare "live" show with commercials, and freaks out that his show just abruptly stopped for ads, which he has zero concept of; he also can't fathom why he can't immediately watch another episode of, say, "The Backyardigans" when the one he's watching has ended - because on the Tivo we can just keep them rolling as long as we've stored 'em up, and have the lack of parental discipline to cut him off.
There are a handful out there that truly impress me besides "Sesame Street", which is still the gold standard. I actually enjoy the Disney Channel's "Little Einsteins", an animated show with revolving "rescue"-type adventures by a cast of four preschoolers on a red rocket - a white boy, a girlie girl, a tomboy, and a wisecracking African-American boy. Each show is scored by a famous composer - Grieg and Tchaikovsky seem to be the default choices - and features the paintings of an artist such as Van Gogh. To hear my son routinely command me to walk "adagio" or "allegro" is something to behold, particularly when I have to ask him what those words mean. I also approve of "The Backyardigans" (four suburban African-American hippos with names like Uniqua and Tyrone invent backyard adventures like ice treks, volcano climbing and pirate shennanigans before Mom calls them in for their snacks); "Zoom" (on PBS, almost exactly like the one I worshipped when I was a 1970s kid, minus my first crush Julie); "Arthur" (a little trying at times but always a good "lesson" to be had); and "Charlie & Lola" (a British import, drawn in this great animated cut-&-paste style that's a blast to look at and actually kind of funny besides).
Must to avoid are of course "Barney" (simply horrifying, and so dumbed-down it defies description to even a two-year-old), "The Wonder Pets", "Bob The Builder" (awful) and "The Wiggles", which I know some people swear by but which drives me bananas. The fact that it's "rock-and-roll" themed does nothing for me in the least. And my kid thinks it blows too. I still am struck by how generally good the good ones are, though. I have no doubt they're challenging his mind, reinforcing concepts of reading & counting beyond what we already do ourselves, and giving this only child examples of how kids deal with conflict or problems, and the rewards or punishments that come from proceeding correctly. I think they finally figured out the secret recipe for quality kids TV a few years back, just as adult TV seems to be undergoing a fantastic renaissance right now as well, and I'm glad it's peaking right when my kid's inquisitiveness is as well. Respectful disagreement welcomed.
PS - Apologies to any readers who are bummed out that I even indirectly wrote about my kid, something I promised I wouldn't do when I started this blog. I know it's not punk in any way, shape or form, and I promise to tackle deep underground subcultures like Fuck Off Records, the films of Jodorowsky, and Spock/Kirk erotica in future posts.