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Media and Children Ages 6-12

At the age of six or seven, children begin to understand that people hold differing views. Around eight-nine, they start to discover that people have “inner lives”-that is, a person may think one thing but do another. Both of these developments make it possible for your child to begin thinking about television-and other forms of storytelling-in new ways.

Instead of zoning out in front of the set, your child can become an active viewer. How? By learning to ask questions about what he is seeing and hearing. Even if you don’t know all the answers, wonder out loud with your child about the shows you watch together.

15 Ways to make your child an active viewer
1Ask your child questions about what he sees and hears on TV.
Take advantage of the control you have with a VCR. Or use commercial breaks to ask “why” and “how” questions rather than yes-or-no questions: I wonder why the writer had the actor say that? Did you notice that the scary music started to play just then?
2Help your child develop critical responses to what he sees on TV.
Start a conversation by asking your child what he feels (“Do you wish you were that character?”), whether he thinks the show reflects his life (“Do you know anyone who looks or acts like that?”) or how much he knows about television production (“Do you think that was the actor or a stunt double?”). Talk back to the TV when a show doesn’t make sense or an advertising claim is unrealistic.
3Talk to your child about why he likes certain characters.
Your child may be looking for role models. You won’t know why he finds certain characters appealing until you talk to him about what he thinks of as courageous, admirable or smart: Who do we know that does that? Is that character truly admirable or does he just look cool?
4Inspire your child to create images of her own.
Remind your child that all images-on TV, websites or the side of a bus-are created by people. Then close the circle by pointing out that she can create pictures, too. Get her to take photographs, paint, draw or doodle-anything that spurs her to tell stories with images from her imagination. Keep pencils, crayons and other art materials near a table so she can express ideas that occur to her while watching TV. This is the first step in helping your grade-schooler discover the value of the visual arts firsthand.
5Let your child peek behind the scenes of movies or TV.
Your grade-schooler may not realize how directors use camera angles, digital animation, stunt doubles, miniature models, make-up, costumes and other tools to create a fictional story. Talk together about these elements. Wonder aloud how various programs were made.
6Point out the elements that make up a show.
Use simple, cinematic vocabulary when you observe how characters talk (language is “dialogue”), how they live (homes, schools and work places are “sets”) and how they behave (“main plot, subplots, cliff-hangers and twists”). Point out conventions such as laugh tracks or live audiences in half-hour sitcoms; subplots woven through hour-long dramas; unrealistic elements in “reality” shows; or a dominant point of view that drives a documentary.
7Help your child create “fall-back” activities-including physical ones.
Rather than flipping on the set at random, teach your child to select programs in advance. (Try to do the same yourself!) Help your child start some long-term projects-a collection, a puzzle, a scrapbook-that he can return to when bored. If the project requires a table or a special shelf to store materials, set aside space you won’t need to disrupt.
8Attune your child to the sound of TV.
Ask your grade-schooler questions such as these: What music is used-and when? How do the voices of different characters sound? How is silence used? (Possible answers include to build suspense, to show that someone is deaf; to change the mood.)
9Make a game of “close viewing.”
See how many voices or accents, how many types of clothing or how many places you and your child can identify. This can be a good way to start a conversation about stereotypes; who is portrayed on TV? Who is missing?
10Avoid programs in which characters use violence to solve problems.
When a character hits, kicks or bites his way out of a problem, point it out to your child. Ask him to come up with another way to solve the issue, such as negotiation or discussion. Explain that violence has very real consequences, but cartoons rarely show these.
11Inspire your child to do, not just watch.
If something in a show interests your child, encourage him to learn more about it by checking out a book or visiting a Web site on the topic. To see if an idea in a show holds true, he might conduct an experiment or ask a teacher about it. Or he could send a letter to a TV station or a producer, requesting background information.
12Find out what your child thinks is real.
There’s no way to know what your preteen thinks of the things he sees and hears on TV unless you ask. Find out if he is getting an unrealistic sense of how people look and act, what he thinks is the best way to resolve conflict, and what connections he is making between himself and the actors on TV and in commercials.
13Tell your preteen about the strong link between TV programming and advertising.
Ask your child to think about a show’s appeal and the products that its commercials are pitching. You might ask of a particular ad, “Who do you think is watching this show? What are the marketers trying to sell? How did that ad make you feel?”
14Have suggestions ready when your child complains, “There’s nothing to do!”
If your child tends to flip on the TV when she’s bored, suggest she take action instead: She can write a letter to the producer or station about what she does and doesn’t like about a program or network. Help your child create her own backup list of activities to undertake instead of watching TV as a matter of habit. And don’t forget to draw up a list for yourself!
15Keeps your child moving.
If TV viewing is lowering your child’s physical activity, establish a new routine that will get him up and going. If he has a TV set in his bedroom, move it to a communal location.
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