You're not actually making your kid smarter.
I do many, many lazy things as a parent, but there’s one thing I’m really trying to get better about — not leaving the TV on all day in front of my kid.
Because it’s an easy thing to do. Television has become such a ubiquitous thing that, sometimes, families hardly notice if it’s on or not. Maybe we’ve all just been conditioned by sports bars or car mechanic waiting rooms, but, all too often, TV simply becomes a white noise that accompanies us throughout our day.
There are some major downsides to this, particularly when you have children. For example, I had to have a talk with my mom recently about not leaving shows like NCIS on in the background when my daughter visits.
It might not sound like a big deal — seniors love the NCIS franchise — until you realize that those bland procedural shows are filled with bone-chilling autopsy dialogue like “We found his semen in her ocular cavity,” which, let me tell you, is a FUN sentence to diagram with your fifth-grader.
But Mark Harmon shows aren’t the worst of it.
The worst thing about the constant murmuring of television is the NEWS.
I’m not a big fan of the news. Both in terms of content and in terms of the actual non-stop programs on CNN and Fox every night.
I know some families that revel in having the news on in front of their children. They’ll proudly say, “My kids like to stay informed,” with a self-satisfied sort of swagger that suggests that their kid is watching TV at a 12-grade-level or something.
Personally, I don’t like it when parents do that, when they cavalierly allow their kids to watch the news on their own.
Why? Because the news is ****ing terrifying.
The news isn’t just “information.” It’s not a foolproof means to keep your children up-to-date on current events.
The news is propaganda.
It’s a product that’s being sold and, for the most part, it’s being sold irresponsibly.
At this point, I'd almost rather let my kid watch an R-rated movie than watch the news. She's only nine, but she's seen a few already (The Blues Brothers is a pretty light R). Granted, I'm not going to choose showing her Hostel over letting her see a few minutes of CNN in a restaurant, but, at least R-rated movies aren't trying to sell her on lies and exaggerations. They're selling fiction. She can deal with fiction.
She can't, however, be expected to know when a news program is exaggerating something serious just to make her not want to change the channel.
There’s not exactly a high-bar for inclusion on TV news anymore. If the story is sensational or scary enough, they’ll cover it. And, by “cover it,” I mean, they’ll talk about it endlessly. They’ll repeat it and repeat it and repeat it, until they figure out the best way to make that “news” grab your attention for the rest of the night.
As we’ve seen during the 2016 election, fact-checking is a thing of the past. It’s been sold to the public as a partisan gimmick. So, television news just plays the role of the town crier now. Shouting events to the masses with no hint of context or accountability.
And context means EVERYTHING to children.
When a kid walks past a TV and the news is telling them about an outbreak of tornadoes or a new ISIS attack, there’s no one there to place those events in context for the child. No one is going to be there to say “Hey, we’re far away from Tornado Alley” or “Hey, let’s talk about how unlikely it will be that you’ll ever get caught up in a terrorist act.”
As jaded adults, we’re aware of that kind of context all the time. We see a “shark attack epidemic” headline on CNN and, thanks to years of bitter experience, we know that we’re in no real danger. We know that the word “epidemic” gets thrown around all the time in TV news.
But a kid who just learned the word “epidemic” on their spelling test last week — they’re not going to realize that the hucksters down at the local news station are just trying to grab their attention, so they can sell more ad time to Panera or the local Chevy dealer.
If your kid is really interested in current events, then you can sit down with them and watch the news together. But you need to assume the responsibility of constantly chiming in and giving your kid context throughout.
“THIS is why that politician said that… THAT is why that company doesn’t believe in climate change… I know that sounded scary, but THIS is why you don’t have to worry…”
So, leaving the news on the background at your house isn’t making your kid smarter.
It’s not like playing Beethoven for them in the womb.
The news is a violent cacophony of truth, lies, and advertising, and, if you’re not there to help your kid navigate what’s true and what’s false, you need to turn the TV off and let your family enjoy the silence for a change.