Parents, not TV, Must Be the First and Most Important Influence in Their Child’s Developing Brain

Parents, not TV,

Must Be the First and Most Important Influence

in Their Child’s Developing Brain

by Craig Smith1

Both parent-child interaction and the child’s own experiences during the formative years profoundly affect two foundationally important aspects of the child’s future prospects: the development of the child’s brain and the degree to which that child will function to his potential. Most parents seem to know this on an instinctive level, and automatically talk to their infants in motherese, a higher-pitched voice than normal2. They do this all day, even though the infant only gurgles and coos in response. All peoples world-wide talk to infants in this higher-pitched voice, and indeed it is recognized that infants’ brains are pre-wired to take in and de-code sounds until they learn the language – or languages – being spoken. Much of the research reporting these findings has been contained in scientific journals that parents would not customarily read. But in 1996 and 1997, Newsweek3 magazine and then Time4 magazine brought the findings of pediatric neurology to the popular level.

It must be noted that in 12 pages of coverage in the Time and Newsweek articles, television was never mentioned as benefiting early childhood development. Rather, the waking hours babies spend in front of a TV robs them of the time for parent-child interaction and their own play time. These two activities are crucial to the development of intelligence and imagination. The development time lost to a TV allowed to dominate a family’s time from birth through age five cannot be made up in later years. It is crucial for parents to understand this. Certain aspects of brain development only occur during certain ages, and a child who to some degree misses out on the appropriate stimuli during that period may be somewhat disadvantaged from then on.

Exploit the One-on-One Opportunities

Switch off the tube; scoop baby up for cuddles, smiles, talk and play. Sing to baby, put on classical music tapes and CDs. Play peek-a-boo, number games, hide and seek. Take baby for a tour around the back yard introducing him to everything there: the colours, the smells, the textures and contours; have baby reach out and touch leaves, spider webs, branches, bricks, boards and puddles. Infants love to be held and carried and talked to. They listen. Make this a nightly habit and your child will forever listen to you.

One could list such beneficial activities for pages. TV, however, would not appear on this list as a useful activity for young children. The difference is that the non-TV activities exploit the most valuable opportunities home educators and parents of young infants have: that of parent-child interaction and of allowing the child to explore his own environment under safe supervision. Playing with toys stimulates brain development. Repeated experiences, whether alone or with a parent, help “wire” the child’s brain. Advocates in this area believe TV should not be a part of a child’s environment until age five.5

Thinking Skills & Imagination

A crucial element within the skill of thinking is moving from the known to the unknown; that is, working out how to use in new situations knowledge and understanding gained in the past. Real life situations, of which home education is fully composed, requires this constantly. TV does not. In The Development of Children, Michael and Sheila Cole report on the work of G. Solomon who found that children who have been raised to do their learning from TV have lower than normal expectations about the amount of mental effort required to learn from written texts. That is, they reckon it should be just as effortless to read books or listen to a teacher’s lesson as it is to absorb stuff from the TV, and they are frustrated when they find it is not so. These children also tend to read less and perform relatively poorly in school. Indeed, research shows a direct relationship in preschoolers between amount of TV viewing and academics and social skills: The more preschoolers watch TV, the less well they do academically and the less well-socialised they are in the first grade. 6

Jerome & Dorothy Singer conducted field studies on children to see if TV can stimulate imaginative play. They subjected four groups of children to different types of classroom situations; two incorporated TV into the sessions, one was a control with no TV, and the last had no TV but an adult present to stimulate imaginative play. The greatest increase in imaginative play occurred within the last group.7

A child must learn to move the eyes back and forth across the page, while holding the head still, in order to read. While watching television, the eyes are fixed on the screen as well as the head being in a fixed position. Many children watch TV for four or more hours a day, learning that information automatically comes into their senses as long as the eyes and ears are all in a fixed position, focussed straight ahead. Otherwise you might miss something. The half-brother of our adopted sons has exactly this problem. From day one this now 12-year-old was plonked in front of a TV as a form of baby sitter. Today, take him for a ride in a car, and he cannot see the animals in the paddocks on either side of the road, for your eyes have to shift laterally to see them. Take him to the zoo, and he cannot see the monkeys in the trees just above his line of sight. When he reads, he laboriously moves his whole head from left to right, rather than his eyes alone.


Werner Halpern writes about the potential over-stimulation of young children that may result from watching TV. This over-stimulation may tax their still-developing neurological systems, and that may result in a short attention span and hyperactivity.8 There appears to be evidence that the approximately seven minute length of featured TV programming between the ads may condition a child to a seven minute attention span. The professional story teller Odds Bodkin, performs before some 10,000 people a year, most of them children. After about seven minutes, he says, restlessness sets in as their inner clocks anticipate a commercial break.9

The constant high levels of sounds and rapidly-changing images can condition a child to expect similar levels of stimulation in other circumstances. You probably don’t fancy turning your home education endeavours into a show that rivals TV programmes in this way. Your children will be expected to speak, to listen attentively and respond appropriately, to work some problems on their own occasionally, to read and to write. Since none of these contain the same level of attention-grabbing effects of TV’s dual stimuli of sound and image, TV-educated can become easily bored and then restless. Anecdotal information suggests that one of the main reasons university professors are introducing power-point and other multimedia (sound and image) segments into lectures is to retain the attention of the TV-raised student. A chalk-on-the-blackboard lecture is less likely to keep students attentive.

Home educators are perfectly placed to give their developing infants and children a wide range of sensory experiences under immediate, loving supervision that is also interpreting, commenting and explaining the experiences. Interaction with a living and loving parent is infinitely superior to the one way traffic of a pre-recorded couldn’t-give-a-hoot TV show, no matter how educational it is.  Once the child has learned to read and listen actively with comprehension and discernment, able to sift fact from opinion, objective reporting from propaganda, then he may profitably watch selected educational TV shows and videos.


1. Based on two articles at

2. Dunn, J., & Kendrick, C. (1982), Siblings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

3. Newsweek, “Your Child’s Brain,” February 19, 1996, pp. 55-62.

4. Time, “Fertile Minds,” February 3, 1997, pp. 49-56.


6. Burton, Sydney G., James M. Calonico and Dennis R. McSeveney, “Effects of Preschool Television Watching on First-Grade Children,” Journal of Communication, Summer 1979, pp. 164-170.

7. Singer, Jerome L. & Singer, Dorothy G., “Can TV Stimulate Imaginative Play?” Journal of Communication, Summer 1976, pp. 74-80.

8. Halpern, Werner L., “Turned-on Toddlers,” Journal of Communication, Autumn 1975, pp. 66-70.

9. Graham, Ellen, “Going Tubeless: Some Families Flourish Without TV,” The Wall Street Journal, February 10, 1994.

From Keystone Magazine
July 2002 , Vol. VIII No. 4
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