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Parents and Children Watching Television Together


All of us have been reminded at some time that we are supposed to follow the rules. This advice usually works well so long as the rules for how to act in social situations or ways to play games remain the same. But, what happens when the rules that people are accustomed to change? This is the situation that parents and schools are in now. The reason is that the governments of many countries have decided that the best way to increase productivity, compete in a global market, and improve mental health is to give high priority to creative thinking. This means changing the rules for how children should be educated at home and at school (Baker & LeTendre, 2005; Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski & Flowers, 2005).

What we know about the future suggests that people will need to become more creative. Persons with creative abilities are more able to adapt to new knowledge, accept complexity, think of peaceful ways to deal with arguments, see new possibilities for improving conditions, prevent boredom, make decisions on their own, feel comfortable with uncertainty, and avoid being overwhelmed by the growing number of consumer options (Sternberg, 2002).

There are differences of opinion over how schools should be changed to graduate greater numbers of students who are creative. However, educators are united in the belief that the best time to begin support for creative thinking is during early childhood. It is recognized too that young children generally consider mothers and fathers to be their main teachers (Strom & Strom, 2005, 2006).

One overlooked context for parent teaching involves watching television with children. Television presents parents with three major challenges. First, they must decide which programs daughters and sons are permitted to watch. Second, they have an obligation to nurture critical thinking by helping youth interpret some messages provided by the media. Third, their willingness to ask questions and listen to children can do much to qualify them as sources of guidance. Most parents report that they regularly watch television programs as a family. Indeed, a greater amount of family time is spent watching television than any other activity (Roberts & Foehr, 2004).

Questions to Stimulate Conversation

When watching television, everyone sees the same pictures and hear the same words. However, previous experiences can cause observers of different age groups to reach dissimilar conclusions. These differences in perception enable relatives to gain much benefit from sharing their views.

Accordingly, one way to discover how children interpret what they see on television is to ask them questions. Table 1 presents a list of questions that can produce parent-child dialogue for most television programs along with the purpose for asking each question. A helpful way for parents to have easy access to these questions is to cut out Table 1 and put it by the television or tape it to the back of the television remote control.

Table 1. Questions to Ask Children While Watching Television Together

1. How would you handle the situation she or he is in now? Identify alternatives
2. What do you suppose will happen next? Anticipation of events
3. What parts of the program did you like the most? Expression of interest
4. If you were a friend, how could you help this person? Responding to needs
5. What do you suppose (particular word) means? Vocabulary development
6. Do you think she or he is making the right decision? Evaluation of judgment
7. What kind of person does she or he seem to be? Evaluation of character
8. What do you suppose she or he learned from this situation? Evaluation of learning

1. How would you handle the situation she or he is in now?
The ability to identify alternatives is a lifelong asset. People who can see many possibilities in a single situation are more able to negotiate, get along with others, and think of options for solving problems. These strengths are helpful when dealing with conflicts and preserving mental health. By sharing their interpretations, parents and children reveal the scope and limits of their individual perceptions. This can help know what children know and which lessons require further emphasis.

2. What do you suppose will happen next?
By asking questions that require guessing, to hypothesize, children are motivated to anticipate events, explore beyond what can be observed directly, to imagine what is unseen, and express a futuristic perspective. Such an approach encourages children to talk more because the questions are open-ended, and there is no single correct answer. This approach also allows children to express differences from adult opinion. When parents see that a daughter or son is able to think of ideas which they themselves would not have thought of, respect for the child's thinking increases and the relationship can move to a higher level. Mothers and fathers who present guessing-type questions also learn to feel more comfortable with uncertainty and more willing to discuss issues for which they may not know the full range of responses.

3. What part of this program did you like most?
This question invites an expression of interest. One condition for building a close relationship involves striving to remain aware of things that please and disappoint the other person and, in turn, to makes personal choices and preferences understood. The mutual expression of likes and dislikes provides an information base people need to make decisions about compromise and sacrifice. Sharing what we like the best is perhaps the easiest thing for us to talk about.

4. If you were a friend, how could you help this person?
Everyone should care about other people and want to be helpful. A combination of loyalty, willingness to offer support, and ability to recognize the help a friend needs can be taught by example and brainstorming. Relatives can benefit from telling each other about friendship difficulties and methods they rely on to sustain relationships. Children begin asking relatives for advice about preserving and building friendships while also maintaining independence around age 8 or 9 when peer pressure becomes a strong motivational force.

5. What do you suppose (a particular word) means?
Vocabulary development should be a lifelong goal and appears fundamental for the comprehension of conversation with other generations. Some words adult viewers hear on child-oriented programs are unknown to them and should be the focus for this question. MTV is the most watched channel in the world with over 250 million viewers. An emphasis on vocabulary building calls for the more informed party, whether adolescent or adult, to define words that bring meaning for the other generation (Roberts & Foehr, 2004). Everyone can be asked to repeat aloud words they do not understand during a program segment observed together. Adults are amazed at the words teens identify that they could provide definitions for and words that children know but grownups do not understand. Because the best way to learn new words is in context, televiewing can enlarge the vocabulary that is acquired in school.

6. Do you think she or he is making the right decision?
The goal here is to evaluate judgment. Grownups want children to show good judgment and keep from making serious mistakes. Sometimes harmful consequences take place before important lessons are learned. By reacting to televised versions of real-life dilemmas, families can simulate predictable problems and explore the worthiness of individual judgment without the risks of disappointment, embarrassment and other undesirable consequences.

7. What kind of person does he or she seem to be?
The assessment of character is becoming an increasingly important task. Mothers and fathers want their children to assess situations and be able to determine whether being with certain people will be in their best interest. One way to acquire this competence is to compare the evaluation each viewer, parent and child, expresses about particular characters near the beginning of a program and again at the end. Mother and dad may not always know best but children often conclude that parents have something of value to teach when it comes to sizing up situations.

8. What do you suppose he or she learned from this experience?
Television provides daily opportunities to observe the difficulties other people encounter. Parents and children are able to identify with the issues portrayed by describing related events and struggles in their own lives. There is a need to realize that the most beneficial way to acquire moral learning is in the role of an observer. When someone else's behavior is the focus rather than our own conduct, we tend to be less defensive and more able to consider making the personal changes that appear warranted.

Facilitating Student Skills

Parents should become acquainted with some of the skills needed by their child for school success and how these skills can be nurtured during family televiewing. Table 2 shows skills that children need to learn.

Table 2. Skills Needed for School Success

1. Describe events in proper sequence
2. Identify the main points presented
3. Continue to build vocabulary
4. Restate the opinions of other people
5. Show curiosity by asking questions
6. Listen to people with opposing views
7. Distinguish the factual from opinion
8. Review lessons offered by a show
9. Recognize right and wrong behavior
10. Anticipate what will happen next
11. Evaluate character and personality
12. Determine the quality of judgment
13. Identify a range of possible solutions
14. Recognize strengths in other people
15. Comprehend similarities in situations
16. Evaluate the reasons behind decisions
17. Tell how a program changed your view
18. Recognize how a decision effects others
19. Ask questions about things not understood
20. Evaluate the need for moral learning

Benefits of Reciprocal Learning

Asking questions and having a dialogue while watching a program disturbs some adults in the beginning. They consider this behavior to be distracting and liken it to the same conduct that makes a movie at the theater disappointing for them. In their opinion, a guide for observers is to watch quietly to avoid disturbing the concentration of others. By this reasoning, the best time to talk about a program is after it is finished and the television set has been turned off. However, the assumption that parents or children cannot follow a story line and carry on a conversation at the same time is false. It is unwise to underestimate the capacity of people to multi-task, cope with two simple tasks simultaneously. This is what happens when you watch a picture as well as messages at the bottom of the television screen. Both parties can easily keep up with program content at the same time they speak about events as they unfold. Besides, it is more important to talk to each other than to catch every detail presented by the program.

When parents make the shift, they soon experience the satisfaction that comes from hearing children express themselves more. Adults also sense that the benefits of conversation are greater than entertainment from the program. Nevertheless, many families sit side-by-side watching television without conversing about their reactions to what is being seen. Seeking the opinions of children can influence the amount of attention they pay to comments of adults.


Children know that their parents have important lessons to teach them. However, because they have experiences that are so different from those of adults, children believe that learning should be reciprocal. This allows both generations to contribute to each other's learning. Even though reciprocal learning is essential in times of rapid change, some adults reject the idea. Parents feel that the traditional way society assigns status within the family and guides communication should be retained. During the past, values were conveyed in one direction, handed down from older to younger people. The idea that adults may need to adopt particular attitudes, values, and ways of thinking from children is without historical precedent. Consequently, society lacks experience in perceiving young people as sources of knowledge.

There is much to be learned by parents about using television to support creative thinking, critical thinking, and observational skills with children. Parents should expect new things of themselves to adjust to changing rules for their child's education. In particular, they should watch some television with children --this requires time. Next, they should ask questions of daughters and sons during mutual observations. this is a skill that takes practice. And, just as children are expected to express their impressions of what they see, parents should also share their experiences .-this requires self-disclosure. Finally, children should be allowed to choose some programs the family watches .-this reflects acceptance of child interests. Parents who subject themselves to these expectations communicate more easily with their children and establish themselves as a lasting source of guidance.


Baker, D., & LeTendre, G. (2005). National Differences, Global Similarities: World Culture and the Future of Schooling. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Roberts, D. & Foehr, U. (2004). Kids and Media in America. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Senge, P., Scharmer, C., Jaworski, J., & Flowers, B. (2005). Presence: An exploration of profound change in people, organizations, and society. New York: Doubleday.
Sternberg, R. (2002). Handbook of Creativity. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Strom, R., & Strom, P. (2005). Teaching through play and respecting the motivation of preschoolers. In McInerney, D., & VanEtten, S. (Eds.), Focus on Curriculum (Volume 5 in Research on Sociocultural Influences on Motivation and Learning), pp. 3-23. Greenwich, CT: Information Age.
Strom, R., & Strom, P. (2006). New directions for teaching, learning and assessment. In R. Maclean & R. Watanabe (Eds.), Learning and Teaching for the Twenty-First Century. Support from UNESCO International Centre, Germany, with the Asia-Pacific Educational Research Association. The Netherlands: Springer Publishers.

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