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How Much Is Too Much?

Balancing Your Child's Media Diet

By Betsy Brown Braun

Would you allow your child to eat and eat and eat, whatever and whenever he wanted?  Of course not!  It's not much different with a child's media intake. Just like a parent implements portion and quality control with food, so must she implement the same controls with media.

It is a child's rightful job to try to get the very most of whatever he likes the most, be it candy, television, or computer time.  It takes many years for a child to develop the ability to see the big picture, think about why something might not be so good for him in the long run and apply that knowledge to his choices and behaviors. (And that ability, controlled by the prefrontal cortex of the brain, is not fully developed until a person is in his early twenties.) Therefore, your child needs you to put the brakes on for him.

Let me give you some real ammo for implementing a balanced diet.  Normal child development can actually be side-tracked by too much media input (television, computer, DS, Xbox, Wii, etc…) Children's brains are "in process." They are constantly wiring and rewiring themselves. And they do so based on the experiences they are having.

You know the old expression "Use it or lose it"? Well, it's true here, too. If certain skills are not used, the brain will rewire itself to use the ones that are being practiced.  Children's real life skills, the ones they need for functioning in the context of life—social interactions, problem solving, conflict resolution, compromise, reading emotions, etc.—can get rusty. The neural pathways that have been well-carved, enabling these skills, are plowed over and the new skills developed for media intake take over instead.

The brains of young children are naturally wired for intimacy and socialization, for handling emotions, for interacting with people. That's not something that should be side-tracked. If fact, children need more experience with these skills, not less.

In this day of wanting to give your child every advantage, when a parent feels she may be depriving her child of something all the other kids have, it's tough to limit media intake.  Children should certainly not be deprived of all media. It is here to stay, and our children need to become media literate. It will become part of their lives. The key, however, is the implementation of reasonable limits.

Just because your child is pining for a Wii doesn't mean he must have one. And just because he has one, doesn't mean he should be able to use it at will.  Before you say "Absolutely not!" or  "Whatever you want!" take the time to open the lines of communication. Listen to what your child really wants, and share what you think is right for him.

Create a win-win situation. Think about compromise. Set up a trial period, and be prepared to check-in and see how it's working for both of you. This will be a great lesson in compromise and problem solving for you both, as well as strengthen your trusting relationship.

There are two caveats to keep in mind:  

  1. It is okay to say No!  Children should not have everything they want. Learning to tolerate disappointment is a crucial life skill.
  2. It is okay to have a goal. Longing is a potent motivator. Don't deprive your child of the experience of longing for something, working to get it, and basking in an achievement of his own making.

Sometimes by taking away from a child, we are actually giving to him…just what he needs.

Betsy Brown Braun, best-selling author of the award-winning Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents (HarperCollins), is a child development and behavior specialist, parent educator, multiple birth parenting consultant and founder of Parenting Pathways, Inc. She is also the mom of adult triplets and is an occasional guest columnist for The Online Mom.

Comment by Susan Epstein, posted 11/3/2009, 3:39 PM:

I love this! Natural consequences are so important. Home should be the learning ground for mistakes...
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