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The Thing That Changed My Mind About Kids and TV

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I didn't grow up watching a whole lot of television, for reasons that were mostly circumstantial. My father was in the Air Force, and we lived off and on in countries where I didn't really speak the language and English-language television wasn't available.

In college I had a TV, mostly to enable me to watch VHS tapes that I'd quaintly rent from a shop in town, but that was kind of hassle and return fees were expensive.

During the times when I slept on futons and lived on ramen—we'll call them my twenties—television was an incredibly low priority, both time—and money-wise. Hence I never knew what people were talking about when subjects like "Melrose Place" or "Friends" dominated the small talk I'd partake in.

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I expected fully to be the kind of parent who never permitted their children to watch television. I read studies showing that toddlers who watched an excess amount of TV had a higher chance of being overweight, bullied, inactive, poor at math, and prone to bad behavior in school with higher rates of dropping out later.

When my first child was just a few months old, a friend gave me his TV when he moved back to Australia. By my standards, it's size is enormous. For the first time, I have that kind of living room where all the furniture points to a screen, instead of a bookshelf, fire place, turntable or just at each other.

I accepted the television for a few reasons, mainly language development (mine and my children's—we live in the Netherlands and watching Dutch TV is helpful for all of us—and English is good for our kids). Plus, with a newborn in the house, my husband and I were going out less, staying in and binge-watching HBO DVDs more.

My son himself did not start watching TV until he was nearly 3 (It wasn't ever on before he went to bed—not as a rule, just because neither my husband nor I thought to turn it on until our son was sleeping, and we were too tired for anything else).

At that point, I had two more kids and found that television was indeed a handy way to keep him distracted as I put his sisters to bed or gave them a bath. But then I discovered something else: television, in the right amount, actually has some developmental benefits.

I'm not advocating for television to replace conversation, crafts, reading or imaginative play, but I have been surprised to become the kind of parent who feels OK with my kids watching a movie on a rainy day at home or looking forward to a "Bob the Builder" episode before bed.

I believe I was driving somewhere when my son asked me from his carseat whether I knew why flamingos were born white and later turned pink. I did not. "It's because they eat algae," he explained. "That's why they go pink."

He was enormously proud to have presented me with information that, to his mind, he had acquired not from me or another adult, but all by himself. Actually, it was from watching Diego the animal rescuer. To my son, though, it was a fact he'd picked up all on his own.

This kind of curiosity and eagerness to find and share information feels, to me, like a pathway to learning to read rather than something that prevents their literacy development. And I've found studies to support that moderate amounts of TV viewing were found to be beneficial for reading.

It depends a lot on what they watch and how much. With programs like "Dora the Explorer," my children have improved their skills on how to explain directions in steps and how to problem solve. Plus, they now speak a little Spanish.

From "Octonauts" they know fun facts like daddy sea horses carry babies. When my daughter recently had her eyes tested, she was presented with a panel of drawings of things like tea cups and keys. One drawing—it was supposed to be the profile of a dog's head—was, to my daughter's insistence, actually an alpaca.

I'm not advocating for television to replace conversation, crafts, reading or imaginative play, but I have been surprised to become the kind of parent who feels OK with my kids watching a movie on a rainy day at home or looking forward to a "Bob the Builder" episode before bed.

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And so far, although they certainly enjoy their time sprawled out on the couch in front of the television, they are still just as interested in their other activities. Television is still not my favorite pastime, but I've learned to enjoy it as a tool for learning and a means for some post-dinner downtime after a long day.

And I have certainly learned a lot more about animals.

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