Play, Empathy and TV

Q. It seems to me that children aren't playing with each other the way they used to. Sometimes, it looks to me like they hardly play with each other at all–they act out imaginary scripts, and they're each in their own little worlds, next to each other. What can I do to get them really playing again?

I have to agree! Something important has happened gradually over the past twenty years to children's play. The play in schoolyards and preschools has slid toward more scripted acting, and in many places has moved away from flexibility and from the inclusion of whoever wants to participate.  In spite of this trend, there are simple things parents can do to help their children retain their ability to play flexibly and cooperatively.

Children Are Interested in Each Other from Infancy Onward

Having worked with infants, toddlers and preschool children for many years, I think that children's inherent ability to notice each other and to care about each other is great, from their early months onward. Very young children may not express themselves in words, but they show that they are highly interested in other children. Through their body language and the expression of feelings, they show acute sensitivity to what happens between themselves and other children.

Many used to believe that children only do “parallel play,” and don't really respond to each other fully until they are past two-years-old.  If you look closely, however, you will see that very young children can acknowledge each other, can be thoughtful of each other, and can respond to each other's initiatives much earlier than two-years-old, as long as those children have themselves been treated as though they are intelligent, thoughtful people. I remember one thirteen-month old child in the infant-toddler center I ran who showed a special interest in one of the younger infants there. When her parents took her on a three-week trip, she called his name every day. She missed him and remembered him often.

Building Empathy and Flexibility in Play

There are two major factors that enhance a child's ability to show empathy and sensitivity toward other children in play: respect, and freedom from canned media input.

Respect

One of the foundations of empathy and connectivity in play is the parent's ability to honor the child's intelligence. For instance, with a three-month-old, a parent might say, “OK, Tammy, we're going to change your diaper now. It will only take a minute,” or, “Tammy, it's time for me to leave. I’m going to work. I’m going to say good-bye now, and I’ll see you tonight. I love you, I love being your Daddy.” The parent makes the assumption that a three-month old can make sense of his tone, his words, and the situation. From the moment a parent starts this kind of respectful treatment, his child's ability to feel trust in others grows. That respect and the confidence it builds promotes language development and allows the child to feel safe enough to show compassion and interest in others.

Part of honoring a child's intelligence is learning to respond to a child's crying or tantrums with a willingness to listen. Rather than saying, “Oh dear! What's the matter now! Can't you see I have to strap you in the car seat!?” and assuming that the child's crying is nothing more than a nuisance, the parent would respond with, “I'm here. I know you hate the car seat. I need to buckle you in, but I'm here. You can tell me how hard it is.” The parent would honor the child’s need to express her feelings fully, even if those feelings include wild protest.

We call this Staylistening. It's very simple, but it’s hard to do. We want to solve our children's upsets immediately. We don’t want to look like “bad” parents with a “spoiled” child. And if we feel rushed and pressured, we have a hard time slowing down to listen to feeling. Our schedules feel much more important than taking time to honor our child’s upset. However, all good children need to have frequent good cries and healthy tantrums. It's the way they clear ordinary, everyday bad feelings out of their systems. It's the way they dissolve the issues that bother them, so they have the emotional capacity to take interest in their parents, their siblings, and in other children. When an adult warmly listens to their big feelings, they make gains in their ability to respond flexibly to other children in play, and to cooperate with the adult more fully in everyday interactions.

TV- and Video-Free Environment

A second important determinant of a child's empathy and flexibility in play is how much TV and video programming he is exposed to. TV and videos offer free “baby sitting” for harried parents who are overburdened with work and the stresses of parenting. But the breather the parents get is a very mixed blessing indeed.

The price exacted by TV and video programming, even programming “designed for children,” is that it wraps the child's mind in one-dimensional experience. Children are built to learn by using their bodies and all their senses. They need to experiment, make thousands of necessary mistakes, and try out all the ideas they have in a safe environment. TV fascinates children, but it glues their attention to a flat screen experience that has little to do with real people or real life.

Children see cartoon characters being chased, caught, bopped on the head, or plunged into flaming crashes. They see appealing little creatures threatened by forces much greater than they can handle. And if they watch sports with Daddy, they see highly sexualized adult interaction during the beer commercials, or scenes of horror when the latest movie release is advertised. These create scenarios in their minds that can’t be processed, because they are not congruent with the safe, emotionally warm, protective environment their minds need in order to function. The images keep popping back into the child’s consciousness as their minds try to work out what they mean, and their play becomes a repeated effort to crack the meaning of the violence, the threat, the interactions contain no love or respect.

The TV or video experience tends to isolate the child. As he plays, his attention is on the images in his mind, not on the child next to him. When that child doesn't play according to the script, the child with the mental TV script has big feelings. When a whole roomful of children have TV scripts driving their play, the play is between many separate children each alone with their invisible script, rather than many children creating something together, and flexing with each other’s ideas.

The eruption of feelings in play is fine, if an adult nearby understands that the upset is rooted in the vivid media experience that’s stuck in the child's mind. As he cries about the non-cooperation of his playmate, or the fact that his mighty sword (just like the one on the video!) broke, his attachment to those rigid scenarios begins to melt.  He sobs that life isn't like the video, and with your closeness to support him, he recovers from the isolation that those scenarios enforced. When he is finished, he'll be able to notice other children much more fully, and will be able to respond to them, rather than to the canned experience that had a hold on his mind.

It may sound radical in the electronic age, but I urge parents to set the policy that they watch TV only when the children are not present, and keep their children away from TV and videos until they are well into elementary school. By that age, children have developed strong interests and talents, built good friendships, and have learned to read and to tell their own stories in writing and art. They are in a much better position to manage the slippery understanding that programs and videos are not the real world. However, even pre-teens can be adversely affected by movies and video games that offer harsh, violent, or highly sexualized content.

TV saps parents' power to connect, too. When our children see us watching TV, they see the parents they love temporarily unable to engage with them. TV flips off the big switch of connectedness: when it's on, we lose the feel of our connections to each other. This is hard for young children to understand–why are their beautiful Mommy and adored Daddy so unresponsive? Why are the games or the news or the soap operas more important than anything else?

We parents do need time to take care of ourselves. We do need relief from the pressures and from the emotional currents of the day, which can toss and turn us until we're exhausted. Sometimes, we seek refuge by turning on the TV and tuning out an unpredictable and demanding world around us.

There are a few decent videos and a few decent TV programs for young children. Look for the real-world based videos, and for Mr. Rogers, Reading Rainbow, and Sesame Street. Beware of Disney fantasies, as these always portray good and evil in ways that are frightening to young children.

Experiment with turning off the TV, or unplugging it entirely, as did the mother in the story below. Staylisten as your children go through “withdrawal” and regain their capacity to connect with you and play flexibly with each other. Seeing the “before” and “after” difference will help you figure out the policy on TV and video that works best for your family.

Parent Success Story: No TV for a week!

I’ve been sick for over a week, and feeling distraught over stressful events on holiday with my parents and siblings. It was simply a time where I didn’t have much attention for playing with my kids.  Due to my feeling bad and a broken lock on the TV cabinet, they’d gotten to watch a lot of PBS kid's programs.  And on vacation our host had purchased some really good kids’ videos, and they had spent a lot of time watching them on TV in our hotel room.

I believe the studies that suggest that TV isn’t really helpful for children because such passivity occurs for the viewer. Yet, I’d let the viewing get out of hand during a difficult few weeks.

So, even though I wasn’t over my cold yet, I had a good Listening Exchange, in which my listening partner reminded me that I'm a good mom, and I had a chance to release some of my many upsets.  I took courage and asked my husband to fix the cabinet lock for me. The next morning when the kids asked for TV I said lightly, “We’re taking a break from TV!”  For a while we just snuggled but within twenty minutes my four-and-a-half-year-old son was sobbing on the floor about not getting to watch TV.  This was interesting since his first response to things unpleasant during the heavy TV period was to get angry and loud.  Now, with no TV, his sadness was instant.

I took heart, held him, and wondered what the day would be like since it had been an unusually long stretch that we’d watched a lot of videos in our house. I wondered what feelings might have been kept in check due to that distraction.

Within minutes the kids initiated a discussion on what there was to do.  And they asked why we were taking a break from TV. I said (as has been discussed between us before) “when we’re watching TV we aren’t really playing, or learning by noticing the world around us. Today we could draw, cut things out of paper, look out the window, or play in the sandbox outside.  We could eat breakfast, play–so MANY things!”

They both decided they wanted BIG teddy bear pancakes for breakfast and they both wanted to help. It was fun stirring the batter together. I realized the weeks with TV had halted their usual cooking-with-me time we’d had before.  At breakfast my son began crying hard again about “pretexts” such as his pancake wasn’t big enough and then I put his milk in the wrong cup.  Previously he had several minutes on the floor crying hard because I chose the wrong pants for him to wear.

I had a few concerns about whether I’d have enough attention for them particularly with my cough and headache–but I was able to kindly say, “I hear you, honey” or even get close for a few moments and put my warm hand on his shoulder. Then my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter started in too. She began crying hard because she wanted to “win” at getting to the bathroom door first.

“Oh boy,” I thought, “This is gonna be a day!”  But I managed to just be there and not be impatient. I was just thinking to myself that I had a lot of courage to turn off the TV when I’m sick, when to my surprise, my son broke out in song.  This is what he sang, complete with hand motions and dance steps–a song from his preschool which he told me later he’d never sung all by himself before.  It’s such a beautiful song with these words:

“Let all the children waken, The sun is in the sky,
Awaken! Awaken!  And hear the Cuckoo cry.
Cuckoo! Cuckoo!
Wake up! Be Happy! Wake up Mr. Sun,
The night has gone, The day has begun! “

Tears came to my eyes and I was so GLAD that I cared enough about my kids to turn off that TV.  My daughter then stood in front of the mirror and practiced opening one eye while closing the other.  By having time together, feelings and all, rather than virtual time my children had already showed me the interesting ways their minds work.  I wasn't right at their side all day, either.  Here is a list of a few of the things they spontaneously did together while I cleaned, wrote, answered the phone and made tea.  They made letter shapes out of bead strings, played hide and seek, laughed and hugged, played by the back door, called hello to neighbors…

Turning off the TV and allowing and supporting their feelings (even if not perfectly) immediately opened up possibilities–and the reality of their creativity, intelligence and hopefulness about the day. (Mine too!)

–a mother in Portland, Oregon

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