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Imagination vs. Reality

The reality of TV

As if life itself isn't confusing enough for kids, along comes television, with images of flying purple dragons and, occasionally, even pictures of themselves. Learning to decode how TV operates can be complicated.

Babies and toddlers don't suspect that wires and circuit boards lurk behind the screen. Show a 9-month-old a TV-screen image of a ball, and he'll try to reach and get it, says Daniel Anderson, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and a consultant on the television show Blue's Clues.

Similarly, a lot of 3-year-olds will say that a bowl of popcorn on the television screen would spill if the TV tipped over.

But more so than with other challenges to reality, children should be educated about the fictional nature of much of what's on TV. Because they'll see so many ads and images, they need to figure out sooner rather than later how the whole thing works so they can view critically. "It's not until around age twelve that kids start forming an adult understanding of media," Anderson says.

For the littlest viewers:

Roll the camera. Let your child press the "record" button on the video camera and film family members. Have him watch it, and explain what he's seeing.

Introduce the idea of acting. Have the kids perform a play while you record it. When you all watch the videotape or DVD, explain that your child is an actor in the play, just the way Maria is played by an actor on Sesame Street.

Let them know when TV ads begin. Say, "Oh, it's a commercial," and explain that ads try to get you to buy certain things.

So I finally asked Drew and Claire what they think happens when they telephone a kiss to me. Does it really travel through the phone line and land on me? Drew, my rational guy, said, "No." But Claire, she looked away and declined to talk about it. I know that she knows kisses aren't magical little beings, and don't fly, but clearly she'd rather not concede as much just yet.

Contributing editor Jane Meredith Adams also writes for the Chicago Tribune.