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Kids & TV — A Get-Real Guide

Ages 2 to 4

As little as possible. "The more kids watch, the more they want to watch," says Diane Levin, Ph.D., author of Remote Control Childhood? Combating the Hazards of Media Culture.

Look at your child's daily doings and factor in TV as the smallest part  -- no more than one to two hours (including time spent on the computer or playing video games). Be specific, and consistent, about how much is allowed. But offer choices about how your child uses the time (which shows and when), remind him when a period's almost up, and suggest something else to do next.

Keeping TV at bay for toddlers and preschoolers is that much tougher when an older sibling is watching. Tammy Derenak Kaufax of Alexandria, VA, has a 3-year-old, Halle, and a 7-year-old, Matthew. She limits them both to about an hour a day now, but when Halle was born, "Matthew was four and a little more of a TV watcher." Naturally, his sister ended up glued to Arthur and Dragon Tales with him. Kaufax's current tactic for Halle: diversion. "I'll just say we're not going to watch now. We're going to go outside or play a game."

Some families adopt house rules for when it's TV time  -- right before dinner, for instance  -- and when it's not, like during meals. These help cut off begging.

It should be packed with positives and devoid of negatives  -- particularly violence, even if it's animated. Look for shows that model kindness, helpfulness, and respect as well as encourage self-esteem and learning. Steer clear of bad language, bias, and anything frightening. Try to avoid commercials as much as possible: Children don't have the judgment to resist inflated claims.

Old standbys, such as Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, plus Caillou, Jay Jay the Jet Plane, Theodore Tugboat, and Zoboomafu (PBS); Blue's Clues, Dora the Explorer, and Oswald (Nickelodeon); and Bear in the Big Blue House, The Book of Pooh, and Out of the Box (Disney Channel).
Watching while your child watches, at least occasionally, both to evaluate content and to take advantage of teachable moments. Parents can applaud how generously Pooh shares, ask how something made Dora feel, point out that Caillou has to go to the dentist too, and use Mister Rogers to explain reality versus pretend. And if something objectionable slips through in a show you've never seen before, you can address it immediately.

There's nothing wrong with using the TV as a babysitter at times, says Robert Schrag, Ph.D., author of Taming the Wild Tube. "If you 'interview' the TV as carefully as you would a human babysitter, it won't cause any harm. In fact, if it keeps you from losing it and yelling at your kids, it's probably good for them."