Sun, 24 Nov 2002

Children, television and books...

Santi W.E. Soekanto, Contributor, Jakarta

"I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television-of that I am quite sure." - E.B. White (1938)

Tila and her family in Kebayoran Baru have for the past few years been surviving without television. A rarity in Jakarta, indeed, where even slum dwellers have TV sets. But Tila believed it was the best decision for her children, the youngest of whom is a highly intelligent 9-year-old boy who prefers home schooling and reading books.

My family, too, got rid of our TV set more than five years ago as a way of expressing our defiance against such a powerful force whose influence -- good or otherwise -- seeps through millions of Indonesian families. In exchange, we now have Stasiun Buku (Book Station), a free-of-charge library for hundreds of children in our neighborhood. Featuring books both in Indonesian and English, the library has now spawned three smaller reading houses in other areas.

This is not to say that everybody should get rid of their TV sets. Television is here to stay and will grow even bigger. However, parents do need to think why children who were perfectly able to speak reverted to "eh oh...Laa Laa dances!" after watching the highly popular Teletubbies.

Parents who turn their TV set into a baby sitter, entertainer, teacher and even manager for their children, need to be aware of the "hypnotic power" of television (that forces American children between 3-17 years of age to spend some 15,000 hours of their lives glued to the screen), could soon undermine their efforts to raise intelligent, well-adjusted children. Why? Because experts believe:

*Television is the direct opposite of reading. Even the so-called educational programs such as Sesame Street are broken down into segments of 8 minutes to allow for commercials. This creates shorter attention spans in children. Good books, on the other hand, rivet children and encourage a longer attention span.

* For the young children, television is an antisocial experience while reading is a social experience. A 3-year-old child who is plomped in front of the TV are often completely engrossed by the flickering colors and flashing images to the point of oblivion of anything around him. When a parent places the child in his lap and reads to him, a social, emotional and intellectual exchange takes place.

* Television deprives the child of his most important learning tool: His questions. Has anyone ever wondered how many hours our children have spent watching TV before starting school? How many of those hours have they spent asking us questions "why" this or that on the TV screen occurred?

* Television interrupts the child's most important language lesson: Family conversation. Books, on the other hand, allows conversation to flow around the reading.

* Superficiality, as opposed to in depth treatment of a subject matter. A U.S. study found that TV nightly news programs use, on average 3,500 words, which is the equivalent of a HALF a page of a newspaper.

* Television is unable to portray the most intelligent act known to man: Thinking. In 1980 Squire Rushnell, vice president in charge of ABC's children's programming, said that certain fine children's books cannot be adapted for television. "You simply can't put thinking on the screen," he said. As a result, a child almost never sees a TV performer thinking through a problem.

* Television overpowers and desensitizes a child's sense of sympathy for suffering, while books heighten the reader's sense of sympathy. Yet another study shows that children between the ages of 3 and 17 are exposed to an average of 18,000 acts of violence. Such bombardment tends to desensitize the children and lessen their sympathy for the victims of the violence.

* Television is a passive activity and discourages creative play.

* Television is psychologically addictive.

* Television is the "greatest babysitter of all time" but also the second largest obstacle to family harmony in the United States. A survey of 4,000 people by the Roper Organization in the United States listed money as the most frequent subject of fights between husband and wife. Television and children tied for second, and produced three times as many arguments as did sex.

* Television presents a continuous distortion of physical and social realities, thus reinforcing false stereotypes. Reading and reading aloud to children is therefore a must for parents wishing to give the best to their children. What is it that makes the centuries-old practice of "reading aloud" or story-telling so important?

The initial reasons are the same reasons that parents talk to a child: To reassure, to entertain, to inform or explain, to instill values, to arouse curiosity and to inspire -- and to do it all personally, not impersonally via a machine. All those experiences create or strengthen a positive attitude about reading, and attitude is the foundation upon which you build appetites.

A secondary reason is the established fact that regular reading aloud strengthens children's reading, writing and speaking skills -- and thus the entire civilizing process.

The Stasiun Buku has now become an alternative source of amusement for many children in our neighborhood. We do not tell them or their parents to get rid of their TV sets, but we try to complement their favorite programs with good books from the library.

When should parents start to read to their children?

* As early as possible. Most parents start talking to their children, using complex, multisyllabic sentences, such as "We love you baby, you're my precious, the light of my life, the most beautiful baby on earth" the day their baby was born.

We trust our infants to understand what we are saying, so why not trust them to respond to our reading a book to them? Children under five are at the height of their imitative powers. Terry T. Brazelton, chief of the child development unit of Boston Children's Hospital Medical Center, says that new parents' most critical task during the early stages of childhood is learning how to calm the child, how to bring her under control, so she can begin to look around and listen when you pass on information.

The human voice is one of the most powerful tools a parent has for calming a child. At least, we know an early start in reading neither hurts nor wastes time.

* Read books as frequently as the child wishes and as you are able to. Use any reading material available, from books, magazines new and old, neon signs, comics, newspapers.

* Provide pens, scraps of paper, crayons and anything else easy of reach that would encourage children to scribble, draw or write.

* Make every effort to answer your child's questions, to take them to the bookstores, and to stick any drawing, scribbles and crafts of them in honored places such as the dining room walls.

* Recognize when children need to be read to because hearing their parent's voice soothes them. Bedtime is one of the best times because by that time children are ready to let go of any other distractions and concentrate on the task at hand -- absorbing your words. If possible, establish a regular routine of reading.

* Choose books that grow along with the child. An expert once described children between 2 and 5 years of age as "near geniuses" so do not limit their choices to only under-five reading material. Try reading a longer book, and see whether it holds the child's attention; you can proceed if it does, or save it for next year if it does not.

* Children develop their taste in books much as they acquire their taste in food. Once they are used to good, healthy reading material, they would choose to feed only on that kind of books.

* When do we stop reading to children? This might be an extreme example, but a librarian in the Stockholm Library said last year she read to her children even today when the eldest was already a 19-year-old college student simply because they did not want to let go of the enjoyment and the warmth that they got from their mother's voice.