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Preschool Kids and Television

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Last week, the New York Times wrote about a study by researchers from Seattle Children's Research Institute and the University of Washington about the effects of TV on preschool children. The results indicate that curtailing kids' consumption of adult shows and giving them age-appropriate fare leads to small yet real gains when it comes to reducing aggression. In short, maybe it's not such a hot idea to hand your unattended 3-year old the clicker.

Well, duh, you say. As a good parent, you may already be parceling out TV to your child like pate to a guy with gout. The national average for preschoolers is four hours a day, but not for you, no sir; you dole out a half hour here, an hour there. You dutifully take time to watch with your child, pointing out plot twists, funny jokes and character developments. And of course, the only shows your toddler ever watches are good-for-you kids' series on public TV and cable.

But another study published online in November's Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology reveals that even so-called educational TV can lead to increases in aggressive behavior.

Really? How can that be?

Let me start by saying I'm not a child psychologist. But I do write for kids -- mostly TV, but also plays, books and graphic novels. And one thing I know is that kids are so varied by age, it's almost a misnomer to categorize them all as children. Preschoolers, middle-graders, preteens and young adults may all be separated by only a few years, but are so divided by their interests, needs, humor, language and abilities as to practically be separate species. I'm currently writing a YA futuristic trilogy with my partner, Laurence Klavan, in which kids have sex, give birth and get killed. It's called Wasteland and while it's great for teens, I wouldn't want my 8-year-old niece reading it. In the same way, a show I consider fantastic for an 8-year-old, e.g. "Arthur," may not be the best choice for a 3-year-old.

If you wonder why, it's because preschoolers are short.

By that I mean they have a different perspective; height is just one example. They are still struggling to make sense of the world on a physical, cognitive, social and emotional level. Preschoolers are literal, even as they live in a happy netherworld that's half-reality, half-fantasy. (Have you ever read a transcript of 3-year-olds? They're like schizophrenics on acid.) They don't understand irony. Ditto wordplay, sarcasm, metaphor. If you say to a 3-year old, "You're so cute I could eat you up," he will look at you like you're Jeffrey Dahmer. But if you say, "Let's pretend I'm a hungry monster and you're a peanut butter sandwich," chances are she will burst into delighted laughter.

Another thing about preschool perspective is that kids this age have a unique relationship to story arc. They don't understand the reflection and resolution that are so critical to good middle-grade writing; all they understand is what they see. And yes, they will imitate it. So if you write an episode about a boy having a tantrum, the preschooler watching will not pick up on the subtle and clever transformation arc in which the boy realizes that tantrums get you nowhere. No, all she or he will take away is that it's fun to stamp your feet, smash toys and behave loutishly. Curriculum advisers call this "modeling bad behavior," and it explains why preschool shows are so very careful about showing negative emotions.

This is nothing new, by the way. Fairy tales are not exactly ripe with emotional transformation, either. No, they are invariably about mastery, something that is expressed through external action: slaying the giant, winning the prince, beating the bad guys. The most subtle moral tends to be along the lines of "don't break into houses owned by bears." Ever notice how blank and two-dimensional the early Disney princesses are: Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty? These chicks pretty much start one way -- lovely, victimized, good -- and essentially end the same, minus the victimization. But that's not just the fault of those sexist ol' male screenwriters; it's something I think is hardwired into preschool stories themselves.

Writing good preschool TV is a challenge because it's so circumscribed -- simple stories, linear structure, limited vocabulary. But if you tap into the humor, delight and wonder that's lying beneath the surface, you can occasionally hit gold. That means creating stories that kids actually want to watch... and that are good for them, as well.