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The Best Parental Control is Watching TV with Your Children

Why do we let our kids navigate media messages they're not prepared to decode?

When I was a kid, the only parental controls were how well my folks could literally lock up objectionable media that might affect my developing psyche. Unless I managed to find a stash of VHS tapes (I did), or commandeer the TV on Saturday morning, I watched what my parents watched. Mostly it was wildly boring prime time mellow dramas like Knott’s Landing and I’d go play somewhere else. Sometimes, as was the case for the 1983, made-for-TV, nuclear holocaust movie The Day After, I was straight-up traumatized.

But that was the 80s. Modern parents believe themselves to be far more sophisticated. After all, ours is a digital world. Should we so choose, we can lock down access to adult content on streaming sites, ban websites completely, restrict access to certain apps and limit screen time altogether.

Also, we have a veritable potpourri of age ratings for programs — TV-Y, TV-Y7, TV-G, TV-PG, TV-14 — and we know that the fine folks at the streaming services have done most of the work for us. Even HBO Max has a kids setting so our children won’t stumble on the Mother of Dragons committing war crimes.

Between the parental controls and the ratings and the benevolent curators, surely the impressionable minds of our children are safe. Right?

Sure. As long as we’re watching with them. I learned recently, when we don’t co-watch we do our kids and ourselves a disservice. And while I’m not suggesting parents need to watch every second of every show with their kids, I do believe there is a reasonable co-watching strategy that makes sense, and keeps kids safer in the long run too.

The “Vagina Incident”

Like many parents, I’ve been working from home with my children. I needed them to be able to have safe, unsupervised screen time. It was really the only way I could be sure of having a few uninterrupted hours for concentration.

For the most part, their media was digitally moderated: They had no access to YouTube, Amazon tablets served them kid-safe games and ebooks, and the gaming systems and computers were monitored with strict content and screen time limits. But I needed a safe television option, and one that everyone could enjoy.

I decided that Disney-plus would be a safe bet. What could be more kid-friendly than the house of mouse? And to make sure that they were getting something of educational value, I made a deal with them: They could watch any of the National Geographic content they wanted without checking-in first.

About an hour later, I walked out of my home office to snag a cup of coffee from the kitchen. Hearing my footsteps, my youngest (who was 7-years-old at the time) rushed out of the family room with an urgent question.

“Poppa! What’s a vagina!”

I blinked a couple of times, stunned by the unexpected question. Where had he heard about vaginas, I asked? The television, he said. On the show.

“Are you still on Disney?”

I couldn’t imagine a context in which Disney and vaginas would be so explicitly linked. I mean, you presume Disney characters have vaginas, I guess. But they are never explicit about it. Belle never sang about her reproductive organs.

I followed my son into the family room and discovered why the question had come up. Heeding my supposedly fool-proof educational directives, the boys had found a fascinating program about veterinarians. One episode, in particular, focused on a dog’s vaginal cancer surgery. It was fairly graphic.

So, we paused the show and talked. I was not prepared, but we got through it.

Co-Watching is Parental Control

The vagina incident made me realize how often my kids are left to interpret and process the content they consume. And considering they’re still very much learning about the world, they are ill-equipped for the task. That leaves them in an awkward position. Without a worldly guide, the world offered up by the television can become frightening, frustrating, or too alluring, requiring my boys to grow up fast in order to understand what they’re seeing. And that’s true even with a service aimed squarely at family content.

Things are different when I watch television with my kids. I become a buffer. Consider the veterinarian show. Had I been watching along, I could have caught the graphic content sooner. I could have asked if they were okay seeing animals in peril and in surgery. I could have answered the burning questions immediately and, importantly, I would have seen the vagina coming and been far more prepared to answer questions.

My parents had it right in the 80s. Not because they wanted to, but because there was no other choice. Parental guidance with television wasn’t so much suggested as it was necessary. And so, as a child I was rarely left to interpret the images I saw alone. Did my parents make mistakes? Sure. The nuclear holocaust film was a poor judgement call on their part, but at least they were there. And as worried aloud about thermo-nuclear annihilation they were on the spot to help soothe my fears.

But co-watching isn’t just good for kids. It’s good for parents, too. When we watch what our kids are watching, we can gain a better understanding of their inner lives. You can learn a lot about your kid if you watch Pokemon with them. Plus, it allows you to share some vocabulary — both cultural and actual. That can make it easier to connect. Seriously, ask a kid a question about the plot and world-rules of their favorite show and watch them light up.

There’s reassurance to be had in co-watching too. Take in a half-dozen episodes of a program with your kid and you’ll have a pretty good read on how much guidance they’ll actually need. I’d never watched the veterinarian show my boys became interested in. But if I had, I would have recognized that each episode contains some pretty high emotional stakes and not a small amount of animal viscera. So, I would have known that it was a program that should probably be co-watched exclusively.

Co-Watching and Media Literacy

There is a caveat to all of this though: Passive co-watching is not as good as active mediation in helping kid navigate the media. If you sit blithely through the racist portrayals of Native Americans in Peter Pan, it’s essentially a signal to your kid that there’s nothing wrong with ‘What Makes the Red Man Red’. And to be clear, there’s so much wrong with it.

Consider a 2018 study published in the Journal of Health Communication that probed parental influence in mediating alcohol marketing. Researchers looked at critical thinking skills related to alcohol of over 600 undergrad students. They found that parents who engaged with their children to develop a healthy sense of skepticism and media literacy were far less likely to engage positively with alcohol marketing later in life.

But the effects aren’t just related to marketing. A 2014 study from the Université du Québec à Montréal found that parents who questioned objectionable portrayals of negative sexual behaviors and attitudes were less likely to have children who engaged in risky sexual experiences.

“Parents play an important role in developing children’s critical thinking skills,” researchers concluded. “And those who mediate their children’s media use can establish behaviors that will prove beneficial to their children later in life.”

The New Strategy

This is all well-and-good, but it might also feel, at first blush, like just another burden for parents. After all, if I co-watched every show with my kids every time they were in front of the television I would know more about SpongeBob than I do about parenting. But this helps me focus on a strategy — one that helps reduce screen time, while increasing my co-watching.

For about a month now my kids have only been able to watch shows that I’ve watched with them before. If they want to watch a new show, they’ll have to wait until we watch it together. If they can’t wait, then they can turn off the screen.

The results have been interesting. For one thing, we found that everyone in the house loves Steven Universe. Also, because I’m not particularly enthusiastic about certain shows, my kids have been forced to branch out into new genres. That means we might wind up enjoying the reality knife-making competition of Forged in Fire or stumble onto a new and interesting dinosaur documentary series, none of which we would have enjoyed if left to our own devices.

And finally, I have the peace of mind of knowing what my kids are seeing in my house. We talk about it. We help them understand the subtle messages and overt lies that they might come in contact with.

Co-watching, then, has become my ultimate parental control. And I have the benefit in knowing that it’s always on.