Turning TV from a `Pandora's box' into an `Aladdin's lamp'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For parents tired of wails every time the television is clicked off, here's a suggestion: Help your children get ``TV smart.'' That term, as explained by the two people who coined it, describes the ability to choose programs carefully, understand TV's strengths and weaknesses, and exercise restraint in the numbers of hours spent in front of the tube.

Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children's Television (ACT), and Carol Hulsizer, its publications director, view their newest project -- ``The TV-Smart Book for Kids'' (E. P. Dutton, $6.95) -- as a kind of historic imperative.

After all, says Ms. Charren, more American homes have television sets than indoor plumbing. Children ``just watch too much TV, on average 4 hours a day,'' she says. ``This is the issue that the book is designed to deal with.''

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``So many parents give up the effort to be on top of the management of television,'' adds Ms. Hulsizer. That's easy to understand, she adds, since parents are frequently overwhelmed with work and family responsibilities. ACT regularly gets calls from parents ``more and more troubled by the friction television causes in the household,'' she notes. ``We felt this really may be the time to talk directly to parents and children about this.''

What their new book does, says Hulsizer, is give parents and children ``a context'' for bringing some discipline and thoughtfulness to television viewing.

The heart of the ``TV-Smart Book'' is a calendar that can be filled in by kids, in consultation with parents. Children will scan coming programs, either alone or with mom and dad, pick a few they'd really like to see, talk these over, and then stick to that viewing plan.

``This means turning on the shows they've chosen to see and turning the set off when those program are over,'' states the ``Parents' Guide,'' a booklet that comes attached to ``The TV-Smart Book.''

Each calendar page is accompanied by games, quizzes, and hints about smart TV viewing. For example, one section asks children to ``Be your own ad agency'' -- make up an ad to try to sell something to friends. The point, of course, is to become wise to how TV ads are trying to tempt youthful consumers.

Charren and Hulsizer are aware that what they're encouraging is far from easy. The TV set can go from being a source of contention to being a peaceable, even useful, part of the home, they argue, but this does demand some ``activism'' on the part of parents. The book can become a ``vehicle by which children and parents can really get together'' and harness the tube, says Hulsizer.

And TV is something to be harnessed and used intelligently, not simply brushed off as inherently bad, they emphasize. Charren draws an analogy with the car. ``Sure, there are negatives, like pollution, but we're not going back to the horse and buggy. We've figured out ways to make the problems less. This book is to help people do the same thing with television.''

Using another analogy, she talks about making TV an ``Aladdin's lamp'' instead of a ``Pandora's box.'' By thoughtfully selecting program, making this a weekly project, parents and children can ``rub'' the set, flick it on, and get something good -- both better program content and a sense of control.

The ACT folks warn, however, not to try to coerce kids into watching nothing but heavy-going educational fare. ``Everything you watch doesn't have to be serious or educational; a little lightweight entertainment never hurt anyone,'' counsels the ``Parents' Guide.'' The key, with junk television or junk food, is moderation and balance.

And there's ``no prescribed list of programs'' in the book, emphasizes Charren. ``ACT doesn't do that and neither does this book.'' Even vacuous Saturday morning cartoons can have some value if they're part of a viewing plan.

``We take the position,'' says Charren, ``that almost anything can be a useful experience if there's conversation with it.''

The approach taken by Charren and Hulsizer in ``The TV-Smart Book for Kids'' is thus one of compromise and practicality. It may aim too low for some parents convinced that TV is unqualifiedly bad. It may shoot high for some used to using television as an all-purpose babysitter.

But the target -- bringing thoughtfulness to television viewing -- is certainly a good one.

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