When kids are little, the lessons they get from their favorite TV shows are pretty simple. Angelina Ballerina helps a girl in dance class and demonstrates how to be a good friend. Thomas the Tank Engine asks for help delivering his freight, and he shows how cooperation can help solve problems.
But when kids get older, the messages that TV delivers aren't always so straightforward.
Television targeted toward kids ages 9-11 often takes an edgy approach to appeal to an age group that's starting to test boundaries, assert independence, and maybe even provoke. These shows are also competing for eyeballs in a crowded field of TV shows, websites, cell phones, and more. But you can use these shows -- from iCarly and Big Time Rush to Ben 10 and Regular Show -- to help make television useful, positive, and something that reinforces your values.
When you can, watch along with your kids. Take advantage of the opportunity to share your opinions and ask questions. Watch enough kids' shows, and you'll see certain issues come up again and again. Here's how to deal with them.
On tween shows like Good Luck Charlie and Victorious, kids talk back to adults in a way that most of us would never stand for in real life -- from "shut up" to sarcasm. Sure, it's meant as comedy, but it's also a great opportunity to speak up about what you think about this kind of behavior.
Use examples from a show to discuss the importance of respect. Talk about how kids' behavior reflects back on them. Also, underscore the difference between fantasy and reality. Kids who disrespect adults in real life usually face consequences -- like getting in trouble at school or home -- which doesn't always happen on television.
Tween shows are full of boy-girl relationships. Most shows targeted at this age range keep things pretty chaste, but kids who are too young for dating pick up a lot from these series.
Use these TV relationships as jumping-off points to find out what kinds of messages are getting through to your kids. Concepts of "cheating on someone" might not mean a lot to a 9-year-old. And take the opportunity to do some reality checks. Ask: "Can you imagine that ever happening with your friends?" Or: "What would you do in that situation?" Be sure to listen carefully and respectfully. You never know what you'll find out...
From cliques and mean girls to name-calling and nasty tricks, kids see their favorite characters participating in some pretty rotten behavior. Most tween-targeted TV shows make an effort to have a positive message shine through at the end, but sometimes these messages get overwhelmed by the negative stuff.
Share your opinion with kids about what happens in these shows. Make it clear that bullying is an absolute no-go. And reinforce who kids can go to at school if they have social problems. Talk about how a lot of the behavior on these shows is exaggerated to be funny or dramatic. Ask: "Do you know anyone who acts like that?" Or: "What would you say if someone called you a name like that?"
Keep an eye on your kids' favorite shows, and don't hesitate to weed out the ones that push the limits beyond your comfort level.
Kids ages 9-11 are just starting to establish their individual identity. They're experimenting with clothing and make-up, slang and music. So it makes sense that TV shows about "make-overs" or changing appearances appeal to tweens.
But while experimentation with identity is totally age appropriate, parents can point out when a character's motivation to change is to get approval from a person or a group. Point out that trying out different looks is fine, but trying to be someone you're not isn't cool.
Lots of tween shows deal with the issue of being an outsider; these can be great opportunities to talk about social pressures. Ask: "Is there anyone at your school who really stands out? How do people treat that person?"
Unfortunately, there's very little body type diversity in tween television. The girls on Shake It Up, for instance, are incredibly skinny, and most male stars are thin or even buff. Rarely do we see average-looking kids or those with physical disabilities. And while there's more racial diversity on mainstream television than there used to be, it's still overwhelmingly white.
It's worth pointing out how similar everyone in most TV shows looks. Ask: "Who isn't on this TV show?" Talk about whether the characters on television reflect what kids look like at your kids' school or in their neighborhood.
Also, point out that while these characters are paid to act funny and happy, that doesn't mean they're like that in real life. Demi Lovato is an example of someone whose real life was vastly different from the character she played on Sonny with a Chance. She now speaks out about her eating disorder and other issues that were affecting her during her time on television.
Sex, Violence, Drinking, Smoking
Draw the line when it comes to content that's simply not age appropriate. Sure, you could use the opportunity to talk about these touchy issues, but kids in the 9-11 age range aren't ready for explicit sex or bloody violence. By talking to your kids about why certain shows are off limits, you're expressing your beliefs to them. They may protest, but deep inside, they might also be relieved. Kids feel a lot of pressure to act older, and you can get them off the hook -- without hurting their pride -- by saying "no."
Check out our topic-specific tips. Get help talking with your tween about specific issues like smoking, sex, stereotypes, and more.