“Don’t chew with your mouth open.”
“Yes, you have to brush your teeth today.”
“Please put on pants.”
As parents, we make a lot of rules for our kids. And if we take an honest look at ourselves, some of the rules we set for our kids are there to protect our own sanity, like the most important rule in our house, “Never tickle Dad’s feet.”
But despite the occasional rule that we make up to protect ourselves, most rules we set are well-intentioned and meant to protect our kids. “Don’t put your hand on a hot burner,” and, “No, you may not put a paper clip up your nose,” are good examples.
We set rules because it’s instinctual for us, as parents, to protect our kids. Rules are good. They keep our kids safe. But as a parent who is also a researcher, I have learned that when it comes to media, protecting our kids is not only hard, it’s also not enough.
For example, let’s go back to the rule about not touching a hot stove. That’s a great rule. It protects little hands from burns. But when they’re old enough, don’t we want our kids to be able to use the stove properly? I can’t tell you how life-changing it is when a child can make their own grilled cheese sandwich. So, yes, rules are good. But they aren’t sufficient to support our kids getting the most out of life.
As with many things in life, protecting our kids is good. But empowering them is great. This is especially true with media. And rules alone about media do not equip kids with tools to make the most of the good in media and to avoid the bad. Media rules, especially for older kids, must be given in a way that allows children to internalize them as their own. In that way, we not only protect our kids, but we also empower them.
An example from our own family: Our 10-year-old was recently invited to a friend’s house for a sleepover where they planned to watch a movie. When I learned what the movie was, my first instinct, naturally, was to say “no” and to tell her they needed to pick another movie.
Instead, we sat down together and looked up a review of the movie at CommonSenseMedia.org. The review identified several instances of what I’d call “adult-ish” content. We then suggested that they choose a different, more kid-friendly movie to watch. There was no arguing. There was no questioning the decision. And that’s exactly what she and her friends did—without our help. I’ve come to the conclusion that she so readily embraced this rule because she understood why. Turns out, kids ask “why” to find a reason, and when they understand the reason, the rule has a much better chance of being internalized as their own.
Research supports this idea. A study involving more than 1,000 kids ages 10–14 found that family rules about TV led to less viewed violent content and thus, lower levels of TV-induced aggression—but only for those kids whose parents had conversations with them about the reasons for those rules.
When it comes to media, we grapple with a host of questions and wonder what rules we should set in our homes. When should we allow smartphones? How much time should kids spend watching TV every day? Should we ban social media? What TV shows do we allow? At this point, you might expect me to share a list of media do’s and don’ts. But because your children are different than mine, media rules in our homes should also be different. (I do share some ideas about rules here and here.) Whatever rules you do set, they’ll be much more effective when accompanied by an explanation that makes sense to your child.
So I’m actually going to set a few parenting rules for us. Ready? First, keep a tissue in your pocket. You never know when a toddler might want to use your shirt as a Kleenex. And second, if there’s one guideline for setting family media rules, it’s that parents should always try to provide a reason for the rules. And because we now know the reason for this media parenting rule, hopefully it’s an easy one for us to follow.