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Turn off the TV? Get real, parents say

Doctors may urge parents to limit TV for their tots, but bay area parents interviewed use common sense when it comes to watching Barney et al.

Barney is king at Karen Howard's house.

"They're watching it right now," Howard said one afternoon last week. "She's sitting on a blanket on the floor, and he has a bowl of cereal. They're both real happy."

"She" is Morgan, 7 months old. "He" is her brother, Clay, 2.

Is Howard a bad mother? One of those people who lets television do most of the parenting?

Hardly.

Howard, a work-at-home mom who lives in St. Petersburg, is determined that Morgan and Clay not become couch potatoes.

"I don't want them to be those kids who sit in front of the TV all the time and waste away," she said.

Like many parents of infants and toddlers, Howard was surprised last week when the American Academy of Pediatrics issued stringent new recommendations on TV viewing for youngsters.

Children younger than 2 should not watch television, the academy said in a report published in the August issue of Pediatrics magazine. Older children should not have television sets or video games in their bedrooms, and pediatricians should discuss TV viewing habits with their young patients' parents.

It's the no-TV-under-2 edict that has set off the biggest shock wave. Many parents use TV as a temporary "babysitter" for those few minutes when they need to take a quick bathroom break or tend to something cooking on the stove. It's hard for many parents to conceive that the pediatrics academy means that even those convenient moments have to end.

"I hope they're targeting parents who use TV on an extreme basis, where a child is sitting in front of the TV for hours and gets no other interaction," said Debbie Burguieres of Seminole.

Burguieres' son, Beau, 2, is a fan of JJ the Jet Plane, a show on cable's Learning Channel.

"He picks up new words from it and hears good articulation," Burguieres said. "It teaches morals, like Barney does."

Early last week, when the AAP recommendations came out, the report's lead author said they were simply trying to "raise the bar" to inspire optimal parenting.

After a spate of news reports on parents' alarm over the new recommendations, doctors at the academy switched to damage control.

"The policy says avoid, not eliminate (TV for children younger than 2)," said Dr. Donald Shifrin, a Seattle pediatrician and member of the committee that produced the report. "There's a hairline difference there, but it is a difference."

Shifrin said the AAP realizes television is an inescapable part of virtually every American child's life.

"We don't expect parents to eliminate television. That's foolhardy and pie-in-the-sky. What we are saying is, it's not necessary for children under 2. They don't need television for their cognitive and emotional development."

Still, many parents believe in the educational value of children's shows.

"It teaches them manners, it teaches them how to play with other children, how to be kind," said Karen Howard, the St. Petersburg mother. "Barney's clean-up song has helped my son learn how to pick up his toys."

Parents also say that there's no way infants could become TV addicts; their attention spans are simply too short.

Dean Podzamsky's son, William, 7 months, watches Teletubbies, the PBS show aimed at infants. That is, he kind of watches it.

"He really gets interested and focuses on what's going on in the picture," said Podzamsky, who lives in Tampa. "Then, 10 seconds later, he shifts to that squeaky toy on the floor in front of him."

Podzamsky said he and his wife make sure their son gets a variety of mental and emotional stimuli.

"He gets some enjoyment from the TV, but he also gets enjoyment from sucking his blanket."

Bruce Epstein, a retired St. Petersburg pediatrician who writes about childhood health issues in "The Doctor's Office" column Wednesdays in the St. Petersburg Times, said parents don't need to take the AAP recommendations literally.

"I think what the academy is saying is that parents are using the television too much and not interacting with their children," Epstein said. "Ideally, this policy (of no TV for children under 2) is great, but practically, it's impossible. Those guidelines are out of touch with the real world."

Epstein also said the academy's "media history," a questionnaire on TV viewing habits that pediatricians can have parents fill out, is unnecessary. Most conscientious pediatricians will mention TV during a routine visit, anyway, according to Epstein.

"I told parents not to have it on during meals. I would make a point of saying that during the child's checkup."

Cynthia Verzi, manager of the Belleair Montessori Academy, has worked with young children for more than 30 years. She supports the AAP's stand against television for youngsters.

"Everything's kind of magical and quick on TV," Verzi said. "Teletubbies, for example, are cartoonish. They have a mock body. They talk about loving, but these are stuffed animals giving messages to children. The real value is in a loving relationship with a parent or a caregiver."

When the academy released its recommendations, officials at PBS, which produces Teletubbies, were quick to defend their programing.

"This isn't putting your 1-year-old in front of a program with violence," said Heather Mudrick, vice president of corporate communications at Tampa public television station WEDU. "This is something that encourages their cognitive development, that introduces them to a medium that's going to be a big part of their life."

Just a day or two before the AAP's pronouncement on children's TV, PBS announced its plans to produce six animated programs for preschoolers, based on favorite children's books. The network also will debut a 24-hour PBS Kids Channel in the fall.

It's hard to imagine that parents of toddlers will be unplugging their TVs as a result of the new recommendations. Certainly not Wendy and Greg Fintak of St. Petersburg.

The Fintaks have two sons, Jonathan, 2, and Nicholas, 1. Another baby is on the way.

The Fintak boys watch Barney and The Hug-a-Bug Club. Their favorite Disney video is Mary Poppins. But they also fly kites, climb on a jungle gym at the park and go to the beach with their parents.

"There have to be equal amounts of learning from TV, physical play and reading stories," said Wendy Fintak. "It's all about balance."

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