updated 7/9/2008 9:32:28 AM ET 2008-07-09T13:32:28

It was hard not to hear the banging, the fake gunshots, coming from the next room.

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I tried to tune it out. A snowstorm had left me at home with my 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son, but I still had work to do. That meant turning on the electronic babysitter, the television set.

My editors wanted a story about a Parents Television Council report saying children’s TV is studded with violence — even more than in prime-time — and that much of it is darker and more realistic than when Elmer Fudd aimed his gun at Bugs Bunny.

The irony was obvious, and so was the feeling of shame.

What kind of parent would let television do a job they should be doing? The answer, truthfully, is that most of us have been in a similar situation sometime. Those who say they haven’t, I salute you. I just don’t know if I believe you.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV or other electronic media for children under age 2. That’s the ideal, like the parents who say they’ll feed their kids plenty of vegetables and never chicken nuggets or hot dogs.

In fact, an estimated 80 percent of children age 6 and younger watch TV, play video games or use the computer for about two hours on a typical day, according to a study released in May by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Cable channels provide preschool and kids’ programming round the clock. And this spring saw the introduction of BabyFirstTV, a 24-hour channel aimed squarely at that coveted 6-months-to-3-years-old demographic.

The same Kaiser study found that almost one-fifth of kids 2 and under have a TV in their bedroom.

More shame: My daughter has one, too.

Moderation, monitoring
In our house, we make sure the kids don’t overdo it, particularly on weekends. But when they get home after a full day of school and an after-school program or day care, should we feel guilty about letting them relax in front of something silly while dinner is being prepared?

Some parents remove the TV entirely from their home, or strictly forbid children from watching it. That kind of discipline amazes me, but also freaks me out a little.

There’s trash on television, no question about it, but it’s also a window to the world. There’s nothing wrong with “Sesame Street” reinforcing a child’s ABCs or counting skills, and “Blue’s Clues” teaching problem-solving. And while I wouldn’t mourn the loss of a certain purple dinosaur, I’m actually a closet Wiggles fan.

Other parents set strict time limits. With flexibility, that’s not a bad idea. Another good one is recording shows you deem acceptable on DVRs or VCRs and tell your children that’s all they can watch. Pre-packaged videos work, too.

The key is moderation and monitoring. Our kids have only recently learned of the existence of the remote, and we still tend to keep it away from them. One hint: When they start reciting commercials verbatim, you know you might be sailing past “moderation.”

But family viewing can also be fun; it’s the quiet key to the success of “American Idol.” My kids laugh hysterically at “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” which is largely harmless except for its over-reliance on clips of people getting hit in the crotch.

Be prepared for the unexpected, though, as two recent experiences drove home.

No Santa?
We’ve found the UPN comedy “Everybody Hates Chris” fun family viewing. It’s kid-centered, and adults can enjoy Chris Rock’s comedy. The whole family was watching an episode a week before Christmas.

Out of nowhere, one character lets her little sister in on a secret: “Everybody knows there’s no Santa Claus.” Our kids looked on disbelievingly, and we couldn’t reach for the remote fast enough.

The next day, I called the network’s president. Had you considered that children who still believed in Santa Claus might be watching? She admitted she hadn’t. The show’s co-creator even said he was busted by his 6-year-old son, who saw the episode and was upset.

“My wife told him it was just a TV show and to ignore it,” said Ali LeRoi. “It worked. He believes her. Kids trust their parents that way.”

Another time, my daughter sat with me watching PBS’ award-winning documentary on Bob Dylan. She had seen him in concert and was interested in learning more. She also wanted to put off bedtime.

Without warning, singer Joan Baez used an expletive to describe how frustrating Dylan could often be for fellow musicians. My daughter didn’t comment.

The point was clear, however. Once you leave the realm of children’s television, nothing is ever completely safe.

Nothing is completely safe once you leave home, either. No one can be sealed off from the world, the world of television included. It takes vigilance, but parents can figure out how to enjoy TV, intead of fearing it.

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