By Darcy Lockman

It's no secret that most kids watch too much television.

For years, developmental psychologists and pediatricians have sounded the alarm that excessive tube time contributes to an array of modern childhood problems -- from obesity to a failure to develop new interests.

The good news is: If you start early, you can raise kids with a balanced and appropriate TV diet. Here’s how:

Set Limits on Watching TV

Sit down with your child to choose acceptable shows that he or she actually wants to watch. That way, TV is about watching particular programs rather than channel surfing. "When you do this with children from a very young age, they will have internalized this idea by the time they're teenagers," says Sylvia Rimm, Ph.D., director of the Family Achievement Clinic in Cleveland and author of Growing Up Too Fast (Rodale Press). "They'll usually turn on the television only for something specific, and they'll know that there are other activities that are at least equally rewarding." Each school year and summer vacation can begin with a family sit-down focused on picking shows your children are allowed to watch.

Choose the TV Wathcing Time

Once you've decided what programs to tune in to, it's time to decide when your kids can watch them. Dr. Rimm recommends allotting a set number of hours per day (or week) for TV watching. For Julie Brown, 34, of Los Angeles, the magic number is one. "I allow my 5-year-old and 2-year-old one hour of TV per day -- a half-hour in the morning and then a half-hour at night," she says. "I set an egg timer, and when the buzzer goes off, TV time is over."

Watch Family-style TV

Nothing wipes out family time faster than giving kids their own TV. "The minute I got my daughter a TV for her bedroom, it was over. We never saw her after dinner,” says Andrea Keen, 37, of Rye, N.Y. “After six months, my husband and I decided to give it to the Salvation Army but not without loud protesting from my daughter, which could have been avoided had we never bought the thing for her in the first place."

When you keep a family TV in a common area like the living room or den, you’re more likely to watch together. "Watching television as a family is much better for kids than individualized viewing," says Dr. Rimm. "If this can become routine in the family, kids will actually look forward to and initiate this kind of time together." Enforcing TV rules are also easier when the television is in plain view.           

Reward Them With TV

Jan Frazier, 32, of Oklahoma City, uses TV as a reward for good behavior and a job well done. "If my 4- and 5-year-olds make good choices during the day, they earn their TV time for the evening," she explains. "If bath time and bedtime go smoothly, they're allowed to watch TV the next morning. That way, TV becomes more of a treat -- and it's a bargaining chip I use to encourage my kids to behave." Another benefit: Making TV a reward for exercise increased kids' physical activity by 65 percent, according to a study by the University of Ottawa, in Canada. Some parents even park kid-sized exercise bikes in front of the TV to curb couch-potato tendencies.

Provide Alternatives to Watching TV

Believe it or not, kids will often choose fun and challenging activities over TV -- if they have the opportunity. That’s where parents come in.

"There are all sorts of things that even overworked parents can muster the energy to do with their kids, from model building to card games to gardening," says Dr. Rimm. "When there are other fun things happening in and out of the home, the TV rules become less necessary to enforce.”

So turn off the TV and read your kids a book. Play “Candy Land.” Put on a puppet show. Instead of watching the on-screen exploits of SpongeBob, Elmo or Dora, go out and create your own adventures!

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