Thursday, October 27, 2011

The TV Conflict*

(*TV literacy required for maximum appreciation
of this post.)

If you want to make a parent get opinionated and righteous, discuss food.  

Or TV.   

It's the diet, both physical and intellectual that drives parents mad. And turns neighbor against neighbor. 

I live in a village of extremely well educated, professionally accomplished and on-this-side of crunchy people.  Most of my neighbors see TV at best, as a form of benign neglect, the equivalent of feeding your child a twinkie and a coke, and at worst as the equivalent of driving your child to the most Wire-esque neighborhood you can find, and leaving him alone in his stroller with a ready-to-smoke crackpipe.

A few months ago the subject of children's TV watching came up on our parent listserv, and folks took to the internet with virtual pitchforks.  People were chastised for being so unimaginative as to park their kid in front of the TV for a moment's peace or to get chores done, when instead, they could have their child build forts out of, say, empty tissue boxes or playwash the walls with a cloth diaper and made-from-kitchen-ingredients cleanser.  Opinions, studies, strategies were offered with a subtle “you-should-know”style reprimand.  As a TV lover, I felt guilty and scolded.

Soon after, I managed to make my peace with the fact that I love TV, and have always loved it.  I watched it as a child, I watch it as an adult and I'll watch it when I'm old enough to make Betty White look like Marcia Brady.  I affirmed my belief in monitoring my children's consumption of TV and all screen time in general.  I decided that labeling the entire medium evil, with nothing to offer a child, was bullspit and went on with my judicious channel surfing.  

Until, like a commercial for Ginsu knives the TV task force proclaimed, "But wait!  There's more!"

Last Wednesday, The New York Times featured an article   stating there is no such animal as educational programming for children under two.  For very young children, each hour spent in front of a screen results in less interaction with a parent and less creative play.  And small children simply can't follow a video.  Even for school age children, learning from a TV is slower and at a lower level.

Initially I was in awe.  Are there really children who will sit for an hour or two in front of the TV without chains? Who are these children and why did they not emerge from my womb?!?!?!

Seriously.  First of all, for parents who spend over 90% of their children's waking hours steadfastly devoted to physical, nutritional, social, emotional, intellectual and creative development, less interaction with a parent is exactly the point! We are exhausted.  We need a break.  Sometimes we need to get things done without having to stay up all hours of the night.  Sometimes we need to clean, cook and organize so that all this nurturing doesn't occur in something resembling a chicken coop.  All we want is for a well-chosen video or TV program to be our substitute for a bit.  

If the child isn't engaged with a video, because s/he has no idea what is going on, s/he will not just sit there and veg out!  She will find something more creative to do, thereby leaving mom or dad with the unfortunate choice of stirring the risotto or discouraging Precious from coloring the walls.  

As for background TV, I'll venture to say that most of us know it is not the best idea.  I'm going to give us parent porn junkies the benefit of the doubt here. Yes, it steals focus from books and play and imagination, from the involuntary choreography of our thoughts.  But sometimes I WANT the traffic in my head to come to a standstill.  Desperate for an escape from the minutiae of running a household with small children, TV is medicinal.  If the kids are around so be it.  If anything untoward suddenly flashes on screen I dive for the remote, hoping that that nanosecond of Grand Theft Auto 13 registered naught on their little brains.  

It’s worth it to me. There are days that without some screen time mixed with kid time, I’d go fix myself a nice ammoniatini. 

But with an appropriate program, it is ludicrous to claim that screen time can't be a learning tool, especially if parent-led interaction is involved.

Aria, at age seventeen months, never sits still to watch a show, but she joyfully points to objects she recognizes if she happens to catch something.  Riley, age 3, can sit still to watch snippets of Caillou, Thomas the Tank Engine or Bob the Builder and a very odd kiddie-pop concert show called The Doodlebops.  We try not to watch passively. We discuss what's going on, we draw associations between what we see and things we know from real life; if there's movement we dance along.  We talk about emotions that a character might be experiencing.   And if Riley's vegging out for a while, for a toddler who’s on overdrive most of the time, that's not such a bad thing. 

Naturally, TV watching is balanced with other things --reading, writing, playing and conversation.  Somedays he watches an hour or so.  Some days nothing.  And hey, we live in Chicago.  Winter here is long, cold and dark.  We - no I - need some slack.

I have to look at myself, a child of the 70s, who grew up watching HOURS of the Brady Bunch, What's Happenin', Looney Tunes, Superfriends, Josie and the Pussycats, and the list goes on.  I will never be up for a Nobel, and if you catch me on the wrong day I'd curse out a kitten, but I think I turned out okay. As an only child, I had lots of friends. I went to a fancy university and made a career as an artist.  Growing up with me, a dancer/teacher and with my husband, a former physics and chemistry teacher, it is unlikely that my children will be undone by a few hours of TV.

But, then again, what if that's not true? What if somehow Mommy’s and Daddy’s agenda not only fails to produce a wunderkind, but fails to produce a child who loves learning? What if despite our efforts to raise a kind and empathetic child we wind up with a brat or bully?  What if despite ballet/soccer/tennis/violin/piano/gymnastics/Latin/chess, punctuated by deliberately unstructured play, Riley or Aria develops a marked and unshakable screen attachment that continues into his/her teenage years?  What if this addiction produces a materialistic, self-involved, intellectual dullard who has little chance of happiness or success in a hyper-competitive, yet sagging economy? 

All the anti-TV studies keep whispering in my ear,  making it impossible for me to write them off completely. 

It’s that whisper that makes me reach for the remote. It’s that whisper that gives me a fleeting desire to cancel the cable and sell the damned TV altogether. 

While those children whom the TV studies most aim to save, watch on.  


  1. You know what? I agree with you. I love TV too. My kids watch it. Infact my son loves it. But my daughter hates it. But I monitor what they watch. I dont over do it but sometimes for them to calm down and relax a little it is ok I think.

  2. Great post, I love your writing style. The concern is what keeps the balance, then it all works out in the end.
    Hey I didn't let my first 2 kids watch TV until they were 4 & 6, but then I had another baby and I needed them to watch TV! Ha Ha. When the 3rd was 4 months he wheeled over to the TV in his walker and became engrossed in VR Troopers! Will he be scarred for life? He's 16 now, isn't interested in TV, does well in school, does his chores, reads a lot, and takes Culinary & Video classes outside of school.
    Thanks for commenting on my blog!

  3. I, too, was plunked in front of the TV for hours on end as a little one, yet I grew up to be a creative artist, now teaching in academia. It's all about WHAT they watch and what ELSE they do. I agree with Cheryl: BALANCE. I also ran around outside sans shoes, picked strawberries, tomatoes, and corn from the garden, rode my bike everywhere, helped my Mom cook, roller skated in the basement, swam in the pool, played soccer and softball, and of course, tumbled and danced. I agree that an hour or so of the tube every so often will not sentence our kids to a lifetime of catatonia. I would not have learned to count in Spanish if it weren't for Sesame Street! PBS is the bomb!


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