Originally published in PARENTGUIDE News December 2007
When I was pregnant, my husband and I argued about what to name our child, because the name I liked had also been the name of my husband’s first dog. We went back and forth about it and myriad other issues, as well, except for one. I knew with certainty that I didn’t want our child to watch any television, even videos, until he was 6 years old. After that, I planned to limit my child’s TV watching to two hours a week. I suppose it was extreme, but I wanted our family to be close and connected, and for our child to know those around him better than he knew the Teletubbies. In the process, I hoped to give up my lifelong addiction to television.
To show my husband I meant business, I gave away our portable set before the baby was born and moved our remaining television into our spare room, which we had used mostly for storage.
“Why don’t we get rid of that set, too,” my husband said, “if you feel this strongly?“
I explained to him that I wanted us to be able to exist with a television in our house, even if we weren’t watching it. In reality this was easier said than done. My baby came into the world fussy and feisty, nothing like the peaceful, easy babies I had seen on commercials for Pampers, and I was deeply distraught about it. Although I resisted putting him in front of the television to subdue him, I quickly abandoned any thought of keeping myself away from TV and grabbed the remote control whenever my son napped. “Aren’t you losing sight of our TV-free goal?” my husband would ask when I had finished watching Seinfeld for the night.
“The important thing is that the baby still hasn’t watched anything,” I said.
I decided to embrace the It Takes a Village philosophy of parenting in an attempt to cope without television. I convinced my mother to move in with us, started a playgroup with other new moms in the area and found a fabulous babysitter who didn’t rely on television.
My little one soon had playmates, though I was uneasy about revealing my feelings about television to his playmates’ mothers. I wanted to seem relaxed and easygoing, but the mothers soon knew me to be otherwise.
“You’d rather I not have the television on, right?” one of my friends asked after she had seen me distracting my son from her big-screen set. I nodded without explaining the subtleties of my method. Rather than openly condemn television, I had simply been telling my child that we had better things to do than watch TV, even if I didn’t always believe the mantra myself.
I assumed that after we left my friend’s house, she would put in a Cinderella video so she could enjoy a leisurely hour or two of peace and quiet. Whereas, I would probably let my son dismantle the contents of our pantry for me to get a much-needed break when we got home.
Fortunately though, I began to reap the rewards of our TV-free lifestyle. As I weaned myself off sitcoms, I made better use of my time, and my son, who learned to talk early, grew into a cheerful toddler who became adept at entertaining himself much faster than his peers who were now dependent on cartoons. He brought an incredible amount of focus to whatever he did. By age 4, he mastered the math required to play Monopoly and Yahtzee, he read books intended for grade school kids and he transposed the songs he had taught himself on the piano into six different keys.
Yet, even as my son thrived and excelled, I wavered between joy and concern, particularly when he started kindergarten and was the only kid in his class who hadn’t seen a Disney movie. I feared he would become a complete misfit.
“I know I told you we were going to wait until you turned 6 to see a movie,” I said in an encouraging tone, “but you can watch A Bug’s Life, because all your classmates have seen it.“
“That’s OK,” he said nonchalantly. “I’m fine.”
I had hoped my jump-on-the-bandwagon pitch would counteract my subtle brainwashing of the past. However, my son wasn’t concerned with being like everyone else. He had his own admittedly unusual interests, like studying maps. I couldn’t complain— I had a terrible sense of direction and often needed his help.
When my son turned 6, I finally insisted he watch a movie because he had been invited to sleep overs, where movies were a given. I didn’t want him to make a fuss for others by refusing to watch. I put in a Tigger video, which probably wasn’t a great choice, as it didn’t exactly convince him that movies were all that exciting.
“It was a simplistic piece of drivel meant for a preschooler,” my husband said when the video ended.
Yet Finding Nemo certainly did the trick. Our son loved it so much, I assumed he would want to watch it every day and beg to see all the cartoons he had been missing. But that didn’t happen. In fact, with the exception of a few lengthy televised events and movies, we’ve still, to this day, rarely watched more than a couple hours of TV a week, and our son is now 11. More surprisingly, we’ve managed to get by without buying a video game system.
“You can play video games at other kids’ houses,” I remind my son, “as long as they’re rated E for everyone.“
“I know, Mom,” he says, “but I have better things to do when I’m with my friends.“
I can’t argue with that. I watch my son hike and play soccer, compete in chess and robotics tournaments, and play violin with his band. And when he wants down time, I see him happily sprawled on the couch with a book. Often my husband and I join him there, and I marvel that we are as close and connected as I always hoped we would be. And better still, none of us can name the Teletubbies.
Ellen Currey-Wilson is the author of The Big Turnoff: Confessions of a TV-Addicted Mom Trying to Raise a TV-Free Kid (Algonquin). In her revealing and entertaining take on parenting, Currey-Wilson recounts her increasingly outlandish behavior and intermittent fits of insecurity that find her worrying about whether her son will fit in without watching Pokémon. But something remarkable happens as television assumes a backseat to real life: Currey-Wilson’s relationships with her laid-back husband, new-age sister, eccentric mother and remarkably self-possessed son begin to deepen and grow. In an age when it’s easier to flip on the TV than to interact with the people around us, The Big Turnoff shows what can happen when one mother decides to buck the trend.