Why did you decide to bring your son up TV-free?
My history with television reads a little like a drug addict’s intake form into a rehab center. As a child, I watched all the usual shows and still managed to be a good student until I was around ten and the homework load began to interfere with my line up of after school reruns and nightly sitcoms. Then in junior high, I started skipping school, not to get into trouble with other truants, but to stay home to watch game shows and other daytime fare.
I didn’t want that to happen to my own child. I wanted him to thrive in school, not just get by. I wanted him to be like the handful of kids I had met when I was teaching — kids who watched little to no television. They were the most interesting, focused, intelligent and thoughtful kids I had ever taught. They had hobbies and musical performances and soccer games, and they knew their family and friends better than they knew the cast of Seinfeld. I said to myself, “That’s what I want for my child.” Then I would go home to watch four hours of television.
What were some of the surprises and changes that you discovered in yourself in the TV-free zone you created?
I learned to face my problems more quickly, skipping over the hours of television I usually needed to watch before attempting to deal with anything challenging or unpleasant. I turned to others more instead of turning to the Wheel of Fortune. I became closer to my husband, and was more likely to tell him I was upset about something rather than zoning out. We fought more, too, much to his dismay. It was a big adjustment for him to learn to deal with a wife who wasn’t zoned out.
Without television, I was more productive. I started listening to NPR and that made housecleaning easier. When I did procrastinate, I did it in a less mindless way. I could read all the comics, and complete the crossword puzzle and word jumble in one sitting. I reawakened the parts of my brain that had been underused. I started writing more, playing the piano again, and making up stories with my son.
How about for others — your husband, son, family and friends?
Parents and kids loved coming over to our house and we entertained a lot more. Art supplies, toys, musical instruments, sandboxes, climbing structures, board games and stacks of books took up television’s place. I think I was always conscious that someone would notice the absence of the television, so I overcompensated a bit, but I discovered that the kids didn’t need television or my constant attention as much as I had thought they would. They could entertain themselves without Dora the Explorer.
When we didn’t have company, we read together as a family and played Yahtzee, Monopoly and a zillion other board games. We got outside even if it WAS raining, and it rains a lot here.
I can honestly say that after a while I forgot about the television. Because the only set we owned was in a spare room no one frequented, our son didn’t ask to watch it. When we finally did introduce television to him, starting with a movie, I felt sure he would beg to see it all the time. But it wasn’t like that. By that time he already had a life, and so did I. He could take it or leave it, and to this day, we still rarely watch more than a couple of hours a week.
So many parents use TV as a playmate or babysitter for their child, especially when they need to get other things done. Any advice?
It really is easier to raise kids without television, at least that’s what I found. Of course, it was hard at first. I had to find my own nutty Sesame Street substitutes, which often meant letting my child empty out the contents of my purse or the kitchen cabinets, whatever kept him occupied and relatively safe while I collected my sanity. But he learned how to entertain himself, at a much younger age than his peers, and developed an ability to focus far beyond his years.
I know how hard it can be to get things done. When my son was one, I pushed up a chair to the kitchen sink and gave him some cups to rinse beside me. I allowed him to stir the pancake batter in his clumsy, toddler fashion. He helped with the laundry, sorting the light colors from the dark ones. When I needed to read or write, I gave him reading and writing materials. Naturally, working with him was more time consuming and messier than working without him, but by expecting him to work along with me, he became an active part of the household.
Even so, I would never HAVE been able to have kept my child TV-free in the early years had I not enlisted the help of friends and family members. My mother moved in with us, I started a playgroup with moms and kids in the area, and I found an amazing babysitter. It does take a village to raise a child, particularly if you don’t want to rely on an electronic babysitter. We’re not meant to raise our kids alone.
I think it also made it easier having an only child, although it made it harder in some ways, too. He didn’t have anyone around who was constantly pulling his hair. But on the other hand, learning to negotiate and problem-solve, in other words, keep others from pulling your hair, is important work for a child that doesn’t happen in front of a screen. And the advantage of siblings is that a built in playmate is always around. In the end, I think limiting or eliminating television is possible no matter what size of family one has.
Why did you decide to write this book as a memoir?
There are many nonfiction books on the market filled with all the studies linking television viewing in children to attention disorders, aggressive behavior, childhood obesity, poor academic performance, sleep disorders, delayed speech acquisition, among other things. Many of these books also cite the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that no child under two watch any television. But there wasn’t a book written by a parent actually trying to follow that recommendation, particularly a mother who was addicted to television herself with a baby who fussed or a toddler who liked to climb all over the furniture. I decided I needed to tell our story, and that doing it with humor and honesty, would be inspirational to others, or at the very least, entertaining.
What do you say to parents who feel guilty about not being able to go fully TV-free?
I don’t want to make parents feel guilty for plugging their kids in. I know what it’s like to need a break as much as the next stressed-out mom. Unfortunately, if the latest studies are at all predictive, a child hooked on television is more likely to have a life filled with tutors, medications, diets and counseling, and that hardly gives parents the guilt-free break they need and deserve.
I’m not saying that everyone has to take the drastic measures I took with my family. Lots of parents have naturally limited television right from the beginning, and their kids tend to be good students who are less inclined to beg for McDonald’s Happy Meals and Game Boys. Other parents have strong rules about no television on school nights or during dinnertime, and that’s been proven to improve academic performance.
A little goes a long way. The average family now has more television sets than people. That’s scary, but not everyone has to jump on the bandwagon. When parents simply remove the television sets from kids’ bedrooms, positive changes occur. And rather than have a television in the car, books on tape can make a long car ride more tolerable. We listened to the fourth Harry Potter book on our last vacation.
I like to remind myself and other parents that we’re all doing the best we can and that we all need to support each other in limiting television and video games. Then it’s not nearly so hard, and the payoff is more than worth the effort. Just ask a former TV addict.