I just read an article in Psychology Today, “Kids Under the Influence,” which reminds me why my decision to virtually eliminate TV watching by my kids almost from the start is my third all-time favorite parenting decision. Number one: waiting till we could afford for me to stay home, which made possible favorite decision number two: breastfeeding, which led to attachment parenting. None of these three choices mean I judge those who choose differently – I’m just so glad I did them.
I followed the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations to permit no TV until my son was age two. At that time, I started letting him watch a bit of Winnie the Pooh, but I didn’t like what happened. I thought we would watch together and talk about the show, but he would zone out completely, eyes glued to the screen, face blank, hearing nothing else. It was creepy how much it held him, and I stopped.
I didn’t mind at all not having television to give me a break. I wanted to treasure this time with him, and then my daughter. I kept remembering the hours and hours a day I would waste after school watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island, The Love Boat, even Love, American Style, whatever scheduled garbage paraded in front of my eyes. I groan now and wish my parents had blasted the TV with a shotgun rather than allow my precious youth to dribble away in the darkness of the family room. Instead, the kids, now middle-school age, had time with me, time to become best friends, time with other friends, and time to be creative alone. Time, we had so much beautiful time, because we didn’t watch TV.
Because we watched no TV at all, the kids didn’t even really think about it. It never occurred to them to ask for it. One time I even asked them if they wished we watched more and they said no. I mentioned to my son once that a friend had said, “No TV? What do you do all day?” He laughed and went back to building busily with his Lego. For the last several years, as a treat, we have watched 1/2 hour pre-recorded age-appropriate programming one night a week, and a movie a second night, and that’s been fun, and they don’t seem to want it any more often.
Lately, as my children are becoming independent enough to make their own purchasing decisions, I have become aware of another benefit. They have had limited exposure to junk values. The most obvious is junk food ads. They are aware of candy and pop, and they like it, but it doesn’t seem to have much hold on them. They’ve heard of McDonald’s, of course, but I don’t think they’ve ever been in one – they don’t see what the big deal is.
There’s a broader picture here, though, in junk values. I read a few years back that letting your kids watch TV was to invite strangers into your home to teach your kids values. Often the values are to encourage kids to watch a show more by pressing their buttons (such as violence), so there will be as many eyes as possible watching the commercial, so there will be as many kids as possible nagging their parents for unhealthy food. Even on non-commercial television, the values might not match up with my vegan non-violence: Sesame Street might visit a “farm,” by which I mean a pretend fantasy version of a farm, as opposed to where food really comes from. Of course I don’t want Sesame Street to visit a slaughterhouse, but why actively lie? Or the show might visit a zoo and show how much fun the animals are having. Circus, anyone? There are shows I don’t like because the characters manipulate or exclude others without consequence. There’s a critical few years where it’s easy for a parent to walk away from a program and not have any idea what’s going on, whereas if they’re reading to these pre-readers, they can have a teachable moment. Even today, I can pick up a book my son was reading, flip through it, and start a conversation about aspects that bother me. “Hmm. Why do you suppose this character killed that one?” Try doing that with a television program a child has watched in his bedroom.
Early on in this decision, someone mildly criticized it by pointing out that if my kids don’t watch TV, they’ll have nothing to talk about with their peers. I have found that to a very small degree this may be true, and it’s possible it has made my son’s shyness slightly more difficult, though my daughter isn’t shy. But I don’t think it’s worth opening my children to programming and values I think are harmful so they’ll have something to say to people who want to talk of nothing else.