"Mama," he asked, "what is it you don't like about TV? What do you have against it?"
"Goodness," said Mama. "I don't have anything against TV. I like it. What I'm against is the TV habit - sitting in front of it day after day like old stumps waiting for dry rot to set in."
~ Mama Bear, The Berenstain Bears and Too Much TV by Stan and Jan Berenstain
Luckily I soon discovered that the biggest treat you could give these middle-class Finsbury Park children was to plonk them in front of the telly, because they weren't allowed to watch telly at home. There was as much puritanism around television in those days (early Eighties) as there is around, say, recycling or food additives now. But David could say, and often did say, with the authority born of his media-studies research, that it was positively good for children to watch television. The consequence was that our daughters, who were allowed to watch as much television as they liked, rarely bothered to, while their friends sat glued to our box.
~ Page 105 of An Education by Lynn Barber
"That which you resist persists."
~ A wise neighbor
I despise the phrase "screen time" about as much as I despise the phrase "play date", but they are part of a parent's vocabulary and easily identify various components of our children's lives. I've been brewing a post on screen time for some time now, and seeing as how this is National TV Turn Off Week, it seems the appropriate time to share my ideas on TV/screen time. Not that you necessarily care about my position on this topic, but mostly because writing about this topic will help me better sort out my position. And maybe my kids will read this post one day and understand me a little better.
We don't have a TV. We got rid of our TV a few years ago, but gave up cable and all TV reception about six years ago when I realized the wrong impression TV was making on my young impressionable family. We were grocery shopping one day when Avery, age 3 at the time, asked me to buy her some Yoplait yogurt - because it would make her "skinny" she said as she ran her hands down her waist and over her hips. I can only guess she got this idea from watching commercials. We pulled the plug then and there.
Yet saying that we don't have TV, and therefore implying that we don't watch TV, feels dishonest. We have three computers, and we can and do watch TV shows online. Fortunately, we are exposed to far fewer commercials this way, but when we sit down in front of the laptop to watch 30 Rock on Hulu, we are, in effect, watching TV.
Like Mama Bear, I am not opposed to watching TV, but I am opposed to watching too much TV. Personally, I'd rather do something else with my down time, and more to the point, I'd rather my children do something more productive with their time than stare at a screen. I recently read Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese (the book has absolutely nothing to do with TV except that reading it was an excellent alternative to watching TV), and this excerpt really hit home:
"I marveled at his gift for distancing himself from what was going on by dancing, or by drawing the motorcycle, or playing with prime numbers. He had so many ways of climbing into the tree house in his head, escaping the madness below, and pulling the ladder up behind him; I was envious." page 245
A "tree house" in one's head, a place to escape and entertain oneself. No batteries, no cables, no limits - the mind as the ultimate portable device. This is exactly what I want for my children - that they cultivate a tree house of their own. Some time in front of the screen can surely inspire the building of one's tree house, but too much time, I fear, will make the tree house a less desirable destination.
I've long admired the Waldorf families I know who completely abstain from the screen (well, at least their children abstain), and I admit I've judged the families I know who put TVs in their children's rooms, complete with cable and DVD players (sorry! it's just one of my pet peeves). As for my own family, I've come to realize we are most comfortable somewhere in the middle. Our children don't have constant access to our computers, but they also don't have absolute time constraints either. Some days they want to watch episode after episode of shows they've discovered online, and sometimes I let them (I do it too, as evidenced by my recent three day marathon viewing of the first season of Nurse Jackie). Other days the computers go into hiding and I simply redirect them when they ask for some screen time. Last night, we all piled into bed and watched several music videos, but a few nights before, when George asked if Aidan wanted to watch an episode on Hulu, and I countered that we could instead read a few chapters of a book, Aidan chose the book.
I've tried completely removing screen time from our lives, only to find that doing so made screen time even more enticing to my children. I've also experimented with the radical unschooling approach of unlimited screen time, only to find that I wanted to pull my hair out shortly after the experiment began. The theory that children will eventually tire of the screen and voluntarily walk away from it is a theory that holds no water in my experience. Finding a balanced view of screen time for our family has involved a lot of give and take, vacillating between two extremes, and constant readjustment.
Our family is not participating in this week's National TV Turn Off week. Instead we'll keep doing what we've been doing the last few years. We'll watch a few episodes of our favorite shows on Hulu, we'll play a few games (online and board), we'll exchange emails, we'll go for walks, we'll read, we'll draw, we'll dance, we'll play with friends, we'll watch our chickens, we'll garden, we'll watch a movie from Netflix, we'll make messes in the kitchen, we'll do a few science experiments, we'll go to the park. We'll continue building our tree houses and watch out for dry rot on our old stumps. Most importantly, we'll maintain the balanced view of screen time we've created for our own family. After all, if it's not broke, don't fix it.
(I feel compelled to add that the only way I was able to sit and write this post today was by allowing my children screen time. Some days it's the only way I get any time to myself. Just sayin'.)
Posted by Molly at 1:49 PM