Can My Family Live Without TV?
by Leslie Morgan Steiner
My most treasured childhood memories revolve around a room with a tiny, wobbly laminated table on which my three siblings and I used to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner in front of our old black and white television set. The room had a purple and red shag rug. Our favorite shows were the Flintstones, I Love Lucy, The Electric Company, The New Zoo Review, and Road Runner. Our Siamese cat slept on top of the warm, humming tv set. We called the place – of course -- The TV Room.
My childhood was also filled with books, pets, outdoor adventures, lots of bike riding, and Kick the Can escapades with the neighborhood gang of kids. Despite watching so much television, my brain did not turn to mush and my psyche stayed nonviolent. I got good grades, went to challenging schools, and never spent time in a juvenile detention facility.
So as a mom I reverted to my childhood and let my three kids watch unlimited television. I said often “A little tv never hurt anyone,” thinking of my siblings and our Ivy League degrees and absence of felony convictions on our resumes. In the early years of parenthood, tv was a godsend, more important to daily peace than a babysitter or a good night’s sleep. Thirty minutes of Sesame Street allowed me to make dinner, take a shower, or talk to my best friends for more than three minutes. From watching tv, my kids learned essentially skills like reciting the alphabet, the “everybody clean up” song, Spanish and sign language. When judgmental child-rearing experts accused parents of using tv as a babysitter, I bowed my head and made a little prayer sign with my hands. My only rule was no violent shows -- cartoon, fantasy or reality. My husband agreed and indulged his male-techno-mania until we had a television in nearly every room of our house.
But like a mist rolling in from the ocean I started to have a creeping sensation that we’d lost balance in our home. The kids’ taste in television changed as they grew up. Their techno skills increased. Many nights, our 13-year-old son hunkered down in the basement watching sports, while a level above our 11-year-old daughter perched on a kitchen stool devouring Project Runway on Tivo, and upstairs our 8-year-old daughter jumped on our bed in front of The Suite Life. The kids turned surly if I interrupted a show. Then they turned surly all the time. They started doing homework in front of the tv. Watching televison became the main activity when friends came over. Zach, Cody, Heidi Klum and the hosts of Sports Nation became more familiar than the faces of my relatives. It became rare for all five of us to be in one room at one time for any period of time – unless it was in the car, which began to feel like a moving jail cell rather than a family experience. My husband suggested we get a tv in the car to stop the bickering.
Then I remembered that in my tv-idyllic childhood memories, the country had only three television stations. My family had one television, black and white, fuzzy reception. We had no Internet. No VCR or DVD player. No Tivo. We spent every summer at our rural New Hampshire farmhouse without indoor plumbing much less a functioning television set.