Under a crushing book deadline, I’ve noticed I’ve gotten a wee bit lax about a few things. Along with the multiplying dust bunnies in every corner, too many take-out dinners, and the piling up of unpaid bills and unread magazines, there’s been a slight relaxation of our family “screen time” rules. I can’t entirely blame this on my book deadline. My eleven-year-old son is a master twister and bender of rules; in fact rules for regular people don’t really apply to him. The “You get one hour a day of Runescape” is usually met with a “uh-huh.” As in, “Right, Mom. Just as soon as I’m finished with this game.” Lately, I’ve been finding him lying on the sofa, watching “The Simpsons.”
Me: “Since when are you allowed to watch TV on school days? We don’t watch TV on school days!”
He is shocked, shocked to find out that television is not allowed on school days. And he’ll be doing something about it, immediately. Just as soon as he finishes this show.
When my 17 year-old son was younger, he was shockingly compliant. If I said no he couldn’t do something, he would good-naturedly stop doing it. If I saw him heading towards an electrical outlet with an outstretched fork and I yelled “NO!” he would stop and put down the fork. Completely understood the deal. “Sure, Mom! Whatever you say!” I guess we got kind of spoiled. If my youngest son were heading towards an outlet with a fork and I yelled “NO!” he’d look at me with a kind of an amused, quizzical look on his face, and keep going. He’d poke at the electrical outlet a little, maybe look at me and say, “You don’t want me to do this?” Poke, poke. “How about this?” Then he’d grin at me and jam the fork into the outlet. Thankfully he was smart enough to not do that, but still.
Of course, six years ago when my oldest son was eleven – computers were not given out like candy at Christmas. Children didn’t come home from school and start I – Chatting with their friends. Most kids didn’t have their own cell phones, and in our house, we just didn’t watch a lot of TV. When our oldest son was little, because we hardly ever watched TV, he just never figured out that it was an entertainment option. And it wasn’t an entertainment option. The television was occasionally used on the weekends, to watch movies, and for his dad to watch his sports. Oh, and if there was a hurricane, or a bombing, or a flood, then we’d watch occasional news updates. That was pretty much it.
I grew up in a house with little to no TV. There was an unspoken “Surely you’ve got something better to do?” if the television was turned on for anything other than PBS news, Masterpiece Theatre and other educational fare. We were also allowed to watch TV when we were sick, and one year, I was sick a lot, oddly enough. Mononucleosis followed by Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, or something, which was heaven, because I parked myself in the only upstairs room with a TV (our ex-black & white, relegated to the guest room when my parents finally got a color TV, after everyone in the WORLD already had one) and bathed in a steady stream of my favorite reruns, like I Love Lucy and McHale’s Navy (I loved McHale’s Navy. LOVED IT.), and of course a daily dose of “Dialing for Dollars,” where I began my lifelong passion for “I Saw What You Did and I Know Who You Are” (A must-see for Joan Crawford fans), “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” and “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte.” By that time I’d been clued in to the TV pop culture in other ways. By osmosis, and also by going over to Mary Peirce’s house, where the television always seemed tuned in to Lost In Space or Speed Racer, because Mary had brothers. It was a heady feeling, going to Mary’s house and just… watching TV. Watching a bunch of crappy shows, as many as we wanted, and no grown ups came in and gave you a look that said “Surely you’ve got something better to do?” Something better to do? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? What in the world could possibly be better than The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family? No, I had nothing better to do.
Our TV rules started relaxing a little around here when my husband and I started watching just a little more television. For two or three years leading up to the Presidential election we became avid fans of Keith Olbermann and now Rachel Maddow, whom we previously could only hear on the radio. And we hated our cable company, so we got a dish. Which comes with DDR, which is like Tivo. And I finally figured out how to operate it. So now, as all those people who had Tivo used to constantly tell me, our lives have changed. With the help of a friend (who also happens to be a TV writer), I’ve learned that television isn’t necessarily the vast wasteland that I was indoctrinated to believe when I was younger. I had to actually start watching some, when I was writing the HBO pilot last year. And now I must watch Mad Men and Damages, or I will simply die. So I guess the world won’t end if my son watches the occasional “Simpsons” episode after school. At least he can fast-forward through the commercials, which are still as annoying as ever. And The Simpsons is certainly a smarter show than “The Jetsons.”
Two Christmases ago I bought a set of “Addam’s Family” shows, the original pilot and the first couple of seasons. My youngest son loved it, and watched the entire set a few times over that Christmas vacation. And I curled up with him and watched a few, and I was brought back to Mary Peirce’s house, and I was seven years old, and life was so sweet.
Read the current Funny Papers  for Betsy Streeter's thoughts on the television question; and Is TV REALLY Bad for Kids?  by Leslie Morgan Steiner.