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.
Ooops. Suddenly it came to me that my childhood came with built-in television controls. My kids, with five tv sets and over 700 channels, had zero.
So on the morning of April Fool’s Day this year, I instituted the STEINER NO TV rule. Admittedly just during weekdays. Regardless, the kids cried and howled and honed their most fierce negotiation skills. My husband gave me the hairy eyeball and grabbed his briefcase to make a hasty exit, whispering “I hope you know what you’ve gotten yourself into.” But I held firm in all my mother-sorceress wisdom and power.
To my amazement, almost immediately the kids became more polite. My 13 and 11 year old started hanging out in each other’s rooms at night, TALKING. We started doing 1,000 piece puzzles together as obsessively as we had watched tv separately. Homework gradually became a source of entertainment rather than a chore. My 13-year-old taught the 8-year-old how to play baseball in the backyard. The kids put themselves to bed since there was little else to do once darkness fell.
My husband recently went on a five day business trip – usually a nightmare for me, spent nagging about homework and bedtime and settling nonstop disputes. During the week he was gone, the kids and I had zero fights. This has never happened before in the history of the Steiner family.
We are fewer than four weeks into the NO TV world. The kids would vehemently disagree that this is a new-and-improved household. But I’m liking the results. Especially since all this peace and quiet means I get to watch Law and Order reruns without being interrupted.