We don’t have TV at our house. We do have a physical TV, but we do not get any reception on it, and it’s in the basement, so it serves only as a place for our family to watch the occasional Netflix or library DVD. We have lived this way for about fifteen years, and have not missed broadcast TV at all. This makes us a curiosity to some folks. I know parents and teachers are inundated with articles about children and media, so I thought it would be useful to hear about why we do this and the benefits for all of us from this choice.
Here are some reasons people might not have a TV that are not our reasons for doing so: believing technology to be inherently dangerous or just shunning modernity. Though I am a techno-ignoramus, I am no technophobe. I am irritated by nostalgia for the old timey Little House on the Prairie glory days of purity. No such time even was. (In season nine, Albert, Laura’s adopted brother, goes to the big city and becomes a drug addict. So there.) I love new inventions. I love that humans come up with new ways to share ideas and entertainment. I don’t want them all in my home, though.
We also are not TV-less because we insist that our kids spend every minute doing educational things and shun mindless entertainment. We don’t do flash cards, and I have nothing against some mindless entertainment for kids and adults. I find it odd when parents insist that their children’s only screen experiences ( games and shows) must be educational and not just entertainment. This is misguided for two reasons. 1) Many supposedly educational products are in fact no more educational than those designed for entertainment and, 2) Are adults allowed to watch shows or play games or read junky books just for fun? If so, why not kids? It seems odd to deny children this pleasure.
You might say that we essentially do have TV at this point because of our Wi-Fi and the availability of Hulu and other TV streaming sites. It’s true that my daughter does watch TV shows sometimes, but I think it is importantly different. TV can just be on. It is like a river that is always flowing that you can sit and watch go past. There’s always another show starting right after one ends, and a gazillion more things to check out on other stations. Some kids’ shows are really great and some are really horrible (in quality and in values). It is a lot easier to never rent the horrible ones that it is to never let them be broadcast into your home, in the background during breakfast or starting without a pause after a good show ends. Watching a downloaded show or one on DVD is a deliberate act, and when it is over, the screen is static. Another key difference is the lack of commercials. Commercials, particularly during kids programming, are nasty things. They are often prey on kids’ immature understanding of the world, promoting the view that happiness is having more plastic crap, being more like sexy grown-ups , and eating more junk food. Also, even programs appropriate for kids, such as sports events, contain ads for movies and TV shows with frightening and violent content.
I don’t mean to overreact about exposure to media. I am not convinced that it is scarring to kids to see this junk. But is that really the standard we want to operate on? “There’s not enough evidence that exposure to this will harm him for life, so let’s go for it!”? A better question is, given the negatives of TV viewing, is it worth it? I say no for two main reasons. The first is a corner-stone of my beliefs about how to be with kids: who they are now matters and what they feel and experience and behave like now matters as much those things will matter to the ‘adult them’. Stories are deeply powerful. The stories children take in guide their imagination and their play and their interaction with others. TV shows (and commercials) are they stories. Whether or not it affects their adult-hood, shouldn’t we care if it affects their childhood? I don’t really want my kid being scared by a commercial where someone gets shot or being intrigued by it, nor do I want her being numb to it. I know I can’t control everything about her environment, but that is hardly an argument for not controlling what I can. The second reason is this: There is just so much better stuff to do almost all the time. This is where the picture of the cat comes in. During the time we might have been watching TV, We had an embarrassingly good time playing on on-line makeover sites. This is what our cat would look like glammed up for a night on the town. We are looking at screens, but we are laughing hard and engaging with each other and even the poor cat. We also play board games and card games a lot, and we have always been big readers (or book lookers, for the pre-literate). There are Legos out and art projects in the works. We don’t hush each other or send the kids away because a certain show is on. No one has ever stopped an activity so that they could see a screen in our house.
This doesn’t make our lives perfect or our kids geniuses. But it certainly hasn’t been a hardship. It saves us money and it saves us time for things we would rather spend it on. The important things, like putting virtual lipstick on the cat.