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.

5 thoughts on “Why We Don’t Have TV: An Essay That Exists as an Excuse to Share This Picture of Our Cat

  1. We are there with you both! Maybe there are more TV-less households than you thought? We have the same set up – a physical TV set, but not connected to cable or broadcast TV. We have been this way for about 9 years and never miss it. TV is a time suck and most of what is on it is crap (excuse my language). However, we do get Netflix streaming for movies (which we or the kids rarely watch) and do have lots of DVDs. However, my kids watch zero TV most weeks and when we do watch movies or shows they pick on Netflix, it is very purposeful (as you discuss). We are also a bilingual household and a lot of what they watch is in our second language, so we consider that “educational” in that they get to hear/be exposed to their second language. Glad to know there are others of “us” out there and that as an educator, you approve! 😉

    1. Eve- I think there are plenty of folks around here without a TV, but we are still the vast minority- consider this info. from the website of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry ,”Television viewing is a major activity and influence on children and adolescents. Children in the United States watch an average of three to four hours of television a day. By the time of high school graduation, they will have spent more time watching television than they have in the classroom.”
      So, in a way I hope there are not more TV-less kids than I think, because that would mean that the one’s with TV are really watching even more than the statistics suggest!

  2. First of all, I think that the cat looks fabulous; let’s just get that out of the way. Second of all, what a brilliant post! We are also broadcast TV-less, although we do have a DVD player and of course Internet, but I agree with you on all of these counts. Even if my daughter is watching a purely entertaining video on YouTube (Ratatouille the snowboarding opossum springs to mind…), she is *making a conscious choice to do that,* not just flipping on the tube and vegging out in front of whatever is being beamed at her. Also, at some point Ratatouille is over; you could put him on repeat, but it gets kind of old. Whereas I find that even as a 41 year old, I get sucked in by the “coming up next!” promos on broadcast TV (in hotels!), and then three hours go by before I know it.

    At our house (not that we’ve got it all figured out, but just an idea), we’ve adopted the term “mindless entertainment time,” in order to just call it what it is. For example my daughter loves watching episodes of the old PBS show “Mathnet” (a math-themed detective series) on YouTube. And honestly, she’s learned a lot from it; it’s certainly more educational than some of the websites she’s allowed to play on at school. But we do put a 30 minute per day limit on total veg-out stuff. Just as I like to go numb in front of a good celebrity gossip website now and again, I’m not opposed to her playing Garfield’s Snack Attack on the iPod for a limited amount of time. But I think that just lumping everything into the “screen time” category isn’t helpful either. Thanks for this very thought-provoking post!!

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