A lot has been written about the dangers of overexposing children to media, specifically television. Once a mantra echoed predominantly among the upper middle class, these days it seems the majority of Americans know that too much screen time can have ill effects. Whether and how folks heed that warning in their daily lives is, of course, another thing altogether.
Living as I do in one of our country’s mega progressive geographic pockets, I am led to consider the consequences of militant under-exposure. It has long been in vogue among educated breeder elites to celebrate the absence of television in the home. Full disclosure: I am an educated breeder elite who previously banned television from my home and has engaged in many a debate about crumbling civic participation in this country and the simultaneous rise of the “plugged in” generation.
It is no accident that I live in northern California. My husband and I are hippie parents in many respects. We grow vegetables, steer clear of the mall, believe in Montessori education, devour books, and take family walks in the woods in lieu of attending church. I work hard to keep my children engaged and curious—both intellectually and spiritually.
As a thinking mother and a journalist, I have visited all corners of the TV debate spectrum. Pretty quickly, I landed in the middle. We own a TV. My kids watch it. And there are days when I, hippie mom, even encourage it.
As parents, I trust we all notice our childrens’ brains working hard to observe, understand, and digest the environments, behaviors, and experiences that surround them. They are evolving people; this is their full-time job. There are times when they—like us—work too hard and need a break. As it is my role to guide and stimulate my kids, it is also up to me to help them relax, calm down, or leave a worry behind.
Contrary to the notion that they, television-owning progeny, might be clamoring obnoxiously for this privilege at all hours of the day, it is most often Mom or Dad who turns on the TV in our house. We do it for many reasons—to encourage stillness, shift the energy in the room, unite the kids when they might otherwise tend toward conflict. I see this offering as equivalent to the one I might give myself under similar circumstances. I pick up the remote far less often than I serve snacks, open a storybook, lead us outside to play, ask for cooking helpers, or encourage an art project. But in my mom toolbox, there is a remote, and I use it.
As with bicycles, Halloween candy, skateboards, trampolines, and swimming pools, we have established clear parameters around use of the TV. It sits neglected for days at a time, and yet there are weeks when we happily turn on Olivia every afternoon.
I don’t abandon my principles when the TV is on, nor do I hold unrealistic expectations. I don’t assume television will teach my kids to read, be kind, or speak another language. In no universe do I think it can take the place of playtime, social interaction, or hands-on world learning. The TV is not a parent, babysitter, teacher, or tour guide.
If offered appropriately, watching TV can provide kids with a healthy break from the intensity of parental, sibling, and peer engagement. If a 30-minute television show can entertain my kids, let them relax, and make them curious about the story unfolding in colorful movement before their eyes, it works for me.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, I found myself seated beside an indoor pool with a fellow mother. We chatted above the splashing children and echoing voices of the swimming instructors. All the while, she was typing away on her iPhone, staring intently at the screen. Acknowledging her addiction to the handheld device, a conversation soon unfolded about television. She issued the self-praising bottom line I hear often in my community: “We don’t watch TV.”
As she continued to share, that hard line began to blur. It came out that actually she did watch TV, with quite vehement devotion to certain programs, but that she and her husband denied it to their 5-year-old, who had been duped into thinking his parents were just as media-starved as he. Amazingly, as this mother praised herself for keeping her son away from the evil screen, she (a career employee of the high tech sector) simultaneously worried whether he would know how to “consume media” when he grew up. She spoke as though her son’s possible failure in this arena might prompt revocation of his U.S. passport. And yet, she was hell-bent on keeping the TV off. What have we learned, I wanted to gently caution, about the message folks internalize after growing up starved of a particular pleasure? When the time comes, devour with reckless abandon.
A combination of experience and suspicion tells me that most parents who operate TV-less households believe (rightly so) that there are far more engaging, inspiring, and educational ways for kids to spend time. The reality is that there is an (unspoken) dividing line in our society between those who consider it normal and comforting to share their restaurants and elevators with the TV and those who consider it mind numbing and horrifying. In fairness to those who have chosen to “opt out” of TV America, there is a significant reclaiming of values inherent in that choice—akin, one might even say—to a tiny but important cultural revolution.
Were it not for the modern day luxuries of DVR and personally-selected programming, I too would likely opt out. No network executive is equipped to judge the suspense, conflict, and value-based messaging my children can tolerate and understand. As a parent raising children in this media-saturated age, the onus is on me to shield them where necessary and expose them where valuable. Perhaps the biggest reason to police the networks is to edit out the unhelpful gender role representations we have all worked so hard to shift. Like many mothers, I want to shield my young daughter from the onslaught of princess culture. Similarly, I—along with a legions of feminists raising young boys—am happy to let my kids play, act out, imagine, and create conflict, but I don’t see how it serves them to see violence manifest on the screen.
Still, I must confess a gut feeling that frankly prompted this article. The practice of completely denying kids exposure to (nonviolent, entertaining, creative) television is something I have never entirely understood about parents within my progressive cohort. It is like they abandon all faith in who their children are, or in the thoughtful, holistic work they have done to parent responsibly. By allowing a young child to watch an age- and message-appropriate TV show, logic does not dictate that television will lord all-powerful dominion over that kid or that family. It simply means that child will have the chance to see creativity expressed in a new form—a form highly celebrated by our culture. The show might bring him joy. It might encourage him. It might bond him to the sibling seated beside him. It might also underwhelm him and he will seek something else to do. In no instance will it ruin him.
The following may strike you as a bizarre digression, but bear with me.
The French make wine—some incredible, some dismal. Conventional wisdom in France dictates that children taste and experience wine from a young age so as to learn its place in cuisine, culture, and ritual. French youth may grow to appreciate and drink wine in their adult years or choose not to. And of course, some will overindulge.
Consider this country’s relationship to television and film. We produce the stuff. It is one of our most championed inventions and exports. As with French wine, some of it is remarkably creative and thought provoking and some of it is utter drek. Exposing our youngest citizens to this most American of products does not guarantee they will become mindless couch potatoes. Rather, it guarantees they are not raised in an unsustainable bubble, and from an early age they are gently and thoughtfully introduced to the presence of media in our culture.
My generation of parents is working so hard to “get it right.” I too am on that quest, and I applaud the mission. But the truth is that no matter our efforts at protecting or perfecting our children, we cannot stave off certain inevitable realities about coming of age in America. Television is one of those realities. For better or for worse, it is out there, and as technology works to speed up, personalize, and integrate our access to its offerings, an end to its reign is nowhere in sight.
The best we can do for our kids is to hold their hand as they walk through the door into life beyond us. We must encourage them to think critically about the messaging that runs constantly in our culture—be it valuable or inane—so that they might grow up knowing what to tune in and what to shut off.
Kate Green Tripp is a mother, journalist, and aspiring yoga teacher. In 2005, she opted out of the traditional work sphere to launch the epic journey of raising her three children. Kate lives, writes, and plays in Capitola, California. Read more of her work at spoonfulofkale.com.