Tuesday, October 14, 2014

I'm Glad We Killed Our TV

We don't have a TV. My oldest actually wears it like a badge of honor. During get-to-know-you games where you have to give 3 interesting facts about yourself, this child will usually throw out the no-TV tidbit just to hear others' reactions.

Oh, we watch movies and YouTube videos sometimes, and the kids play games on the iPad, but for the most part we don't spend a lot of time converging with pop culture. Can I explain why I love being unplugged?

Well, first I should back up a little and explain how we came to be a TV-less family.

If you think it was a deliberate decision that I made because I'm just so principled, I'm flattered but you'd be wrong. Some of you may remember the analog-to-digital change over that happened in 2009. Well, suddenly all the people who'd been getting free network TV (i.e: us) wouldn't get it anymore.

We're too cheap to pay for cable so we grabbed a converter box courtesy of one of those free vouchers handed out by the government.

Unsurprisingly, the converter boxes didn't work very well (at least ours didn't) which really turned watching TV from a mindless relaxation into a frustrating pain in the butt.

And then my mom offered to give us this piano.

Because of the living space in our home, we didn't have room for both. We had to choose between the beautiful antique piano, or the seldom-used TV that sends my kid into epileptic fits an average of 3 times per Sesame Street episode when the signal disappears.

So my kids are learning to play the piano, and it turns out that ditching our TV is one of the best things we ever randomly did.

It means that for the formative years of their lives, the main influences on my kids are me, Phillip, and their leaders at church. And we're all teaching them the same thing, which isn't always what they'd be learning from the Disney Channel.

As a culture we have no idea how deeply pop culture can influence our kids. Through advertising, Saturday morning cartoons, and even educational programming, they're being exposed to a ton of subtle messages, such as:
  • Brothers and sisters don't get along.
  • Parents are clueless.
  • It's funny to be sassy and sarcastic. Name-calling can also be funny.
  • Friends are everything.
  • Girls should spend a lot of time thinking and talking about boys. 
  • Don't even get me started on what they'll learn about what beauty is and how girls should dress.

Recently in the pediatrician's waiting room, a tween sitcom on ABC Family was playing on the big screen. The family in the show had secret superpowers, and the brother had just used his powers to pour chocolate and cheese in his sister's hair.

My daughter, not having been taught that siblings are natural enemies, turned to me genuinely confused and asked, "Why would he pour chocolate and cheese in her hair??" The writers of the show didn't address the boy's motives, taking it for granted that pranking sisters is just what brothers do.

Since then, I've noticed that most kids' TV shows I see have a main character with an annoying younger sibling or a mean older sibling.

The media expects siblings to fight. The tricky thing about expectations is that children usually meet whatever expectation you have of them. Is it too far-fetched an idea that media consumption might fan the flames of sibling rivalry?

Another thing I've noticed is how TV portrays parents as more peripheral than they are  or should be, anyway  to a kid's life. Kids' shows usually revolve around a child character who interacts a lot with her friends and only a little with her parents.

When they're little, kids naturally see their parents as sources of authority and help. They look to their parents for a sense of stability, and I'm convinced they need that for most of the 18 years they spend at home. 

For as long as possible, I want my kids to see Phillip and I as the main players in their lives, the people they can look to for cues about how to act and be in the world. The media can sow seeds of doubt by suggesting that we're old-fashioned, clueless, or don't "get it." Maybe that's all true, but we're still the best they've got.

Nobody would mistake us for an Amish family or anything. My kids know all the lyrics to "What Does the Fox Say?" and will dance Gagnam Style if you ask them to. I realize that if they don't get exposed to pop culture at all, they'll have a hard time relating to others and making friends.

When there's a big to-do about a viral video we'll check it out. When kids at school are talking about a certain cartoon, we'll watch a few episodes on YouTube. But I like to think of those exposures as educational field trips we occasionally take, not a regular part of the kids' everyday lives.

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  1. Bravo to you for taking the piano over the TV. Much better choice and I like the way you balance "real life" without letting it become their obsession.

  2. Kudos to you Jenny for being brave.....no matter how it came about !!!

  3. I think that sounds like a really smart idea. I was raised with fairly limited TV use--when we were really little it was Mr. Rogers and Reading Rainbow on broadcast TV for the half hour-hour that my mom was preparing dinner before Dad got home from work. Those were pretty cool shows.
    When I was older, we lived in a rented house that had cable for a year or two and our show became Gilligan's Island. Mom loved this, because we would finish all schoolwork, tackle all chores and get the house in perfect spotless condition by 3 p.m. if it meant we'd be allowed to watch Gilligan's Island. My siblings and I would write plays based on Gilligan's Island (at the time I didn't know what "fan fiction" was, but we were most definitely fans).
    Now with my family in Malaysia, they have a TV set, but most broadcast channels aren't in English and mostly consist of news, so if they watch TV, they're watching a DVD movie, of which my parents have many.
    Angel and I don't have a TV either, at our apartment. Again, most broadcast TV here would be in Chinese anyway, so it would be more educational than relaxing.
    I really enjoy movies, I have a bunch of favorites--my parents started introducing us to classic black-and-white films in childhood, and I have a lot of good memories of family movie nights with snacks and various people working on puzzles and crafts because we can't just sit still without our hands doing something....so I can't imagine doing away with a TV/DVD player altogether or forever, but I definitely see the value in not making TV a primary player in a childhood. Even in the 90s, kids on TV behaved so badly that Mom would often stop a movie to ask us kids what rules they were breaking and how the kids could behave better and not cause themselves so much trouble. haha!

  4. We barely watch tv, preferring on demand programs like Netflix, but I am concerned at the amount of time my 1 year old spends in front of a screen. An episode (or 3) of Thomas the Tank engine while I get ready in the morning (or, joy of joys go to the bathroom by myself!) doesn't seem like much, but it adds up, especially when considering he has special time with Grammy (ie. Playing kids games on her kindle) and beer and chips time with Grampa while watching baseball (please note - no need to contact child services as my child does not actually drink any beer! :). We live with my parents in law so my son spends probably an hour a day (gulp) in front of a screen. I feel I need to apologise for this, and feel quite guilty about it, but I know many other mum's and dad's use screen time for their sanity too and I certainly wouldn't judge them! Just myself apparently!

    1. Since writing this, my preschooler has discovered that she can watch kids' shows whenever she wants on the iPad (Amazon Prime) and now it's a constant conversation. If she gets a little screen time, she becomes obsessed, and frankly it makes me want to throw the tablet out the same way we got rid of the TV!!

  5. I quit TV about 18 months ago. BEST decision ever!!

  6. We had no tv while our oldest children were in elementary school. The tv broke and we decided to not replace it. Our kids were the best readers in the school. They loved to play board games with each other and their friends. They planned and carried out games with the whole neighborhood. My son said there were not enough hours in the day to do all he wanted to do. But when I went back to college, my mother watched the kids, and brought over a tv the first week. Then there seemed to be time for several hours of tv.