Turning off the TV

When I was a kid growing up, television helped to shape my world. There was wholesome educational programming like Sesame Street, Electric Company and Zoom, stereotypical family shows such as The Brady Bunch, Good Times and The Jeffersons, and Saturday mornings at the breakfast table with a plethora of cartoons on in the background, from Fat Albert to Shazam and Wonder Woman. We adjusted our antennas to watch those fuzzy UHF channels where we watched re-runs of Soul Train and sang the theme song "Go, Speed Racer, Go." The television world seemed vast and varied, but nothing like it is today.

Back then we weren't glued to the television. We rode bikes to the neighborhood store, jumped Double Dutch in the back alley, spent countless hours playing hopscotch and hand games, Chinese jump rope, "Mother May I?" and "Red light, Green light." Now, with the advent of cable and satellite, there's a channel for just about everything and everyone, not to mention a universe of video games targeting the tiniest of tots to the most savvy seniors.

I have friends who turn off the TV during the school week. They say their children don't miss it and that it allows them to concentrate on their schoolwork and use their imagination. On the weekends, when the TV is on, they tell me their children have come to value their limited time like a delicious treat.

The dirty little secret in our house is that we allow our three children, ages 8, 11 and 14, to watch TV. But we've set some hard and firm rules for which they must abide:

  • All homework must be done, proofread and checked before the TV goes on.
  • There must be consensus amongst whoever is in the room about the show of choice.
  • All shows must be age appropriate.
  • Viewing must be balanced. Everyone must also watch The History Channel, the National Geographic Channel and other educational networks, including a smattering of network news shows.
  • There will be no television in any child's bedroom, only in common living areas.
  • Only one electronic device at a time. You can't be on your cell phone or laptop with the TV on. Either watch TV or do something else.

Many parents seem hugely conflicted about whether to go cold turkey and draw a hard line. They want their children to be well rounded and they believe, true or not, that some television shows impart wisdom, or at the very least, some sort of gratifying entertainment. Then there is the television as babysitter concept, which most of us swear we would never do, but you and I know we've done it every once in a while to buy a few extra minutes to get dinner done or take a shower.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting TV time to two hours of quality programming a day for everyone in the family over the age of two, including video and computer games. But those recommendations aren't the reality for much of America, where our children devour television and video games at a Herculean pace. The Kaiser Family Foundation says that our 8 to 18 year olds spend nearly four hours a day in front of the television and another two hours playing video games. It's no wonder we are fighting an epidemic of obesity.

Studies show that children who grow up watching heavy doses of television are not only more likely to be obese, they are also more likely to act out the aggressive behavior they see on the screen. The images they see can also reinforce negative racial and gender stereotypes. As an African-American mother, I probably worry about that issue the most. I'm a self confessed, information craving news junkie who requires a healthy dose of daily news, but many of the images I see are not helping my children feel comfortable in their own skin.

As for those formulaic children's shows that pander to the lowest common denominator, I'll be happy if I don't see another one again. But what is beginning to emerge through my children's limited television viewing are some points of meaningful dialog and discussion that can't be overlooked. During the 2008 presidential race, the news stories my children saw on television inspired all of us to become involved in the political process. My children joined me as weekend volunteers for Obama, in the voting booth as I cast my vote, and in Washington, D.C. on inauguration day. My daughter ran for student council and launched a budding singing career after watching American Idol. My husband ran for Mayor. My son became a history buff after watching hours of The History Channel. My little one learned how hot dogs are made (yuck!), and how ballerina shoes are hand crafted on a show called How It's Made. Now that the kids are getting older, we make it a point to talk about what we see, both good and bad. Sometimes we debate the issues, like our recent discussion about whether Toddlers and Tiaras had gone too far and whether a Miss Universe pageant was still relevant. We discuss the pros and cons of legal cases and dig for more information online.

I don't ever think I will be an advocate for turning off the TV cold, just simple, measured parental common sense, well-rounded content and lots of hearty dialog at the dinner table.