Friday, September 26, 2014

We Turned Off the TV, for Good

In a recent post titled “We Turned Off the TV,” Allison Hart writes about the amount of television that her children used to watch in the mornings and what happened after she decided to eliminate it. Just two weeks into the new regimen, she reports, “I can't tell you how much of a difference it's made.” I applaud Hart for the change that she’s made for her family. And if two weeks without television can make such a difference, what effect might years without a television have on young children?

I can tell you what I know, based on my own experience. My children, ages nine and six, have lived since birth in a house without a television.

“So what do your children do?” people ask. Many other parents can’t imagine how we fill the vast chasms of time that seem to stretch endlessly from waking (sometime around 6 a.m.) to school (the bus comes after 8 a.m.). What do the children do on weekend mornings without cartoons to keep them occupied? What do they do in the evenings in that extra time between dinner and bed?

The short answer: they do a lot.

Here are some of the things I’ve found them doing in the morning: reading, writing, drawing, playing with Legos, playing with stuffed animals, watching the fish swim in the tank, solving math problems, cooking, building marble runs, putting together snap circuits, playing with paper dolls, dancing, devising a comedy routine, listening to an audiobook, taking photographs, telling jokes, cutting and gluing paper, making a doll house out of recyclables, making cookies with Play-Doh, nailing together pieces of wood, stringing beads, pressing leaves, and . . . talking.

And not ever having had access to a television, they don’t miss it. Seemingly not one bit.

That’s not to say we’re completely against technology, or that we’re purists when it comes to TV. Of course the kids have seen TV—when they visit their grandparents or when we stay in a hotel, for example. And they are occasionally allowed to watch videos on a small portable DVD player. But for the most part, our lives are TV-free. And though we have computers in the house, the kids rarely use them—usually only when required to for school. And they don’t have access to other devices with screens either (no smartphones, iPads, or video games).

But before I wax poetic about how idyllic our lives are without television, I should add one disclaimer: My husband and I had decided we were better off without TV years before we had our first child. So not having a television was not so much a conscious parenting decision as it was an extension of what we were already doing. And what seemed natural to us became natural to the kids. Only in the last few years have some of the effects of our TV-free life become apparent to us.

If all of this sounds like bragging, I apologize. My family is not perfect, and I could easily make a list of our faults. On the other hand, since I believe that not having a television has had a remarkably positive influence on our lives, here I’m going to focus on the good qualities in my children that I believe can be attributed, in part, to their lack of TV exposure.

So what are the benefits of raising TV-free kids? I’ve come up with a list of seven broad areas.

1. Behavior

My kids are well behaved. All their lives, I have been getting compliments about their behavior—from teachers, from flight attendants, from strangers in restaurants, from other parents. They’ve never had public meltdowns of any sort (and very few private tantrums either). They’re “easy” kids—they entertain themselves, they become engrossed in tasks for long stretches of time, and they are generally happy and good natured. Yes, they complain from time to time, they get whiney or obstinate, but for the most part, they’re fantastic kids. They listen to us. Almost always.

How is this related to television? Kids mimic what they see. As Hart notes, “my kids were watching obnoxious TV shows and were acting obnoxious accordingly.” Studies have linked high rates of television viewing with antisocial, aggressive, and even criminal behavior. And even if the content is geared toward young audiences and seems harmless, ask yourself if you want your child’s behavior and values influenced by the shows they’re watching. Personally, I don’t want a little Hannah Montana on my hands.

2. Concentration

My kids have long attention spans. When my son started preschool, his teachers marveled at his ability to sit still and focus on a task. He would still be sitting at the table, drawing or working on an assigned activity an hour later when all of his classmates had become distracted and wandered away. My daughter can read a book for hours at a time—for even longer than I can sit still reading! She’s read 300-page books from cover to cover without hardly moving. In short, my kids can concentrate on a single task for a long time. They don’t get distracted.

Researchers have been telling us for years that television (along with video games, texting, and other technologies) erode children’s attention spans. Watching a television show does not require much mental effort or complex thought; it is largely a passive activity. And the constantly shifting images are not conducive to concentration; in fact, some researchers have suggested that exposure to television and video games may contribute to ADD/ADHD. So why offer my kids a frenetic, fast-paced cartoon—possibly with frequent commercial breaks, making the experience even more disjointed—when I can offer them a book?

3. Academics

Probably not a day has gone by in my daughter’s life that has not had a book in it. She’s been read to or has read on her own every day for nine and a half years since the day she came home from the hospital. She has been exposed to thousands of books. Think of all the hours that the average fourth grader spends looking at screens (television, computer, etc.). Now imagine what would happen if that fourth grader had instead spent all those hours reading books. That’s the reality my daughter has lived.

And it shows. She excels academically. Her vocabulary is extensive—better than that of many adults. One of her teachers calls her a “walking dictionary.” She performs well above grade level in virtually every subject. She has been deemed “gifted” in math as well and receives individualized enrichment, allowing her to advance several years beyond her grade level. I could go on and on, but you might ask—how can you attribute all of this to the lack of a television?

Of course I can’t. It would be folly to say this is all due to our TV-free lives. In the endless permutations of the nature versus nurture debate, it’s impossible to isolate any single factor. If my daughter had spent hours in front of a television screen every day of her life, she would probably still be smart. On the other hand, she would unlikely have her stunning knowledge of Greek mythology or her extensive arsenal of Shakespearean insults.

4. Materialism

My kids are not materialistic. Or at least they’re a lot less materialistic than their peers. When we go shopping, they don’t ask for things. Admittedly, I go shopping as infrequently as possible, but they do end up at the grocery store with me every couple of weeks. During our last trip my son asked if we were getting raspberries. I told him no, the price was too high—and that was the end of it. Last Christmas, my daughter asked Santa for a ball of yarn. Yes, just one. That was the extent of her Christmas list. She hates shopping even more than I do and has no interest in clothes, especially the clothes that some other girls her age seem to obsess over. My son has a weakness for Legos, art supplies, and all things Egyptian. He is a little more materialistic than his sister, but his wants are minor compared to some kids, and the requests are few and far between.

How is TV involved? TV makes you want things—especially the programming that is interrupted every few minutes with advertising. The average American child sees somewhere around 20,000 commercials per year. This is an astounding number! The cumulative effect of being told 20,000 times that you should buy something—toys, articles of clothing, food products, video games, digital devices—has to be monumental, especially for an audience of children who have not yet learned to distinguish information from persuasion. Viewing all of these ads not only makes children believe that their lives will not be happy or complete without certain products, but it also affects their behavior, causing them to nag their parents to purchase the products. Researchers have dubbed this the “Nag Factor,” defined as “the tendency of children, who are bombarded with marketers’ messages, to unrelentingly request advertised items,” and advertisers design commercials to specifically encourage this behavior in children.

That’s why my kids don’t ask for much—they aren’t being told, 55 times a day, 385 times a week, 1,667 times a month, that they want stuff.

5. Gender Stereotypes

If you want a girl to believe that she should play with dolls and fluffy stuffed animals, that her favorite color should be pink, that she’s likely not that great at math or science, that she should like clothes and cosmetics, that she should behave like a drama queen, then turn on the television. If you want a boy to believe that he should play with trucks and machines, that he should be macho and tough, that he should hide his emotions, that he should like violent video games, that he’s better than girls, then turn on the television.

Otherwise, just leave it off.

While some children’s shows have made great leaps in portraying gender equality, many are still lagging sadly behind, and what’s worse—much of the advertising, especially for toys, targets boys or girls exclusively, maintaining the divide between the genders and creating fixed notions in children’s minds about what it means to be male and female.

My son has taken ballet lessons and art lessons. My daughter loves science and chess. We want our kids to explore their interests wherever they may lie, to reach their potential, to be fully human—and that means not being pushed into narrow spheres by the outdated, rigid gender roles that sadly, are still perpetuated in so much of the media.

6. Nonconformity

My daughter is an individual, someone who is comfortable in her own skin. She plays the tuba because it is “awesome”—never mind that she’s the only one in fourth grade who picked that particular instrument. The height of fashion, for her, is a navy blue T-shirt that has a somewhat obscure math pun on the front, a faded pair of tan shorts, mismatched brightly colored knee socks, and worn-out sneakers. She loves mythology and Shakespeare, puns and logic puzzles. She’s proud of the fact that she’s the only one in her class who doesn’t have a TV. It makes her even more different. And being different, she will tell you, is awesome.

And it’s not having a TV all of these years that has enabled her to be different—without exposure to television, she’s never felt a need to conform to the stereotypes perpetuated by popular programs and advertising.

My kids have never said, “I have to do XYZ because Jane is doing it.” Or, “I need to have XYZ because all the kids have them.” Or, “But Tom’s parents let him do XYZ.” Or, “But all the kids are watching XYZ, so I have to.” Or anything along those lines.

7. Finding Their Passion

If your kids don’t watch TV, they spend a lot of time doing other things. A lot of other things. And as they do those other things, they just might find something that they love.

My son is an artist. He’s only six, so it’s hard to tell if he’s going to stay with it, but for now, art is his passion. He draws, he paints, and he sculpts. His art teachers have commented that he has talent. And he can sit still working on a piece of art for an astonishing amount of time. He finishes his pieces with painstaking attention to detail and care.

Maybe if he watched TV he’d still be an artist. But we might not know it yet. And he wouldn’t have had all of those many hours to sit in silence with a pencil and a piece of paper. Just the pencil, the paper, and him.

Watching television would have made him more like other kids. Not watching television has allowed him to be himself.


But it’s hard to give up television, you might argue. It’s deprivation, torture, a punishment too severe for the adults in the household. Remember, you don’t have to go cold turkey, chucking your flat screen out on the curb. Give up TV in the mornings, as Hart did. Or evenings. Or limit it to weekends only. Or to one carefully selected film per week. Make sure the TV isn’t on as background noise. Be selective and thoughtful about when you turn it on. And pick programming that is ad-free and that emulates the behavior and values that are in keeping with your own. Your kids will benefit. Really, they will. Even with just a small change.

We are not really radicals. Since we had already been TV-free for five years when our daughter was born, we never felt deprived. I can understand, though, that many parents might feel inconvenienced giving up TV. But having children is not a matter of convenience. It’s also not convenient to be up all night with a fussy baby or to change diapers or to read a dozen storybooks before the sun even comes up. In fact, I’ve discovered that most of the things worth doing in life are not especially convenient or easy. It’s a matter of what we choose, where our priorities lie. If it’s more important that the children be quiet and occupied in front of a TV so that you can sleep in or stare at your own screen to check email or Facebook, then you have made a choice. Turning off the television is another choice. It’s not that hard. And it’s important. Because our choices have repercussions that extend far beyond the here and now.