April 5, 2012


A few years ago I heard a joke that made me cringe with self-awareness: "You might be a yuppie if everyone you know, knows you don't own a TV." Kevin and I would certainly have fit that description, since never in the eight years we've been living together have we ever owned a TV and since most people we know, know this about us. It wasn't that I went around announcing our TV-lessness to everyone (at least I hope not), but whenever friends/family/coworkers would ask "Did you see last night on The Apprentice/Dancing with the Stars/..." I would have to explain, "No, no I didn't. We don't own a TV."

Now that doesn't mean that we didn't watch TV. We just watched it on our computer. But we always tried to keep it to a minimum--our daily dose of The Daily Show and a movie or two on the weekends. Unfortunately, as Colin has gotten older, we've found ourselves turning to the TV more and more as a cheap and convenient babysitter. Like most three year olds, Colin has the attention span of a gnat; however, if you turn the TV on, he'll sit mesmerized for a full 90 minutes. Ninety glorious minutes!

How much TV was he watching? I'm not sure exactly, but probably 30 minutes on a "good day"--a short cartoon to help him unwind just before naptime--and three hours on a "bad" day--a day in which I was utterly exhausted or just really needed to get something done and so I would pop in a Disney movie ... and then another. 

It pains me to admit this because I always thought I would be a better parent that that. I mean, I was well aware that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television for kids under two and less than two hours of "quality educational programming" for kids under six. (Well, at least we were only showing him the quality Disney movies...) 

Furthermore, I knew whatever the AAP recommended,  an hour or two a day of "quality educational programming" was still way too much TV for a three year old. Even most of the "educational" shows we'd pick out for him were obnoxious and frenetic. (Elmo I am wagging my finger at you.)  The rest were simply inappropriate for his level of emotional maturity. I can't tell you how many times I've had Colin ask me to explain the emotional dynamics of an episode of Arthur or Franklin because he couldn't comprehend even the ham-fisted "morals" of these simple stories. While an episode about Arthur being annoyed by his new baby sister might teach a six year old to be more patient and tolerant, it just teaches a three year old that baby siblings are, in fact, annoying.

In addition, I could see how watching these shows day after day was infecting his imaginative play. He was no longer inventing his own story lines, he was just reenacting scenes from Toy Story or The Incredibles. And that just seemed really sad to me.

So, after a lot of hemming and hawing, we finally did it: we unplugged the computer. Granted, we just moved it down to the spare room in our basement, but for Colin is has been "outta sight outta mind." After a few days of asking to watch movies every five minutes, he finally forgot all about them. 

At first I was worried about what to do when I needed a "babysitter" for him, but I needn't have been. He quickly learned how to play on his own again, and, much to my surprise, he's completely forgotten about all of the old TV characters that used to dominate his play. Now he makes up his own stories that quickly take on a life of their own. One minute he is a "magic fire-breathing dragon" and the next he is Little Red Riding Hood on his way to "grandmother's house." It's really a pleasure to watch.

Interestingly, the most revealing changes have not been in Colin but in me. With the computer moved to the basement I could not longer casually check my email or browse the internet throughout the day as I used to do. Now I'm really only able to do it before the kids wake up or after they go to bed. This means that during the day I'm much more "present" for them, and this seems to make them less whiney and needy (no doubt because their needs are better met by mama who's no longer zoning out on the computer 15 times a day).

Removing the computer has also made a huge change in the flow of our living room. Without the computer focusing all the energy into one corner of the room, the space finally flows. Your eye wanders over the entire room, and every corner is now a cozy place to sit down and chat or play or read a book. And without a computer in the room we've all been reading a lot more.

Now don't get me wrong. We haven't sworn off television all together. Most nights Kevin and I still creep down to the basement to watch our fix of The Daily Show after the kids have gone to bed, and on the weekends, Colin is allowed to watch one movie if he really wants to. But often, he's too busy playing to remember his TV privileges, and that is as it should be. 

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