Doctor’s offices have TV’s in their waiting rooms now, have you noticed? Just one more place to encounter the pervasive talking heads. This week I took my 3- and almost-5-year-olds for dental check-ups, and the Cartoon Network was on as we awaited our appointment. We were the only ones there, and in my previous (kid-less) visits the channel was always the Food Network. The receptionist confirmed that she’d put Cartoon Network on for us, and she obliged me by switching to another channel since the programming on the Cartoon Network is rough for preschoolers. When she didn’t find my requested PBS, and because I declined Nickelodeon and Disney Channel as well, I suggested returning to the Food Network. When it came on my son said, “Mom! What are we going to do now?” I said, “The same thing we always do when we’re waiting for something. Talk, sit quietly, or look at books.”
This scenario is one we parents face and address. increasingly – TV becoming an issue with our children in a public place. TV’s are now in grocery aisles, alongside gas station pumps, even at McDonald’s tables (we discovered during our long spring road trip). I find them intrusive and, from a parenting standpoint, aggravating. Unlike at home (or the rare dentist-office type occasion), I can’t just turn the TV off or change the channel if I dislike the content.
The parenting side of the blogosphere contains a wide variety of viewpoints when it comes to TV, from “we don’t own a TV and my kids never watch it” to “watching TV is no big deal; I’d never get anything done without it.” I’m somewhere in the middle. My kids (the 3- and 4-year olds) do watch some TV -about 25 minutes of kids’ programming (usually PBS) with a clear start-time and end-time. Most often their TV time takes place after their 25 independent play time in their rooms. Occasionally – perhaps once a week – they watch an additional 30 to 40 minutes before or after dinner. I never watch TV when the kids are awake; my only screen-time during the day is my computer (a scenario which presents its own challenges). Because the TV is on so seldom on at our house, the kids almost never ask for it. They know when it comes on and that they only watch one show. This consistency has been my ally.
I agree with those who argue that TV adds nothing to a child’s development or overall life; anything educational a preschooler learns on TV can probably be better learned through a different venue. I certainly respect those who don’t use it at all. At the same time, I think TV can be employed wisely in a manner that’s not detrimental to a child’s development and that does build some a bridge between a child and the culture he lives in – at least for an American child. We live a TV-soaked world, and the soaking is only increasing with each passing generation. If my children are going to be effective as salt and light to the world God’s put them in, they’ll need to feel a basic comfort with the media of their day. They’ll need to not be overwhelmed by, fascinated, or enamored by it. They’ll need to have learned how to rebuff advertising. They’ll need to have developed the learned skill of viewing TV in a limited manner without being overly influenced by it. They’ll need to not see their TV-viewing peers, which will be the vast majority of them, as ‘other’ or worse, inferior.
On the other hand, it’s extremely easy to overdo TV, and I’ve found that a decent amount of self-discipline is required for me to monitor their intake and ensure that the quantity not creep upwards. I often have to force myself to hurriedly wrap up the last line of an email in time to reach the TV at show’s-end and ensure that my kids’ obey my directive to pleasantly turn off the TV. Because TV – even TV with “good content”- is relentlessly passive and fosters the recreational “entertain me!” mindset that’s proving to be a large part of our culture’s undoing. What we see on TV does influence us a great deal; let’s face that fact up front. Too, TV works against creativity and productivity. TV-watching and laziness tend to be close cousins. And while there’ s nothing wrong with relaxing or enjoying entertainment, there’s a lot wrong with it in excess – which describes virtually all of America in a country where the average preschooler watches 14 hours per week.
Winston Churchill, who drank a small amount of hard alcohol daily, famously said, “I got more out of alcohol than it ever got out of me.” I think about that quote sometimes when it comes to TV. I want my kids – my whole family – to get more out of TV than it gets out of us. Let it be a small slice in our lives through which we learn, relax, enjoy, laugh – and get to chat with friends about programming we enjoy. But let it not be more than that, and in every way let it glorify God in both quantity and content.