Tuesday, September 29, 2009

To TV or Not to TV...To Each Their Own

Had an interesting conversation with my 10-year-old today. It's amazing how often I come away from these brief interludes with real insight. Kids are pretty much as straight forward as they come--'till they hit 12 or so, and then they learn the much coveted-in-the-preteen-world skill of conversation avoidance--so I know I can trust what she says. I still have about 20 months before Sam hits the big 1-2, so I can pretty much rely on her to speak her mind (for the time being, anyway).

So this morning as she's shoveling down eggs while perusing the Lillian Vernon catalogue that arrived in yesterday's mail, she casually states, "My friends like you, but they think you're kind of mean."

I was astonished. Mean? Me? I thought I was the cool mom--or, if not the cool mom, at least the mom least likely to embarrass (well, not if you ask my other daughter, Nati. She says I'm mortifying--a word she learned from the "Harry Potter" books--because I always try to kiss her goodbye when I drop her off at school). Anyway, I of course had to have an explanation. I was, truth be told, a little hurt. I really like all of Sam's friends (a sweet group of girls with some of the biggest hearts around--already volunteering, raising money for charity, and generally trying to save the world at the tender ages of 10) and the idea they thought I was mean bothered me.

"Well, they think you're mean because you won't let me watch TV."

Ahhhhhh. Of course. In the world of the average 10-year-old, what happens on iCarly is at least as important as what is going on in social studies--in a way, I suppose, because Carly's adventures sort of are social studies. So when Sam's friends ask her is she's seen the latest show and she is forced to admit she hasn't, due to Mom's strict no-TV-during-the-week rule, well, I can see how that would be interpreted as "mean."

The TV-restriction isn't a punishment. It's not due to a belief that the world is going to hell-in-a-hand-basket or that shows today aren't the wholesome Brady Bunch-esque parables of my own childhood. I'm not even very religious, so it's not about shielding the girls from the "evils" of Hollywood.

The TV restriction came about this summer for one very reason: my children's reaction to television--which is to say, their non-reaction.

Unclear on what I mean? Here's a visual for you: A few months ago I walked into the family room where the girls were watching some show or the other on my husband's larger-than-ever-possibly-necessary-unless-you-run-a-sports-bar TV (65 inches--literally takes up most of the wall). I said "hello" to them pleasantly, naturally expecting a response.


I walked over to them. They did not turn my direction, acknowledge me in anyway--their eyes didn't even flicker in my direction. I waved my hand in front of their faces. No change of expression. Nati's mouth hung open (I swear I saw a bit of drool on her chin) and Sam sat twirling a loose strand of hair while she watched Zach and Cody enter into another ill-advised scheme.

I've seen this comatose-by-television condition before. Most strikingly several years ago when I went to visit a new friend who had two pre-teen sons. The boys were on the couch, staring blankly at the screen and eating chips. She tried in vain to get their attention so I could be introduced. The boys never even twitched. They communicated through their lack of response that not only was I not important as a guest, but that their mother was not worth the bother of answering. That still stands out in my mind--not just because of their rudeness (which not to put too fine a point on it, kids do need to respect adults--or at least pretend to) but because of the disregard with which they treated their mother. Obviously there was some other dynamic at work in that home, but still....TV played a big part in it.

So when I saw my girls unresponsive and blank-faced in front of the TV, I decided I was through with it. I let them watch 'till the end of the show (sheer dumb luck saves the day again) and then turned it off. They wailed like I'd killed the cat. I explained that they were going to play. Yes, play. With each other. Or, barring that, they were going to have friends over. For geesch's sake, we have a playroom, pool, and a huge slope in the back yard with a tree to climb on. Plus about a gazillion toys. Go play, I told them again. They looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language.

And it wasn't like they were TV addicts--they didn't even watch that much TV in the first place. The girls were already limited to 2 hours of watching a day. The problem as I saw it was, though, that when they were bored or out of ideas, the first thing they would turn to to fill the empty time was the "boob tube" (a favorite phrase of my late dad's). I wanted more from them--and for them. They're smart, creative kids. but the TV took away their chance to be as inventive as I knew they could be.

It took about three days of grumbling, and then, suddenly, they stopped begging for TV. They found other things to do. Sam has become quite the rock collector (actually, too much of the rock collector--she has a huge tub under her bed filled with rocks of all kinds--including a few pieces of broken concrete--gleaned from the slope in our backyard). She's also discovered the joys of collecting caterpillars and keeping them in jars, where they turn into chrysalis and eventually butterflies (the last batch turned out to be fuzzy-antennaed moths). Nati loves to garden, like me. Give her a few empty pots, some potting soil, seeds or seedlings, and she's happy for hours.

Now, the girls TV watching is limited to weekends only. And a terrific thing has happened. They don't clamor for Saturday morning cartoons the moment they roll out of bed. They play Barbies or American Girl Dolls, or read books, or head outside (once as early as 6:15am; I had to drag them back in out of concern for sleeping neighbors) to run, jump and climb the tree. TV is quite literally an afterthought.

I know that my approach is not for everyone. Some moms and dads see TV as a great way for the kids to unwind. Or, they may need the TV to keep the kids occupied while they pay bills or make dinner or something equally important. And I'll be the first to admit, when my kids were younger and less able to look after themselves, Zaboomafu, Barney, and Between the Lions were my go-to babysitters when I needed a few minutes to breathe.

So am I mean? Sam and Nati don't think so...embarrassing, maybe ("Stop trying to kiss me, mom!") but ultimately they understand why the no-TV rule stands. So yeah, Sam misses the latest episode of iCarly. But in its place she gets butterflies to raise, rocks to collect, books to read...and adventures of her own.

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