Why We Tuned Out

When Jazzy was 1 year old, her babysitter asked if TV was OK. We thought about it, and we said, ‘No.’

By Karen Springen


Nov. 11 issue —  “What’s your favorite TV show?” our girls’ beloved ballet instructor asked each pint-size dancer in her class. Our oldest daughter, Jazzy, didn’t know how to answer. She shrugged. Her moment of awkwardness results from a decision my husband, Mark, and I made five years ago. We don’t allow our kids to watch TV. Period.

       NOT AT HOME, not at friends’ houses; and they don’t watch videos or movies, either. We want our daughters, Jazzy, now nearly 6, and Gigi, 3, to be as active as possible, physically and mentally. So when a babysitter asked whether Jazzy, then 1 year old, could watch, we thought about it—and said no.
       When we look at our inquisitive, energetic daughters, we have no regrets. And our reading of the research makes us feel even better. Nielsen Media Research reports that American children 2 through 11 watch three hours and 16 minutes of television every day. Kids who watch more than 10 hours of TV each week are more likely to be overweight, aggressive and slow to learn in school, according to the American Medical Association. For these reasons, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV for children younger than 2 and a maximum of two hours a day of “screen time” (TV, computers or videogames) for older kids. We are convinced that without TV, our daughters spend more time than other kids doing cartwheels, listening to stories and asking such interesting questions as “How old is God?” and “What makes my rubber ducks float?” They also aren’t haunted by TV images of September 11—because they never saw them.
        Going without TV in America has its difficult moments. When I called my sister, Lucy, to make arrangements for Thanksgiving, she warned that her husband was planning to spend the day watching football. We’re going anyway. We’ll just steer the girls toward the playroom. And some well-meaning friends tell us our girls may be missing out on good educational programming. Maybe. But that’s not what most kids are watching. Nielsen Media Research reports that among children 2 through 11, the top-five TV shows in the new fall season were “The Wonderful World of Disney,” “Survivor: Thailand,” “Yu-Gi-Oh!”, “Pokemon” and “Jackie Chan Adventures.”

Will our happy, busy girls suffer because they’re not participating in such a big part of the popular culture? Will they feel left out in school when they don’t know who won on “Survivor”? “Kids are going to make fun of them,” warns my mother-in-law. And a favorite child psychiatrist, Elizabeth Berger, author of “Raising Children With Character,” cautions that maintaining a puritanical approach may make our kids into social outcasts. “Part of preparing your children for life is preparing them to be one of the girls,” she says. “It’s awful to be different from the other kids in fourth grade.”

Our relatives all watch TV. So did we. I was born in 1961, the year Newton Minow, then the chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, called television a “vast wasteland.” But I loved it. My sister, Katy, and I shared a first crush on the TV cartoon hero Speed Racer. Watching “Bewitched” and “The Brady Bunch” and, later, soap operas gave us an easy way to bond with our friends. Am I being selfish in not wanting the same for our children?

So far, our daughters don’t seem to feel like misfits. We have no problem with the girls enjoying products based on TV characters. The girls wear Elmo pajamas and battle over who can sit on a big Clifford stuffed animal. From books, they also know about Big Bird, the Little Mermaid and Aladdin. And they haven’t mentioned missing out on “Yu-Gi-Oh!” cartoon duels. Dr. Miriam Baron, who chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics committee on public education, says I’m helping our kids be creative, independent learners and calls our decision “awesome.” And Mayo Clinic pediatrician Daniel Broughton, another group member, says that “there’s no valid reason” the girls need to view television.

As the girls grow older, we can’t completely shield them from TV anyway. We’ll probably watch Olympic rhythmic gymnastics; the girls love it. And if Jazzy’s favorite baseball team, the Cubs, ever make the World Series, we’ll tune in. Last Monday Jazzy’s music teacher showed “The Magic School Bus: Inside the Haunted House.” Though “Magic School Bus” is a well-regarded Scholastic product, I still cringed, wondering why the kids weren’t learning about vibrations and sounds by singing and banging on drums. But I kept silent; I’d never require my kids to abstain in school. Like Jean Lotus, the Oak Park, Ill., mom who founded the anti-TV group the White Dot and who also reluctantly allows her kids to view TV in school, I’m wary of being seen “as the crusading weirdo.” But some public ridicule will be worth it if I help get even a few people to think twice before automatically turning on the tube. Now it’s time for me to curl up with the girls and a well-worn copy of “Curious George.”
       © 2002 Newsweek, Inc.


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