I stopped watching television in the late ’80s, having decided that it was all a waste of time, and that anything I really needed to know I could learn through more mentally demanding media. I followed the first Gulf War on the radio and the Clinton administration through magazines and newspapers. I can’t claim to understand the news any better than in my TV-watching days, and I’ve found other ways to fritter away the hours that I would have spent tuning in, but I like to think that abstinence has made me a bit less intellectually lazy.
My passivity — both physical and mental — and short attention span are afflictions I attribute to tens of thousands of hours in childhood spent in front of a 21″ black-and-white screen. (My dad had heard that color sets gave off a more dangerous kind of radiation.) So when I decided to quit, I resolved that no child of mine would suffer similar exposure. He’d be allowed to watch edifying videos, but no broadcast channels, except on historic occasions like presidential elections or impeachments.
The first time I suspected that things might not work the way I’d planned was when I realized my fiancée was a watcher. Not an addict, just a recreational consumer, yet someone who apparently felt no guilt in watching Law and Order instead of reading Policy Review or Don Quixote. Was this the example she wanted to set for the next generation?
Then I observed friends of mine who already had kids. They all acknowledged the dangers of TV, and they all let their children watch it. A lot of it. “Sometimes you just need five minutes to balance your checkbook,” one mother told me, with an exhausted sigh.
I tried to be sympathetic. Five minutes now and then couldn’t do much damage, I thought. Yet mesmerizing a young boy or girl for hours with a flashing, screaming machine seemed just short of criminally abusive.
Then it happened. Our son was born, and for a few months there was no peace in the house except when he slept, which was mercifully often though never for long. Once he learned to slumber through the night, the day became a continual struggle to keep him clean and quiet. I longed for a way to distract him that didn’t involve singing, dancing or putting toys on my head. My thoughts drifted, inevitably, to the box in the living room.
Like most people who betray their principles, I have managed to justify myself by appealing to another set of principles. Every time I park my 18-month-old son in front of the set and pop in a Barney or Teletubbies tape, I tell myself that it’s helping teach him English (since I’m the only person who speaks the language to him regularly).
Once those tapes have taught him to say “uh-oh” and “I love you” (if they don’t drive his parents nuts first), we’ll probably increase the English-language offerings by getting a satellite dish. Which means I’ll soon be watching CNN and FOX and BBC most of the day, instead of reading or writing. But after all, raising a child is just one sacrifice after another.
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