No TV for kids under 2! I know: eye roll. But when I had my first baby, I was totally sold. The fast cuts from one image to the next, the onslaught of advertising insisting you need the next new thing, the iteration of stereotypes and cultural norms, and the sometimes playful but still disturbing violence: I looked at my blank-slate baby and thought, oh hell no. My husband and I turned off the TV when Jonah was a month old and vowed not to watch it in his presence until an unspecified time in the future.
We didn’t watch it for more than three years. We dubbed the box in our living room “the movie screen” and eventually covered it with a batik cloth.
I had a squeamish pride over Jonah being a no-television kid. Our ban on TV was one of those decisions that worked out really well for us, but mentioning it to others nearly always elicited a defensive response. “Susie doesn’t watch much TV, either! I swear! I don’t even know what a TV is, can you show me one?”
It’s hard to casually chat about abstaining from something that other parents use as the primary tool to get a personal moment, or that they feel is an integral part of childhood. More than anything, I prided my follow-through with something that was both personally important and surprisingly difficult. I have no judgment on moms who used Sesame Street at shower time, and I don’t claim that Jonah had some superior babyhood just because I didn’t.
I do believe living without TV for the first years was beneficial to Jonah. But the truth is I have just a handful of unconvincing anecdotes to prove it. Jonah is a really gentle kid; could it be the lack of on-screen aggression? Well, it is just as likely his gentleness stems from his parents valuing and reinforcing gentleness above other behaviors. Jonah can chill out with books almost longer than I can. Sure, it could be because he didn’t have flashing images retraining his neurons … or it could be that he’s naturally predisposed to books, something we noticed in him as a baby.
Instead, the effects of TV abstinence manifested themselves in different ways: changes in us adults since the TV ban began and changes in Jonah since his introduction to TV programming.
Although the TV ban was ostensibly for Jonah, it turned into no TV for us parents, too. We were usually too busy or tired to watch it once he was asleep, so we stopped getting cable. Eventually, when I visited someone with a TV on, or sat in a waiting room with a TV, I felt like an alien. Television ads had gone from annoying to unbearable and bizarre. Instances of gender, sexuality, and race stereotypes that used to strike me as bothersome but expected now felt agonizing and threatening. And then there was the news: the first time I saw mainstream news in several years, the show was Glenn Beck. I felt like an anthropologist assigned to live among a different culture, seeing everything through my no-television ethnocentrism.
I think Jonah was beginning to feel this disconnect, too. At three years old, his playmates all knew the same characters and other television-based references. He was often given gifts with licensed characters, and the givers would sit and ask, sometimes with disappointment, “Don’t you know who that is? It’s Diego. C’mon, you know Diego, don’t you?”
Now Jonah has been watching selected bits of television programming for almost a year. He hasn’t spontaneously combusted, or murdered anyone, or told me that bros come before hos. I do, however, notice him expressing the influence of TV in his life. Sometimes it’s cute, like when he picks up the toothpaste and asks with concern, “Is this clinically proven?” Sometimes it is valuable, like when Sid the Science Kid explains a complex idea better than I could, and with visuals! Sometimes it is just plain awesome, like when Jonah sings “Silent E is a ninja” from the Electric Company.
I recognize that these are elements of the world Jonah will grow up in, and he is at an age where we can sit down and talk about what he sees. I don’t feel like I have sheltered him in the negative coinage of that word by eliminating TV those years.
But sometimes it is concerning, like when a documentary on Western films begins after Antiques Roadshow, and a line of men are mowed down with rifles before I can get to the remote. Sometimes I’m just annoyed, like when an animated character stomps on their toys in anger, and when within hours Jonah shows the new behavior he has learned.
I recognize that these are elements of the world Jonah will grow up in, and he is at an age where we can sit down and talk about what he sees. I don’t feel like I have sheltered him in the negative coinage of that word by eliminating TV those years. Instead I feel that I removed exposure to parts of the world that my child wasn’t ready for, and I as a parent was incapable of mediating yet. And maybe there is another squeamish point of pride: having enough self-knowledge to recognize that both my kid and I needed those years of removal.