How watching TV changed my kid

Guest post by Rodrigues
By: CalsidyroseCC BY 2.0

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.

Comments on How watching TV changed my kid

  1. we got a television when i was four – my big bro was nine. i think we only got it because my bro was bed-ridden for a few months.

    once, when my bro was in pre-k, he *made up* a television show because he was embarrassed that he didn’t know any of the shows his classmates talked about =D

  2. What a lovely, honest post. It’s a tricky subject…I was sheltered from TV until I was about 7 or 8 and still have bitter memories of being left out of playground conversations, or lying that I had seen such or such movie. I was also much more sensible to violence or scary things on TV compared to my friends.

    Nonetheless I can say for a fact that my imagination was stimulated in tremendous ways. Even today, adults are surprised to hear the kind of games we would invent and play outside for weeks. And ultimately, that’s the kind of childhood I wish for my children. Thanks for making me realize that!

  3. I have often wrestled with the no TV/TV debate (the debate in my head, that is.) We don’t have cable but do get some stations over the air. THANKFULLY the kids programming is TVO (like PBS) and the CBC and there is virtually no child-aimed advertising going on. That being said, I worry about baby loo being left out of the kid’s world out there, the world of Dora and Diego and all the other things I don’t even know about. So at this point we watch YouTube’d In the Night Garden and Classical Baby and some NFB films and we will see where that leads us. I would rather she not like the TV but hey if she does, she does, and the only TV she has access to is educational and cute. So that makes me feel better.
    I too have benefited from not watching the boob tube. I watch the news and that’s about it. I think it has brought the family closer together because we have to talk all the time (sometimes, as you all know, this is a challenge!!) but I do not begrudge those who have the digital VIP packages and use them all the time. I am in fact jealous! But the benefits of no TV outweigh the benefits of being connected to what’s going on in TV Land so.. that is my new reality.
    PS as an anthropologist I totally get what you mean about the ethnocentrist viewing of “The World” as seen by the major broadcasters. I think there is a Master’s thesis in there somewhere 🙂

    • We are also a TVO/CBC/CTV family.
      With a 18 month old and a 2 month old in the middle of winter, I wish that my son would watch some TV. Even 15 minutes so I could get a break once in a while. The only thing I can get him to watch is Yo Gabba Gabba that we have on DVD.

  4. This is an awesome and interesting post. I haven’t owned a TV since 1999, though I’ve seen a few shows and watched movies on computers. When I get around commercial television it’s exactly as how you describe it!

    I feel really strongly that I don’t want my kids to watch TV, but my husband thinks this means they will be doomed to be social outcasts, so as we don’t have any kids yet… we’ll see.

    Still this is a great post!

  5. I was labeled the ‘freak’ without the tv at one place I worked. The longest I’ve gone without tv in the past was three years, when 9/11 happened I didn’t even know about it!

    Now I have a TV and it’s mostly used for Sesame Street and other things for my under 2 child. I am able to shower and cook dinner because of the TV (most of the time) and I am thankful for that time.

  6. Its all about balance. You can’t let your kid turn into a chubby little zombie in front of the tv but banning it makes your child left out of a certain part of our culture.

    • I agree with you about balance; “chubby” seems a bit harsh, though. I was kind of a chubby kid, and I spent most of my childhood playing outdoors or reading, with some limited PBS television. Again, I’m with you in sentiment!

  7. I grew up without a TV and I’m very happy about it. Yes, sometimes people thought I was crazy and I was disconnected from the conversation. But somehow my parents managed to raise two daughters who thought it was cool to be different, so we didn’t mind. I really believe that I have less body issues and am more uncomfortable with violence because of my lack of TV exposure. I also think out family life benefited. Unfortunatly I now use the internet as others use TV (I still don’t have a TV, but it’s really common in my circle of student-friends)…

  8. we didnt TV when I was a kid because we couldnt afford it. As an adult I have TV but I also have DVR, i watch my favorite show or movie after my daughter is in bed because she has whats called Echolalia, meaning she doesnt talk independently yet she repeats things to communicate or just because it sounds cool. That means that the character on CSI in the throws of death? she’ll totally be moaning and screaming the same way later. So the TV stays off whenever the little monster is around. (anyone remember the yelling “its my money and i need it now!” commercials? try explaining why your four yr old is yelling that)

    • My half-brother was diagnosed with Asperger’s when he was 2 (he’s nine now) and also has echolalia. So please know I’m not making fun…

      But that “it’s my money and i need it now” bit was HILARIOUS! 😀 Thanks for that visual today (i.e. she’s stomping around the playground yelling this over and over, other kids are looking around and you’ve got your shoulders hunched and a sheepish grin on your face wishing she’d find something else to echo immediately!)

      I’ve been there and I feel for you , sister!

  9. As an adult who grew up with some television (very limited) and now has been without a TV for almost 10 years, I have to say it IS weird to have such a disconnect from people socially. However, I quickly find out how interesting someone is going to be if we can figure out something to talk about that doesn’t involve the latest episode of XYZ or the latest movie.

  10. I truly appreciate this topic – my husband and I have been discussing it for some time now. Our first child is due in August, but at least two years ago I started advocating less TV in our lives.

    It’s not just for our future kids, who (as you pointed out) need some on-their-own developing time before you can really communicate with them about what they are seeing on TV. It’s also for us, when we start valuing the time together without the TV on, and we actually get more done and have more fun outdoors or on personal projects. We have already reached the point where the TV is just “barely” connected to cable in our minds – it’s more of a movie screen for us now.

    Thanks again for putting it so eloquently, I couldn’t agree with you more.

  11. I haven’t had t.v. since I was 18 and moved out on my own. I feel the same as you whenever I go over to someone’s house and the t.v. is on! I can’t believe what they get away with putting in commercials! I do feel like an alien who has come down to earth for the first time to observe a new culture, and it is a little scary. I always think “no wonder the rest of the world thinks our country is so stupid, look at what we put on t.v.”

    My husband and I were both raised with minimal t.v. time, I grew up on a ranch in a community where kids don’t watch t.v. and was usually doing some chores or playing outside, and my husband’s family is very catholic and his mom didn’t like all the violence and sex on t.v. so she didn’t let the kids watch it. Now that we are expecting our first kid, we definitely plan on continuing our life without t.v.

    I agree with Anne above, when you grow up without t.v. you do come up with some awesome games, you have to be much more creative because you don’t have all the images from the t.v. to go off of when you make believe. My husband has 6 siblings and they practically have their own language from all the stuff they did and created as kids. It’s amazing!

  12. I really enjoyed this post! We enforced the no TV for the first 2 years and now that my daughter is almost 3, we let her watch a few things here and there (mostly Mr. Rogers, Sesame Street, Dinosaur Train) but I can tell a difference in her temperament when she watches more than 1/2 or so a day. We try and have many many days of none @ all. I do feel it has been a big benefit for her and for us.

    I can completely relate to what you said about feeling out of it when watching mainstream TV nowadays. When we do watch something @ home, it’s usually on a DVR or the internetubes, so when I see commercials, it really freaks me out, just as you described!

    Anyway, I have gone from a complete TV addict when I lived alone (seriously had it on ALL the time even if I wasn’t watching it), to a barely an hour or two a week TV person and I’m so much happier. Now, um, we won’t talk about how much I’m on the internet or Wii, heh.

  13. I really appreciate this post. I have come to rely on the TV to “watch” my 1 year old while I take a shower or do a task uninterrupted. We keep it to under 2 hours a day, but I still feel guilty. We do watch TV as a family activity, something my hubby and I did before having kids. Since we watch Netflix, PBS or DVDs, I also feel strangely disconnected from folks when TV talk comes up, despite being a regular viewer.

    While we do have our girl watch PBS or Netflixed kids’ shows, I’m still bothered by the amount of “bad guys” on some of these shows. They are generally portrayed as all bad and must be stopped and disliked. This bothers me, since I believe all people have some good in them and it’s important to understand people’s experiences and perspectives rather than just labeling them. This bothers me almost as much as seeing violence. So, I’m now trying to limit her exposure to those shows, which sadly includes the Electric Company.

    • we also watch only netflix, dvds and pbs. it’s really great having almost no commercials in the house. when i visit places where there is a regular cable tv on, i totally zone out and feel disoriented. i grew up with the tv always on except for when i was home by myself, when i preferred to read.

      if there is a very recent tv show we want to see, we just download it or watch on hulu. the problem there is that hulu makes you watch the same commercial over and over again and it is annoying.

  14. Being a stay at home mama with a 19 month old son I struggle with this all the time! At first I was totally anti-TV and then entered the Signing Time series. We knew we wanted to sign with our son but with only using books we rarely remembered to. Once we got a couple of the videos he started signing quickly but mostly as a result of us signing more too. He LOVES the videos though and the signing has helped so much with virtually every aspect of his care. For now I just let him watch one every couple days so as to not deprive him too much while at the same time making me feel better about it. What a struggle it is though! And I can only imagine what it will be like once he gets older. Thank you for this post!

  15. Great discussion. I grew up with a moderate amount of TV and going out to see movies quite a bit. It was a big part of my life and the life of us as a family. But about two years ago my wife and I decided to cancel our cable because we weren’t watching it enough to justify the cost. We have a digital antenna and the last time we turned on the TV was during the Olympics. We enjoyed watching the Olympics but didn’t like the blah feeling that comes from sitting and staring at the TV. As for movies, we rented a few when I was in my first trimester but haven’t been to the theater in 6-7 months. We are thinking about seeing the King’s Speech this Saturday if I’m still pregnant. I do feel left out when I get together with my family and everyone is discussing the latest TV or movie and telling me that I need to watch it. But with working 50-70 hrs a week, TV and movies were things I could easily cut out and not miss. Now if I could just stick with our “Internet Reduction Plan.”

  16. I grew up with a TV in my room, but when I moved out at 18, I never got cable just cause I never wanted to pay for it. So, I’ve just used the TV for movies. We have quite a movie collection. Now, with our Netflix streaming on the Wii, we’ve been able to enjoy some TV shows. My boys are 7 & 9 and have learned about their friends’ favorite TV shows by watching them at their friends’ houses. I don’t think they feel left out too much. We watch some TV shows, like Friends (since I have the collection) and others, like Bizarre Foods, Mythbusters, and Man vs Wild, through Netflix. Mostly we use TV as a starting ground for coversations. Like the time we saw a documentary on another culture whose male initiation ritual was adult circumcision. It was the perfect time to discuss why my oldest son is circ’d and the younger one isn’t. We’ve talked science when watching Mythbusters and my younger son can actually explain why some things happen. The same with the time that he explained why Bear Grylls’ raft wouldn’t work because it only had one layer of logs. Or their willingness to try any new food (and I do mean ANYthing). I’m constantly impressed by what they remember.

  17. I too have not had cable or “tv channels” for about 6 years. I also feel like an alien when I go somewhere where a TV is on. Lyra didnt watch tv for the first year, and now I allow occassional screenings of commercial free episodes of Kipper and her Chinese immersion DVDs. Im glad she doesnt know who Dora or Ariel the little Mermaid or any of that stuff is. Its our choice, not better or worse than other people’s choices, its what works for us.

    Honestly the kids shows are annoying but harmless. My big motivation for avoiding TV has been the COMMERCIALS. I think if youre pro-tv or anti tv you can probably agree that commercials are shite and shouldnt be shown to kids. Im all about a commercial free childhood.

    • Please tell me you named your daughter after His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman! That would make my heart sing. Great name, either way!

  18. I absolutely love this post, thank you very much. I completely agree and find it refreshing that there are other moms out there that believe the same things about T.V. during early childhood.
    Before I had my daughter, we’d go visit my husband’s parents occasionally when our niece was there. From birth to two years old, they would almost always be in the living room, with the T.V. on. Our niece was always stuck in a bouncy seat forced to watch it, whether it was the Weather Chanel or The Exorcist…it didn’t matter. She was exposed to commercial after commercial. She saw and heard violence and everything else because her parents and grandparents enjoyed sitting an watching the television whether she was in the room or not. I know this sounds judgmental, but I guess whatever works for them. I had decided then and there that when my baby was born, she was not to watch any television.
    She is 13 months old now and the only things she has seen on T.V. are Little Pim Spanish and My Baby Can Talk (Sign Language series) a few times a week. And that wasn’t even until she was over 10 months old. I really do think it is hilarious that there are family members that literally become very upset that we have such an ‘odd’ way of raising our child.
    Not watching any t.v. has been almost theraputic to my husband and me as well. It makes getting to watch a “big person” movie so much more special after we put the baby to bed. I love it and wouldn’t have done it any other way. Instead of my daughter pointing at the t.v. and whining when she is bored, she reads and plays. I think it is a great gift that parents can give their child.

    • I so agree with you about cutting down tv time being therapeutic! It makes sitting down and watching a movie with your SO feel like such a treat, rather than just your default way of being.

  19. This post actually prompted a very good pre-kids discussion with between me and my fiancé this morning. We’ve been trying to talk about parenting philosophy as part of preparing to get married and have kids, and reading about parenting is part of that. But the TV thing wasn’t a potential issue that had occurred to either of us before. Thanks for making us think!

  20. Great post, Rod 🙂 I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately since I haven’t owned a TV in over 5 years. Our first child is due in August and we don’t plan on getting one. We do watch the occasional TV show or movie downloaded from iTunes, and I suspect our child will grow up watching David Attenborough nature shows and maybe a classic Disney movie once in a while. I don’t really have anything against TV other than the temptation to sit for hours watching shows that aren’t very interesting, and I think there are better ways for a kid to play and learn. I do wonder about the social implications, but I suspect our kid will be able to hold his or her own on the playground without being able to talk about Dora the Explorer. I think it’s the least of our parenting worries, and having a TV-free kid will just seem natural because we’ll be TV-free parents.

  21. We actually just got rid of our TV (financial reasons rather than personal ones) and the transition was weird — I think I spent an hour that afternoon flopping about my house trying to figure out what I was doing.

    Then I turned on the radio, and cleaned my kitchen. It’s been sad because I miss the things I owned that I didn’t want to get rid of, but in terms of not having television to keep me “busy” I find myself with more time to get actually stuff done.

    That said, we still watch cartoons in the morning on the Nick Jr. website, and stream Netflix on our computers — we like television and movies, and that’s not likely to change. But it accounts for a significantly smaller portion of our day than it did previously, and that’s been a relief.

  22. I have a close friend whose kids watch a ridiculous amount of TV, so there is practically never a time when there isn’t a kids program or a film on. But my nearly 2 year old just isn’t that interested. She tries to engage the other children, who are staring at the screen, but eventually just plays with all the toys while they watch. At our house she loves to watch the Baby Einstein series of videos. I like that they are music and words and pictures. Very calm. Plus they are about 20 minutes, which is perfect for a shower and getting dressed. Or getting dinner started, or that painful half hour between dinner time and bath time when she wants constant attention but is frustrated and cranky. Anyhow, we are holding off on licensed characters and tv shows for a while yet.

  23. I’m not going to lie, but I probably won’t have a tv-free child. It’s not that I’m going to start from day one and stick my kid in front of the tv. I definitely think stuff on tv for kids is crap, there are some horrible shows and yes commercials are just horrible period. But I definitely plan on focusing more on keeping our soon to be baby, tv-free. I just find it crazy when people have a tv in their baby’s room…that just seems extreme to me.

  24. Thank you for posting this! Your path sort of follows the outline my wife and I have tentatively discussed for our daughter. Pretty much our television exposure is via netflix and sometimes hulu, so I can absolutely sympathize with feeling like an alien or outsider when congregating with other adults.

    It’s hard to make a no-TV decision, cause on the one hand there’s some pretty bad programming, but on the other hand kids need to know how to interact with other kids, and Dora or Sesame Street make good common-ground pieces for creatures who really don’t have a great grasp of social intercourse in the first place.

    So props to you for making intelligent choices and finding balance!

  25. I was raised without much reference to pop culture at all – poor family, not much TV time allowed, have to RENT a VCR player once a year or so to watch a movie. Never allowed to listen to music much other than my parent’s choice, never having enough money for the movies…and I struggle a bit more now with that then I did then, not knowing any different. When someone makes some comments about the 80’s cause I was an 80’s kid and I don’t know the music they are talking about or the movie I feel stupid and like I missed out. Although I did try to catch up, it’s not the same.

    So with my son I am totally in the camp that it is a vital part of his childhood and playgroup/school culture that he knows enough to feel included and not isolated. He is 15 months now and will maybe watch a Yo Gabba show or a Sesame Street but mostly he thinks the TV is for dancing. He runs to it and asks for a music channel and then bops away, turning in circles and stomping to the top 10 hits or whatnot and it makes him super happy, and it make ME feel like I’m preparing him to love pop culture stuff which is fun. He’s a kid – why shouldn’t his life partly be about Slinky’s and Hypercolour Shirts and New Kids on the Block – or whatever the 2011 version will be!

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