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. I was allowed to watch pretty much anything and as much as I wanted as a kid, since my parents worked a lot. If anything, I would say that the way in which your child absorbs TV depends on the kind of child you have. I didn’t imitate violent behavior that I saw, but I wanted to be Lisa Simpson so badly! Anytime I saw a smart or intelligent character, that’s who I wanted to be. I also read a lot of books, played outside with friends, and grew up to get a PhD in developmental psychology. So you know…don’t fret too much, you guys.

  2. As it is I only watch a few TV shows right now, but mostly we watch movies (my mom and I devour Austen, Dickens, and Bronte films). I always thought I’d like to get rid of the TV, but I love watching films plus my husband has tenitis(sp?). He has a constant ringing in his ears that he is able to ignore during the day, but at night when there is no other sound it is loud and leaves him lying awake. The solution is that he has a fan on and the tv on when he goes to sleep. I turn it off once he is asleep when I notice, but the fan has to stay on. In a way it’s annoying, but I realized that we can still minimize TV when we have a family by using a timer at night, not having cable, and having a wealth of good films!

    I’m done talking about myself now. What I wanted to say in all that is “I admire your ability to stick to your guns even though cable tv is like a religion now”. Rock on!

  3. What about having the TV on in the background, but not making it the focus of activity? Kids start developing the ability to tune things out pretty young, don’t they? As a latchkey kid, I would put the TV on for company in an empty house, then go about my business, watching it for maybe an hour total out of the five or so I’d be alone. It spooked me to be in a silent house after spending all day around my screaming peers. My brother did the same later on. We still do it now; I’ll turn on the radio now that I listen to NPR, but as a kid the radio was uninteresting.

    We’re also huge TV fans, and it makes our professional lives easier to be well-informed about what’s on TV, so when our little one arrives, we probably won’t be willing to turn it off. But I don’t think teaching children to ignore TV is a bad thing either. I figure our kids are going to grow up into a world where technology will be ever-present; why equip them to choose whether or not to use it rather than be its slave?

  4. Very interesting post. My Bubs is somewhat non-TV kid. We have a TV but it’s only used for movies and video games. It’s been getting a lot of use lately because he’s been on a big dinosaur kick and he watches the Jurassic Park movies with his daddy. But, as hubby and I are children of pop culture, he probably will be too. That said, books are also a huge emphasis (he has two shelves of my bookcase already!). We just try to strike a balance, he can watch Spider-Man, but he also has books about Spider-Man to read as well. It works for Bubs’ personality, at least, which is the main thing.

  5. The only reason we own a TV is because my boyfriend loves, loves, loves Bonanza and he has to watch old reruns of it every weekend xD We don’t watch anything else on it, so the minute they stop running Bonanza that TV is out (it’s a very old TV).
    I really want my future kids to grow up in a no-TV home, because I see how my two nephews turn into zombies whenever they watch it. There’s no getting through to them, and I just hate that empty look in their eyes.

  6. I grew up with a TV, but we never (and still don’t!) had cable. As I was born in 1990, this was somewhat odd. We basically only watched PBS. I felt left out a lot of times when other kids would talk about different shows and I honestly became a little obsessed about the ‘cool shows’ when I could see them.

    Sometimes not having something makes you want it all the more.

    That being said, now that hulu is around, I don’t own a TV and the only program I miss is Big Bang Theory which I find in other ways 🙂 on the internet.

  7. Thank you for this post! I can totally relate. It’s a very fine line between not wanting my child to be over exposed to tv but not wanting her to feel excluded from societal norms either.

    My husband and I come from different backgrounds, but arrived to the same conclusions. The TV was *always* on in his house, even during dinner and to this day, his parents watch excessive amounts of it. I was raised with very limited TV and my family never had cable, and I wasn’t ever terribly interested in TV anyway, so it wasn’t a big deal to me.

    We decided that we would not get cable tv as it was an additional expense we didn’t need and we wanted to be able to regulate what our daughter watches and didn’t want her to be exposed to commercials.

    But she watches it at her grandparents and we have netflix through the xbox 360 and what she watches must be approved by one of us first. So she’s not missing out on anything but we have a commercial free household and everybodys happy. So that’s our happy medium

  8. What about books to help bridge the pop culture gap? We don’t have a TV, but my 2 year old son knows who all the Winnie the Pooh characters are, Thomas the train, and Oscar the grouch because of books he has. This might not work as well as kids get older, but with little ones I think most popular kids shows have books (or coloring books) available.

  9. I grew up being constantly stuck in front of a tv. Was this effective parenting? Absolutely not, but I somehow managed to turn out okay. With my child, I allow her to watch tv when she wishes but I give her plenty of other interesting activities and experiences to choose from and most of the time she chooses them instead of television. That is, unless Thomas the Tank Engine is on. She’s obsessed with that show. She’s even changed her name to Thomas, but thanks to that she’s learned everything about trains. She even told me what a coupling rod was, something that I hadn’t previously known. To me, that is amazing.

  10. We didn’t have a television when I was a kid. My parents got one when I was about six, but even then, we had no cable and were only allowed to watch a movie a day (in the spring and summer, it went down to 4 movies a week.) We weren’t allowed to watch tv shows, even if they were on vhs, and renting from the movie store was for rare treats, so we had to pick from what our local library offered.

    For the most part, I’m glad. I read all the time, more than I would have if we watched television. On the other hand, I’m sad, because I feel like I missed out on a lot of pop culture.

    Now that I’m an adult, my husband and I chose not to have cable. We have netflix, we rent things from our local libraries and when I want to watch something each week (Glee!) I catch it on Hulu the next day. I think when we have kids, we’ll be more lax than my parents were, but still not have cable.

  11. This topic has actually come up in our household very recently as we prepare for the arrival of our first baby.

    When we moved into our house 3 years ago we realised there was barely any tv reception (terrible picture with just bearable sound) because we live in a bit of a valley. We could have gotten an antenna guy out to fix it or cable but couldnt really be bothered.

    We watch plenty of tv shows/movies but we download it all from the net (or buy dvds), so we can watch whatever we want whenever we want, pause/replay and not be subjected to ads. (We are APPALLED when we go to other people’s houses and see how many ads there are on paid tv and how crap they are!)

    Anyways a few months ago I commented to my partner “well I suppose we had better get tv reception now”, I assumed thats what you do, kids like tv right? But then we both stopped and thought about it and were like, hrm actually WHY should we?

    We were already planning to try and keep our kids away from too many ads/provocative music clips etc. Why not just keep going the way we’re going?

    So we decided not to get tv reception/cable. They can watch dvds or downloads of shows/movies approved by us when we are happy for them to watch. It seems kind of controlling from our normal laid back stance on parenting things, but at least this way we know what they’re watching and when and that they’re not being subjected to ads all the time.

    So our kids wont be tv free, but they wont be watching junk tv for large portions of time and accidentally exposed to things we dont want them to either.

  12. I was raised on television — mostly reruns on Nick at Nite with my dad, which instilled in me this sometimes confusing view of feminism — but I don’t think it ever hurt me. Of course I did sit more than play as I got older and TV became more of a companion to me since there were no other kids in my neighborhood the same age.

    My husband and I disconnected our cable a year ago and we really couldn’t have made a better decision for our future family. Now when we go to friends’ houses with cable and that’s all they do is watch TV, I feel like we somehow saved ourselves. I have better self-esteem, better body image, less stress. I don’t worry as much or obsess over things that might happen to my husband or our future kids.

    We have worried about the “will they be left out of the cultural influences of their age group?” question, but I feel like, with Netflix and Hulu, we can handpick what shows we feel are appropriate to our values and limit TV and Wii time so that they get more hands-on play and exploration outside of the Zombie Box.

  13. we don’t watch anything but PBS or nick jr or videos. i hate commercials too and try to avoid them at all cost. it is nice that they have channels out there that don’t have any. sometimes we watch the disney channel but i try to avoid it for the most part due to the commercials. another thing that helped me was buying the movies or watching them on nick or on utube. they have a million Aurthur and bearstein bears episodes. they are always cute and fun to watch. sometimes though, my son will talk about a show that i never heard of and he will be so excited about it because he is 11 and sees it at friend’s houses. i also limit the time they watch it. in the summer no one even wants to watch tv!

  14. my husband and I don’t have cable anymore. We stream netflix on the Xbox or watch hulu online for more current shows. Im probably going to leave it like this for awhile. Its really just a waste of money otherwise. I can watch all the good old sitcoms like Bill Cosby as much as I want with no commercials. My mom and stepdad always comment how we don’t have cable but whenever we visit we usually only watch top gear on the BBC because everything else is crap. I hate hate hate reality shows, whenever I gave up cable that was what every show was. I figured I wasn’t missing anything.

    I don’t object to my kids watching tv. I have such love for certain shows like the animated batman series, animaniacs, old nickaloden cartoons. I just object to wasting money monthly.

  15. One way to keep the kid ‘up to date’ is with books and toys based on the Tv programme or vice versa. Dora the Explorer, Winnie the Pooh…the list is endless! Then you will never hear the words ‘Don’t you know who that is?’ ever again.

    And I personally wouldn’t deny them the cinema as a treat 🙂

  16. We got a tv in the 50’s as soon as I parents could afford one. I was a Hoppy guy. Now I meet people who preferred Roy Rogers or Gene Autry. I don’t get it.

    Well, there is no accounting for taste. Of course, we all liked the Cisco Kid. His sidekick, Pancho, was played by Leo Carrillo. He was a great conservationist and there is a beach in CA named for him.

    I do have a problem with violence as gleefully portrayed, especially today. When in college I walked out of a movie, The Incident, because of the gratuitous mayhem. I saw it recently, and it hardly registered, so numbed to the viewing (not to mention three years in Vietnam) I have become.

    Still, all in all, it was great to play cowboys and indians. I have started collecting Hoppy gear, and I am amazed at how pricey some of it is.

  17. My son is profoundly autistic and mentally challenged. And for the first year of life, he fell asleep to a movie every night because that was what made parenting doable. When I got pregnant with our daughter I began to feel that I didn’t want her to grow up on TV. So since her birth they have only occasionally been exposed to TV, and most of it is second hand TV. (Like if I have something on and they walk through the room, they don’t ever really stop and watch it of their own choosing.) And I have to say even as a single mom it is a descision I feel good about. I donated the livingroom TV and only have one in my room now. And we don’t miss it. It just means family time is actual interaction instead of a movie. And then, on the couple of occasions I have let them watch a kids movie, it feels like a real treat. I feel like we will keep this up. I feel like as a parent I need to screen things for age appropriateness and this inherently means they won’t watch as much because I don’t have time to screen much. Everything in balance I say.

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