Thursday, January 24, 2013

Am I inadvertently turning my child into a television junky?

Caleb is allowed to watch one TV show a day.  If he's good.  It's a reward he gets most days, which is, truth be told, more a result of my need for 30 minutes of silence than good behavior on his part.

I want to limit his TV intake for probably the same reasons as most parents: I'd rather him play outside and interact with the world.  I worry about what it might do to his brain development in some vague and not scientifically investigated way.  But the biggest reason I want to limit his TV viewing is because of the ugly display that happens each time he's forced to turn it off.  It's just a bad scene all around and an indication of a deeply unhealthy attachment.

This is how it goes down:  [Background: We don't have TV, so he watches DVDs and is always hoping to sweet talk me into another episode.] When I approach to turn off the computer, Caleb looks up to me with terror in his eyes and clutches the laptop like a it was a dying friend, begging, "NO NO PLEEEAASE MAMA NO" with the desperation you might reserve for pleading with an axe murderer to spare you.

If I can wrestle the thing from his hands without any major electronic damage, I get a final "MOM No!!" that sounds a lot more like "You BASTARD!" and he falls dramatically to the floor in final display of misery.

Even so, I can't regulate it entirely.  When I'm not looking he steals away to our neighbor's house to watch stare transfixed at Spanish soap operas.  I'm quite sure he has no idea why that buxom brunette is, yet again, screaming abuse at that mustioched cowboy, but there are people moving around on a screen, so it's winning.  I have to drag him home.

But now I'm starting to question my semi-firm regulation of his TV intake.  Here's why:

During a recent visit to South Africa, we spent a lot of time with our good friends who have a beautiful little girl just Caleb's age.  The TV is frequently on in their busy multi-generation household. But Kimberleigh doesn't seem to care. In fact, amazingly, she chooses to STOP watching the TV, on her own, to go outside and do something more interesting.  On. her. own.

Since it was vacation I had pretty much discontinued our TV policy, and Caleb had at it.  And he was completely unable to self regulate.  He'd watch the TV for hours and hours, even as Kimberleigh tried to entice him to go outside and ride bikes or play in the pool or jump on the trampoline.  Her A material. But Caleb, like a junky unable to tear himself away from a his habit, preferred the dark recess of his cartoon den.  It drove me crazy.
Seriously Caleb?  Mouth agape and everything.
All of this made makes me wonder if I've just made the TV even more appealing and special by limiting it.

I've polled some friends and the consensus seems to be that those who weren't allowed much TV as kids would go over to their friends houses in which TV was allowed, plant their butts in front and remain immovable.

When I was growing, my mom seriously limited our sugar intake and we were even on sugar free diets for a while (thanks pre-Ritalin cure for hyperactivity). We learned the horribleness of carob and diatetic hard candy.  And then we'd go to our friends house and there would be actual candy bars, the kind with real sugar and chocolate, just sitting there in a cookie jar in front of God and everybody, and we'd whisper conspiratorially to our friends: "Do your parents know?"  They'd shrug and say they weren't that into it.  Could take it or leave it. I'd go home and sneak baking chocolate from the cupboard and eat in under the kitchen table.

In fact, I still, as a grown adult with children and taxes, sometimes eat so much sugary candy that I make myself sick.  You see what I'm getting at, right?

I'm not suggesting a Lord of the Flies situation where the kids make the rules and hedonism wins out. I know they can't self regulate.

But I'm wondering if restricting something so much, makes it too appealing.  Will our children grow into binge TV watchers and screen interfacers because we limit it, in the same way American teenagers binge drink illegal alcohol, while their European counterparts politely sip at their completely legal wine.

I'm kind of at a loss.  How do I regulate TV watching without turning it into a hard to resist forbidden fruit?  Should I just take off all restrictions?  What do you do?


  1. I had the EXACT same upbringing - extremely limited television, and I too snuck baking chocolate. I can't believe it. I also went to college and ate my weight in sugared cereal since I'd never seen so much sugar in one place. But, just like my parents, and you, I limit television and get the tantrum at the end. And I get a constant request for television since I'm more haphazard when Ella watches it. I'm not sure which is better, but I like to remind myself that we limit the television for a reason, and we might not necessarily have a child who walks away if it was always on. And Ella and M.J. get a WHOLE lot more junk then I did, but I question constantly whether that is a good thing. Sigh.

    1. So glad this resonates with someone, and that I'm not the only one to clandestinely eat baking chocolate! I think I ate soft serve ice cream with sprinkles every single night my first semester in college because, well, it was THERE! : )

  2. The forbidden fruit thing - I've been thinking about that too. We seriously limited TV for a very long time and lately it has snuck in a lot more than I would like it too and I've found that when I don't limit it they are not as interested. When I was growing up there weren't any restrictions that I can remember on the TV and I could care less about about watching one so I do wonder if I'm just being a grinch but I just don't like seeing them zone out in front the TV.

    1. I know! I feel like I keep collecting anecdotal evidence that if you don't restrict it, your kids choose to turn it off. But I still feel like I don't want it to be a free for all. I mean, what if they DON'T choose to turn it off. But I don't think TV is evil. Caleb has learned a lot of useful things I haven't bothered to teach him, about the animal kingdom, Spanish (thank you Dora) and problem solving (thank you Mickey Mouse club house).

  3. My nephew was raised on sugary cereal, Dorito's, pizza and Pepsi. I was sooo worried about his long term health. At about 14 or 15 he just pulled back himself and wanted "real" meals. He has always played sports, has never been overweight, and now is almost a gourmet chef. He cooks wonderful, healthy meals for his family. Let it go, Caleb will be like Kimberleigh especially since the video's will get boring. I let my kids watch Sesame Street, Mr Rogers and Electric Company everyday; they got a lesson I got a break. They learned to read from these shows and never stopped. They are always with a book in hand. Good luck.

    1. That is SOO interesting about your nephew! But despite everything I said in my post, it still feels risky to feed the kids a bunch of junk and sugar for fear of developing bad health and eating habits. It's probably worse for a kid with a slow metabolism, unlike your nephew, who sounds blessed. And I agree, the educational television shows give them a lesson and you a break. What's not to love about that!?

  4. Hi Kim!! I can totally relate to your post (as always). Since having my third everything is just more relaxed because we all need some sanity. The kids now get an hour of TV or screen time after their homework, and two hours on the weekends (so they can watch a movie at night, or so we can sleep in a bit), and dessert on the weekends. I have found that sticking to these rules each time makes for less tantrums (although, really nothing to be done about the whining). Also, I remember what my mom told me and what her mom told her: "small children equals small problems. Big children equals big problems." I have a feeling your beautiful, smart, and sweet children will grow up to be happy contributing adults no matter how much TV or sweets they eat because they have such wonderful parents :-) Love you and Miss you!!

    1. I think you are totally right. I downplayed this in my post, but I think a key source of Caleb's tantrums is that I'm so inconsistent about it. I really do give in to a second show when I'm in the need of a longer break and just don't want to fight it. When I was stricter, he definitely had fewer tantrums.

      And that was such a sweet thing to say at the end of your comment. Definitely made my day Dina!! I miss you too!!! Give those three beautiful kids kisses from me!

  5. Kim - when you get a chance you should rent the Woody Allen movie, "Radio Days." In it, his parents complain about him listening to too much radio. After seeing that movie, I came to the conclusion there is something in every generation that parents think is going to warp their child's intellectual development - radio, tv, video games, iphones. Take your pick. I think its OK to allow it with limits (of course, I do - that's what I did). But once you started visiting other friends' houses - all bets were off.

  6. The problem with advice is typically there is no one crude generalization that includes all people in all situations. While Lil Kim was more interested in outside play, maybe because she is more physical, or nature loving, while other children like the quiet of home, moms cooking in the kitchen, and the information laden moving picture screen that needs next to no interaction. Now thats a matter of individuals preferences, so it seems to me that it's more about setting boundaries thats the real issue. Thats the balancing act that makes being a parent tough. What works for me and Sierra may not work for you and Caleb. But one thing you can depend on is the inquisitive nature of children. If you are forbidden to do something, the first thought is.. why? What am I missing? Whatever it is... like your alcohol analogy, catholic school girls are known for what? Being promiscuous because of sexual repression(another crude generalization). When something is taboo, it becomes the only thing you want.
    So despite my earlier statement about what works for me may not work for you.. I say have a movie night where you just watch inspirational, thought provoking movies that conjure questions and delivers insight. Even a Doc. about where you guys are would make him look at his world differently and it's quality time, while staying engaged. And for the day to day make sure you have something lined up after TV time to peak his interest, so the reaction isn't "yeah yeah the outside I've seen it". But I think you can feel confident in what ever you decide he will be an outstanding young man.

  7. Hi Kim!

    I'm not speaking from experience (yet), but rather from a vague understanding of the Love and Logic approach, which seems to work well for friends of mine -- maybe you could involve Caleb in the process of setting limits on TV watching? You could ask him to figure out what a reasonable amount of TV watching is, helping him to understand the different costs and benefits of too much or too little TV. If you're up for the challenge, you might even suggest that he set a ridiculously large amount of TV watching and let him live with the consequences of missing a meal or staying up too late and being tired. I think the idea behind this approach is to give him the confidence to set his own limits and understand (from his own experience) that there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Also, if he's setting his own limits, he's less motivated to be sneaky about grabbing extra TV time at a friend's house. He might still do it, but at least he won't have an incentive to be dishonest about it.

    Of course, the risk is that he sets a too-large but not ridiculously large number like 2 hours and is perfectly happy with that decision! But even then, I think you might still accomplish the goal of making TV less of a forbidden fruit.


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