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Boston Globe 

TUNING OUT THE TUBE

February 17, 2000

A television set is a window on the world." "An open sewer in your living room would be preferable to a TV because at least it wouldn't pollute your mind."

Those two statements sum up the range of views I've heard regarding this ubiquitous source of entertainment and news. One of my favorite comments about the boob tube is that George Orwell feared a future with Big Brother watching us, while we ended up watching (and being mesmerized by) Big Brother.

In our house, my wife and I decided about a year ago that there would be no TV. Not that we wouldn't like to watch the occasional show or think even a small amount of TV will do our children (ages 10 and 4) irreparable harm. We would, and I really don't mind a lot of what is broadcast, but we just didn't want to have to deal with endless negotiations over what the watching limits would be. No TV set, no need for discussion. Simple.

Fifteen months into this experiment I would say it's one of the better parenting decisions we've made. I'm not going to claim that a zero-TV policy is making our kids smarter, wiser, happier, or more focused. So many variables shape well-being that I am reluctant to exaggerate the effect of a single one.

The kids haven't complained of being deprived yet - they get to watch TV at friends' houses - and I am not worried about them becoming high-tech illiterates - my son is a competent Web surfer. I get a lot of my news from the radio, and my son, I can tell from the questions he asks me, tunes in to what I am listening to. He gets his dose of reality without the graphic images TV inevitably rubs in your face.

Childhood memories of television

I am young enough to have my own childhood memories about TV. My mother, a European-born leftist, limited me to one hour a week, of public television. I was born in 1957. That would make me 7 when the Beatles made their splash on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1964. I remember feeling as if I was the only one in my class who didn't know what "the Beetles" were. I carried around an image of Soupy Sales types dressed in insect costumes for longer than I care to admit.

Later on, when I was a latchkey kid after my parents divorced, my TV-watching habits took another turn. I squandered far too many hours watching afternoon reruns of "The Munsters," "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Superman," "The Little Rascals," and "The Three Stooges" (the list goes on). I can't say I really enjoyed these shows, but they were good for procrastinating on homework. They became a habit that I couldn't kick and that made me feel bad about myself.

And now I have the responsibility of guiding my children's viewing habits.

We used to have a small TV that lived in the closet. It would come out after hours so I could watch "Nightline," and sometimes we would borrow our downstairs neighbor's VCR for a movie. But as our son got older, the requests for videos became more frequent, and every time, it seemed, my wife and I had to put our heads together to decide if "this time" fit into the guidelines we were trying to establish.

Here's where we came head to head with the dirty little secret about TV and kids. It wasn't so much that they ran the danger of getting addicted to high-octane entertainment, replete with all those fast splices and tied-in products that make the tube so alluring. It was that we found ourselves tempted by the ease with which the tube could occupy them.

Faced with plaintive requests for a video, we not only had our "guidelines" to keep in mind. We also realized every time how much easier a yes would be than a no. Not only would it keep the peace, but it would give us the next several hours to go off and read, catch up on work, or do whatever we wanted, knowing that the children's bodies were safe even if their minds were temporarily in a lazy place where most of the thinking was being done for them and served up predigested.

Getting rid of TV altogether saved us from being conflicted every time the issue of videos came up. Now it's hard to imagine life with TV. None of us miss it.

Speaking for myself, I did like the nightly news. But now I log on to the Internet for 15 minutes before I go to bed. I get the top stories and can inform myself in a little greater depth about the things that pique my curiosity. All this in half the time of the nightly news, without the nauseating commercials and without being led around by the nose to the various offerings.

That brings me back to the Internet. From what I can tell, there are no major trends or fads in school that our son is ignorant of because of the lack of TV.

He can research any of these on the Web and get a pretty decent understanding of what they are all about. There's no danger of him mistaking John, Paul, George, and Ringo for actors in bug suits.

He has pen pals through kid sites on the Internet. He also had some unsavory links e-mailed to him through his Yahoo account. I bought Net Nanny, a filtering system for parents that has the added advantage of a screen saver with lingering messages like "Don't Believe Everything You Read on the Internet," lest he not remember.

His surfing takes some monitoring, but so far I haven't seen anything as objectionable as the steady stream of violence served up even in cartoons. The sites he visits may not always be the most edifying, but the possibilities for exploration are virtually limitless.

Our 4-year-old daughter is a handful, and many is the time I'd love to sit her down in front of the box to relieve me of her constant demands. I can tell that she picks up a lot of the superhero ninja kick-fighting mannerisms second hand from day care. She'd soak all that up, and more, like a sponge if she had easy access to TV. But even though it is a burden in the short run, being forced to actually do more things with her will be worth it for the future memories, if nothing else, when someday I look back and wonder where those precious early years went.

Free time for other pursuits

Then there are all the things our children simply wouldn't have time for were they watching afternoon or evening TV. Our daughter is starting to get into doing puzzles on her own. Our son plays with friends and he practices his flute. He also has downtime with no overt stimulation tugging at his attention. Sometimes he comes to me proclaiming boredom and asking what he should do. One thing I can't say is: "Go watch TV." Either I'll have to take that extra parental step and suggest an activity he hadn't thought of before, or I'll have to tell him to deal with his boredom (not an unhealthy exercise at all) until his own young, creative, and fertile mind comes up with the way forward. It always does. Often in ways he hadn't thought of before.

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