Monday, January 9, 2012

Teaching Kids to Turn Off TV

Bonnie and I are still working out the kinks in our new system for time management, and I feel like she is starting to get a real concept for the value of time. She can see first thing in the morning all of the activities she has allotted for that day and how much free time she will have if she completes everything in a timely fashion. She's learning the hard way that piddling away time between and during subjects is a poor use of her free time. Of course I told her that before, but seeing it is making it more real for her. She remains most excited about the extra time we've "uncovered" for her to read more books. (She's still working her way through the Mensa for Kids recommended reading list, in addition to regular school reading.)

Another topic Rafe Esquith discusses in his book Lighting Their Fires is television. He quotes Raymond Shaw in the Manchurian Candidate: "Have you noticed that the human race is divided into two distinct, irreconcilable groups? Those who walk into rooms and automatically turn television sets on, and those who walk into rooms and automatically turn them off." Esquith goes on to state, "Parents, television is killing your child's potential...Everyone seems to know that children should not be spending enormous amounts of time in front of screens, but the fact is, they are, and not enough is being done to stop the development of a behavior pattern that is fatal to a child's potential."

As I was reading the above words, I nodded in agreement and thought of all the media limits I've imposed with my kids, but Esquith helped me realize that it's not enough for me to set limits on the amount of screen time my kids have. As he says, "The ultimate goal in raising a child is to get him to turn off his own television set." While the boys have no problem turning the television off by themselves, they will sit in front of a computer game until I make them stop. Bonnie isn't even close to self-monitoring her television usage, and if unsupervised, I'm not sure she would ever turn it off.

I enjoy watching certain television programs, but Bonnie enjoys watching almost anything on television. If there is nothing on that she really wants to watch, she'll watch something she doesn't even like. (For example, it might be a show geared toward toddlers.) I can't stand this! She and I have spoken at length about the dangers of television and of advertising. She watches very little commercial TV, and our family has a rule that commercials have to be muted. If we are watching something as a family that includes commercials, I try to use them as an opportunity to talk about marketing. But at the end of the day, Bonnie LOVES commercials, and the only reason she mutes them is because I tell her to. Sigh.

As Esquith points out, it doesn't help a parent who tries to limit screen time to live in a society that encourages more and more screens. His book is set at a baseball game, and he mentions the screens there. A live baseball game isn't enough entertainment on its own? In addition, I don't remember the last time I was in a waiting room that didn't have some kind of media playing on a screen. Don't even get me started on screens in class rooms, but the amount of non-educational television viewing in our local public school played a huge role in our decision to pull Bonnie out and start homeschooling. And what was the number one sought-after toy for kids this holiday season? The LeapPad, another screen. I love my local library and have always taken my kids for "story hour" there, but I have a problem with the fact that they occasionally show short movies during the 45 minute program. Seriously, can't we stick to books in the library, of all places?

Thankfully Esquith gives us a game plan for teaching our kids to resist the draw of television and other screens. At his suggestion, Bonnie, Kelly, and I are currently reading Fahrenhiet 451 out loud together. I first read this book in college, and while I loved almost every word of it, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have considered reading it with my ten year old had Esquith not suggested it as necessary reading for all middle and high school students. It's a powerful and disturbing book. We are working through it at a slow pace, and I hope that Bonnie takes the messages to heart. In Esquith's words, the book is "downright brilliant and shocking enough to jolt young people out of their submission to their own 'parlor walls.'" In the spirit of transparency, I have to admit that she only agrees to read it with me in order to be allowed to watch a little television after her brothers are in bed. Another sigh.

Of course Esquith also points out that it takes time for kids to learn to turn their own televisions off. Another advantage to our work with time management is that Bonnie can clearly see that a choice to watch television takes away the option to do something else, and time can never be recovered. When I tell the boys it's time to turn off the computer or set the iPhone down, I need to be clear about why we are turning the screens off, so I can start building their own ability to monitor themselves. Teaching my kids why we need to limit screen time is proving considerably more difficult than simply limiting it. I want them to be in the group of people who walk into rooms and turn television sets off!


  1. I've homeschooled my kids sporadically, but now that they're all grown (my youngest son is a senior in high school), I'll mention the way I handled it. First of all, Saturday mornings were cartoon day. They were allowed to watch as many cartoons as they wanted from the time they got up until roughly noon. In the summers, they had to read at least an hour before they could watch any TV or get on computers. My daughter, who is now 30, had no interest in TV as a kid. She'd watch an occasional cartoon or TV show. She got hooked on bad TV at about age 13, and it was interesting because she had no ability to predict plots. My sons had to earn TV watching time. I, on the other hand, am the media addict. I'm considering getting rid of basic cable because I can watch almost everything online, but this is a difficult break to make, even though it's way too expensive. I got rid of Netflix once, then promptly resubscribed, so I want to be certain that I won't have the same reaction to getting rid of "live" television.

  2. My two kids are aware there are particular times we have set aside for TV (or for computer games) every day, and that is after the necessary work is done.

  3. Jude, that's very interesting! Thanks for sharing. I didn't watch much TV as a kid because we didn't have cable. I'm close to your daughter's age, and my brother and I watched Saturday morning cartoons and a little TV after school, which were the only times anything for kids was on. While this successfully limited my TV, it didn't help me with self-monitoring, and I went a little crazy with all the media access in college. I still have to monitor myself closely, as I readily admit to enjoying really bad, sophomoric television! We don't have cable now, and it was a bit of a shock when we first moved here. Now I find Netflix and network TV, particularly PBS, to be more than adequate. Good luck with the cable withdrawal if you go that route!

  4. Andy, we try to do that here too, though not always successfully. I don't really like starting the day with television, but Curious George sometimes happens when my youngest two refuse to sleep until an acceptable hour. Other times they wake up and start playing harmoniously without the TV. Wish that happened more often!

    I used to let my daughter watch some of her TV during the day if she'd done well with her lessons up to that point, but found it negatively affected the rest of her school work. Now we wait until ALL the work is complete before watching any.

  5. Leanna, this is something I struggle with too. We aren't too bad about tv, I don't think - we don't have cable and 99% of what we do watch is PBS. (I am so with you on the A.M. Curious George thing!) But Max and I both love the computer too much. (games for him; FB, blogs, and for me) Still trying to find a good balance for us in that department...