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TV or Not TV: Battles With the Beast : How One Family Fought Off the Babbling Box, Succumbing Only for Big News (or Chicken Pox)


All the reasons for banishing TV: too much violence and sex, battles over the remote control, the glazed looks on the children's faces. . . . These never entered into our "decision" to keep television out of our home. Simply, we never had a TV, never bought one and resisted efforts by friends and family to give us one.

A history:

Before we met, my husband and I traveled a good deal, and large possessions were a burden. Neither of us owned much furniture or many appliances, including TV sets. When we got married and moved to Sacramento, I don't believe we even talked about buying a television. Neither of us can remember bringing it up. We read, jogged and spent weekends traveling around Northern California. I think we were saving money for a new car, but I'm not sure. The end result was no TV.

I recall my mother-in-law offering us an old TV and us turning it down. Why? Even now, the answers don't come easily. My husband and I both like television. TV news is both entertaining and educational. We never had anything against TV shows, politically or morally.

Partly, it may have been fear of change. Every newly married couple lives in a world of its own, and ours consisted of quiet evenings spent talking, listening to music and the radio, and going to the movies. I think we didn't want to disrupt our little Eden with such a gabby roommate. We were afraid of what would happen if we invited the larger world into our private life.

Perhaps we relished the looks--combinations of admiration and suspicion--that would cross the faces of new acquaintances when we told them we didn't have a TV. Once in a while, an unguarded person would ask: "What do you do at night?"

Our friends weren't the only ones who found it disconcerting. Once, I awakened in the middle of the night and sensed a shadow falling across the doorway. I looked up and saw a dark figure of a man peering into our bedroom. I awakened my husband. The man fled. When we calmed down, we found that our stereo was gone, and we realized that the burglar, not content with our stereo, had been searching for the TV.

Less than two years into our marriage, our firstborn arrived, a rather fussy boy. Now, some family members thought, they'll abandon this radical lifestyle, join the middle class and buy a TV. Again we resisted and, with children in the mix, the reasons became more complicated.

Debate over television usually centers on whether it is horrible for children, or just bad for them. Does it promote violent behavior, does it stifle creativity, does it discourage reading? Should parents regulate what their children watch, or should the government do it?

Most parents I know express uneasiness about the television their children watch, even when they insist on things like: "only 'Sesame Street,' " "only PBS" or "only videos rated G that I have personally screened beforehand." The fact remains that we are made to feel guilty no matter what, or how little, our kids are watching. We should be organizing play dates, baking cookies with them, supervising art projects, reading to them.

Yet small children are so demanding that it is impossible to get dinner on the table or take a shower without something to distract them. TV is easy and it works great. The kids are quiet and happy and will sit there for as long as you want them to. How does a family without TV cope with this problem?

One method familiar to all parents is the handoff. Children, especially babies, are passed from mother to father, or father to mother, depending on who is the least busy or the most tired. Another good (though short-term) solution: book tapes. Our son and our daughter, who came 21 months later, would sit rapt for 15 to 30 minutes listening to a recorded book. And two naps per day were enforced for a very long time at our house.

But nothing works like television, and looking back, that year with two kids in diapers was not the happiest time of my life. Would it have been more manageable with TV? I don't doubt it for a moment.

In fact, when both my children came down with chicken pox on the same day, a neighbor offered to loan us a small-screen TV for a week. We gratefully accepted and our kids were introduced to "I Love Lucy" and "Mr. Ed" reruns. I never would have guessed that a week with two housebound preschoolers could pass so peaceably. At the end of the week, the TV was returned, and both my neighbor and I were slightly disappointed that I did not rush out and buy another one.

As the kids got older, we entered the world of preschool and met other families. The reactions were, by now, familiar. Usually a mom would start to tell me, with a touch of defensiveness, how little television her child watched. At least one potential playmate refused to come to our house when he learned we didn't have a TV.

The children became more and more aware of how freakish we were. More than 98% of households own at least one set. Most families have more than one.

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