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Ventura County Perspective

As a Parent, Television Is a Failure

Adults may not be able to control what children do. But they do determine who--or what--provides their socialization.

May 09, 1999|KEVIN C. BUDDHU | Kevin C. Buddhu lives in Ojai and teaches English at Adolfo Camarillo High School

"Daddy," my 3-year-old declared earnestly, "if a bad guy comes in the door, I will shoot him."

He stood unclothed, angelically smooth in his naked state. In his left hand dangled a water pistol: a Day-Glo but otherwise perfect facsimile of a German Luger.

"You could," I suggested politely, "shoot the floor with the water, toss a bar of soap under his feet and run to call the police."

His brow knotted briefly. A conspiratorial grin widened his face and we both laughed--he at the chance to trick someone, me at my good fortune to defuse yet another bomblet that conspired to convince my son that ending human life solves problems. I made a mental note to screen birthday party gifts and pondered yet another chapter of my ever-expanding life as a parent in a society gripped with media-influenced violence aided and abetted by parental laxity.

As an educator and parent, the brazen executions at Columbine High School chilled me in ways that reach far beyond my duties in a high school and my responsibilities as a father: These children killed for unknown reasons, and in a very real sense represent The Nightmare for parents and teachers--losing touch with the young lives we have chosen to rear and educate.

By no means do I wish to heap the problems of our society and schools onto television viewing. However, I cannot fathom any long-term good that comes from hours of watching a flickering screen.

When we watch television, we do nothing else. We have no other experience. For children younger than 5, this holds devastating consequences because the act of watching TV is the only one that permits so much intake while demanding so little outflow. Young children's needs differ greatly from those of adults: Children have to participate to acquire fundamental skills in communication, to find and develop a capacity for self-direction and to sort out their place in a social scheme in a way that places them in direct contact with others. The act of watching television limits these possibilities.

Adults watch television and relate what they see on the screen to life experiences they have had, but a young child whose primary activity is watching a screen sees life as a reflection of television. Psychologists suggest that this dehumanizes, mechanizes, make less real the relationships the child encounters in life. For him, life events will always carry subtle echoes of the television world. And now, even more insidiously, teen society reverberates with the images of bloodletting and casual evisceration that pass for normal events in video gaming.

Five years ago, while trekking through Nepal, my wife and I stayed with families in teahouses, drinking in the laughter and boisterous love that filled their homes. Without electronics, they relied on the time-tested methods of entertainment where people sing, play music and cards and, above all, tell stories.

In Thailand we wandered darkened streets lined with rickety metal-roofed shacks. As we walked, one sound was missing among barking of dogs, the honking of horns and the white noise of city life: human voices. From inside these houses, the cold blue glow of television screens bathed the walls. We did not hear laughter, singing or the voices of joyous humanity. Instead, the tinny sounds of electronic bleating seeped out into the streets.

Months later, we listened to a researcher interviewed on the BBC. The researcher stated that cultures worldwide had changed through the erosion of their traditional values when media entertainment had supplanted time-honored family activities, making the world into an ever-more-homogenized world society. Sitting in our tent on the coast of New Zealand, staring out to sea and listening to our shortwave radio, we realized that we had witnessed this same phenomenon in while traveling through Asia.

My involvement with young people and my lessons from the road have shaped my parenting. When I ask my students, "What would you do to have a better relationship with your parents?" they look at me with genuine concern. When I ask, "How many of you feel that your parents' careers come before you?" their looks speak volumes.

I have one unwavering passion when it comes to shaping the lives of my children: I want to give them as much love and creative attention as I can for as long as they want it. I will read and puzzle and paint with them for what I hope is another decade. The television, the videotape and the computer game have no discernible value in this regard.

I am far from a perfect parent and educator. I do know, however, that time spent in the first decade of my children's lives reading, painting, working puzzles, gardening and learning music have infinite value. My children, no matter how isolated they may feel from their peers, will always know that I respect and love them enough not to allow for a surfeit of impersonal care through plug-in machines. Their core socialization will come at the hands of their parents.

Gary Anderson, a noted researcher in the field of drug addiction, uses this litmus test for substances: If the substance is really good for us, we can recommend it to children wholeheartedly. Considering the mayhem at Columbine High School, the desensitizing nature of electronic and video images, and the absolute need for more families to spend time interacting in socially productive ways, how can we as parents lean on machines to help us raise our children?

Although we cannot ultimately control what our children do, we have every bit of control over what we do as parents and teachers.

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