“But we’re watching Speed Racer,” my three- and four-year-old sons whined in unison. My blood ran cold, as I realized the awful truth.
TV had invaded my children’s brains when I was looking the other way. I needed to go to the grocery store. They wanted to watch TV. I was horrified.
Until they were old enough to turn on the idiot box and change the channel, I had monitored what they watched and always watched with them. We were pretty much limited to Sesame Street, which debuted when my older son Will was two years old, and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which almost always put me to sleep. Other than the occasional viewing of some mediocre adaptation of a Winnie-the-Pooh story or Charlie Brown cartoon in the early evening, the screen remained blank.
But, sometime during the preceding year, when I wasn’t paying attention, they had been captured by the machine my dad had called “the boob tube” from the Christmas morning when I was six and we unwrapped the big box next to the tree. My sisters and I were sure it was filled with toys from Grandma. TV has been a disappointment ever since.
And, now, my sons had been seduced by it when I wasn’t paying attention.
I was a fierce guardian of my boys’ hearts and minds and no demonic propaganda machine was going to win this battle. But, what to do? I thought about it and thought about it.
When I was growing up, the TV in my family’s house in the south suburbs of Chicago was the Rodney Dangerfield of electronic appliances. It was banished to the half-basement family room of our split-level home in Father-Knows-Best Land, where Dad ridiculed it at every opportunity. A wall of books on the other side of the room challenged the dumb-down device and often won. Ours was a family of readers.
In Milwaukee, we had a wall of books beside the TV, a small library of reference material the kids and I referred to regularly when we wondered about some “what” or “why” in our lives. Reading about bees in the encyclopedia was a good distraction from the pain of a recent sting. Anthony Janson introduced them to the fine art in my college art history textbook and we had fun finding the originals at the Chicago Art Institute, which we visited every year on my birthday.
But on that dreadful day when Speed Racer beat out a trip to the grocery store, I realized none of that was enough. What was I to do? I thought and thought and thought about it.
Even then, more than 30 years ago, when we had only three commercial channels and one publicly-supported commercial-free “educational” offering, most TV programming was as mentally stimulating as pabulum. Today, there are hundreds of channels and, if there ever was the faintest element of intelligent creativity there, it has stretched thin as gossamer, equally weightless in wisdom. With so much air time to fill, reality shows have replaced scripts with plotless babble. Dance programs have become news. Violence prevails.
In 1972, all that was crap-yet-to-come. It wasn’t hard to see the future, especially with Harlan Ellison’s help. The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat exposed TV for the sham it was, as did Marshall McLuhan’s message. Still, what to do, what to do? Then, one glorious day, Aha! The light came on. And it was so simple. Child development theorist Jean Piaget, B.F. Skinner and his box, Ivan Pavlov’s drooling dogs and other behavioral psychology pioneers’ findings had enlightened me to the tried and true principles of positive and negative reinforcement, which I was not reluctant to practice on my own children.
I knew my plan would work. I just had to be patient, waiting for the right moment. Unfortunately for my experiment, my kids were mostly well-behaved and didn’t require much reprimanding. We talked about things.
But, finally, one weary evening at the end of a long, cold, dreary Milwaukee winter day, I was cooking dinner and Will and Ben started quibbling nearby about something meaningful to little boys, but very annoying to their mother. I asked them to stop or go somewhere else with their disagreement. They didn’t.
“OK, I’ve heard enough,” I told them, in my most ominous tone of voice, which grew quieter and quieter the more irritated I became. “If you don’t stop it, you’re going to have to . . .” I paused for dramatic effect . . . “Watch TV!”
Dismay transformed the quibble-faces. The old truism that kids never want to do it if you tell them they have to proved true once again. “But we don’t want to watch TV!” they cried.
I was gleeful. Hiding behind the sternest expression I could manage, I said, “I’m sorry, but if you can’t behave…” They didn’t even let me finish the threat. Another whiney chorus began. “It was Ben’s fault… No, it was Will, he… No, we don’t want to watch TV.”
I took a reluctant little arm firmly in each hand and guided our mostly unwilling threesome to the now-dreaded TV room. We sat on the couch and watched some government panel drone on PBS. They begged to be set free. I played it for all it was worth and then, finally, relented.
“OK. But remember… if you start acting like that again, you’ll just have to watch TV.” They nodded solemnly and then got out of there, quick as rabbits. I turned the electronic loser’s knob to OFF, triumphant.
One night recently, when Will and I were talking about life and kids and families, he said, “We hardly ever watch TV.” It worked.