A year ago, my husband and I held our breaths and took the plunge. For years, I had been thinking that life would be better -- if not easier -- without television. I'd always limited our children to an hour-and-a-half a day, but it took a long time for me to build up the guts to get rid of the tube altogether.
After all, it was a great diversion during the witching hour or when I was dying for a rest in the afternoons. Mostly, the kids watched videos, which most people think are more benign than many children's television shows, though I'd always felt that the focus on content missed the point. It was the process that bothered me. Yes, TV got the kids out of my hair when my nerves were frayed and yes, they clearly enjoyed it: They laughed, they looked delighted, they had fun.
But they would often leave a television session cranky and tired. They chose TV over going outside to play -- or almost any other activity -- any day. They were inactive while watching, their growing bodies still, their eyes riveted, sometimes glazed. I knew that my youngest, who was six, needed to be moving his body, singing, making things up, daydreaming more than he was; that these were all healthier options for a growing mind and body than being passively fed entertainment.
TV OUT, PUPPY IN
We found a way to make the loss of TV palatable. We offered the kids a puppy in trade. Much to our amazement, they agreed at once. For our part, we agreed that rather than give the television away, we would store it in the closet and take it out for a movie once a month.
During the first television free week, our six-year-old trudged up the stairs one day after school and said, "I want to watch TV so bad it hurts." That was the only complaint I heard for months. What I did notice was that he was spending a lot more time building models, playing on the floor with the dog, with friends, or just being outdoors.
On the whole, it's been a surprisingly painless transition. And Lazlo, the homeless mutt we adopted, has become everyone's favorite new family member.
MORE CREATIVE KIDS
People who heard about our decision were impressed - and somewhat envious. Even though they might fantasize about such a move, they said, they didn't think they had the guts to pull it off.
But parents who have taken the seemingly drastic step all report that they faced no major battles.
Toby and John, the parents of two adolescents, have never had a television.
"The kids have so little time and so much homework that it's better to do other things like talking with them, singing together or playing music," says Toby, an artist.
"Our girls had to learn to entertain themselves. When you don't have TV as an option, you're forced to rely on your inner resources. There's nothing to do if you don't do it yourself."
Her daughters spend their time playing instruments, making jewelry, doing beadwork, hiking and, of course, talking on the phone.
Several families said they just didn't buy a new TV when their old one broke.
"I happily threw it out," says Maria, a teacher and mother of three.
"Television's approach to children is so disrespectful. The level of the content and language on the children's programming is very low."
Children's reactions to not having a TV vary, but none of those interviewed seemed angry or resentful or spent a lot of time and energy persuading their parents to buy one. They accept it as a fact of their family's life.
Ethan, 12, says the fact that his family has never had a TV doesn't bother him at all.
"I don't feel I'm missing something," he says. "I grew up like this, so I'm used to it. If there's something really interesting on, I watch at a friend's house."
Does he understand his parents' decision not to have a TV?
"They say it's a waste of time."
Thirteen-year-old Jesse, who has been tube-less for a year, does wish he had his old set back.
"It's boring without TV," he says. "Very boring."
How does he understand his parents' decision to scrap the tube?
"It gives off too much radiation and takes you away from doing other stuff."
And what other stuff does he do now?
"I play baseball, take karate, I'm on a volleyball team, I read."
Is that boring?
"Nope," he replies with a sheepish grin.
Copyright Ruth Mason, 2000