By Bethany Saltman
I was listening to the radio the other day and the uber-intellectual Susan Jacoby was being interviewed about her new book, The Age of American Unreason, which is essentially yet another book outlining how Americans have become so illiterate. She was discussing the section of her book that dealt with the so-called educational toys and videos for babies and toddlers and how they are being so overused and abused that research has shown that children who are overexposed to these forms of entertainment actually develop vocabulary less readily than other children. This is not particularly new or noteworthy. What I found surprising was how she then commented breezily that people may assume she is some kind of weirdo who thinks children shouldn’t watch any television or videos. And of course, she laughed, she doesn’t believe that. She then went on to describe her own personal TV usage and how difficult it was for her to experiment with not watching any during National Turn Off the TV Week.
As I listened to her talk, I thought of the last time I visited the doctor with my two-year-old daughter Azalea. As usual, Shirley, the super-friendly receptionist, offered her a sticker for being such a trooper. “Do you want Dora?” she asked. Azzie was blank. She nodded politely, probably trying to be cool. Whatever you think about TV, cartoons, and consumerism, isn’t it strange that we so readily assume that every child will know who a made-up character is? Thinking back to my college days, the bumper sticker Smash the hegemonic discourse comes to mind.
For some reason, the idea of questioning the assumption of media-generated childhood connections is very disturbing to even the most educated and well-intentioned people. Take my in-laws, for instance. When I was pregnant, my husband and I told them we were quite happy to remain TV-less, and they reacted as though we were planning on getting rid of our indoor plumbing. Both of my in-laws are hyper-smart, Ivy-league-trained physicians. They are not media junkies. But something about the idea of keeping children away from mass culture makes people uncomfortable. Last time we left Azalea with said in-laws for the day, a Sesame Street DVD was placed, front and center, on their agenda. Of course we didn’t say anything. We may be OK with raising a weirdo, but we want her to be a well-adjusted weirdo, and arguing over a couple of hours of Big Bird is just silly. Sometimes Azzie will make references to these ubiquitous beings, but she calls them by the wrong name. Like the other day, out of nowhere she said, “I love Big Burt.” Her ignorance is my bliss.
I know, I know. Of course there is no escape from pop culture—and all right already, it’s not all bad—just as there is no escape from cancer-causing chemicals and artificial growth hormones. But that’s no reason to hook the kids up to pesticide pumps and say, well, this is how I was raised, and I turned out OK (and do we really know if we are OK?).
The truth of the matter is this: we don’t have a TV. I guess this really does make us strange. We live in the woods and go throw rocks into the river for fun. Literally. But my husband and I love to download episodes of the TV series Lost and watch them on Friday nights. And we workout to Tony Horton DVDs as often as possible (Ab Ripper, Yeaahh!!!). And a couple weeks ago, Azalea was the sickest she’s ever been with a super-high fever and no interest in anything but lying on my lap. So what did I do? I called my friend and asked to borrow some DVDs. We watched those. Then I found Harold and the Purple Crayon on YouTube, and we watched that. Then we sat through “Malti Malti” from the Dan Zanes’ website at least 20 times. And I offered poor little Azzie a high-fructose corn syrup fest of ginger ale and Nillah® Wafers, wanting her to eat something, anything! She slept on the couch for the first time ever, her little body stretched out and wild like the teenager she will surely become. It was all, actually, really sweet, a kind of nostalgic reenactment of what was tender in my own childhood.
Then the fever broke.
For a couple days after the sick-spell, Azalea asked to watch “bideos,” and I just no. “But we can listen to music,” I said.
“OK,” she said. And now she doesn’t even ask.
Checking out of TV land is really not a big deal. It is a personal choice, and one that I am willing to stand by
Bethany Saltman lives in a blue house in the Catskills of New York state with her husband and three-year-old. Her work can be seen or is forthcoming in Parents, Body + Soul, The Sun, Buddhadharma, and Geez. She writes a monthly column for the Hudson Valley magazine Chronogram (www.chronogram.com) on being a being a Buddhist mom, which she is. You can read more of her work on her website: www.bethanysaltman.com.