'Parents' difficulties are compounded by a lack of certainty about what role they wish television to play int heir family life, and a basic ambivalence about television. A mother of two small children says:
"When they say they want to watch TV and it's a nice sunny day, I get really mad at them. I'll tell them that I'll go out to the park and play soccer with them and they'll say no, they'd rather watch a TV program. Well, it's terribly galling when that happens, but what I do all depends on my mood, because I'm very ambivalent about it. So sometimes I'll tell them, "I think you're very stupid to stay indoors on a beautiful day, but that's your own decision," and then other times I'll just slam it off and scream and march everybody out of the house."
Another mother describes similar feelings:
"I've always been in conflict with myself about television. The kids keep begging to watch, "Oh, Mom, please!" even when there's something better to do, and I want to say, "Absolutely not! I'm throwing it out the window! But I don't really want it to become a great big thing that we fight over all the time. So I've been very inconsistent about it...Some days I feel that I have to fight, and other days...I just don't. Which I guess is not very good for them, but I'm so conflicted about it."
5. Lack of Conviction
A wel-known child psychiatrist and author suggests that parents are deceiving themselves when they say they cannot control television, that it is "too much of a hassle" or "not worth the agony." She believes that for a number of reasons they don't really want to control their children's viewing.
"When parents tell me that they can't make a child do this or that, it's very easy to demonstrate that they haven't tried. I'll ask them, "Do you allow your three-year-old to walk around with a sharp knife? Do you allow her to cross the street by herself?" They'll immediately describe how they keep their child from running into the street or playing with sharp objects. So I say that obviously the child gets the message when they feel firmly about something. What's the difference, I ask them, about this particular thing that they say they can't control? They'll answer, "Well, it's not so important," or "It's only a matter of my convenience." Obviously they haven't given the child the message that they mean it, because within themselves they don't really feel it firmly. If parents want to control their children's television watching, they have to make it clear that it's as important as not playing with sharp knives or running into a busy street.
6. Lack of Confidence
The diminishing authority of the family in general has made parents less likely to rely on common sense and their private assessment of what is right or wrong when confronted with a problem such as how to limit their children's television viewing. Instead, they tend to wait for the government or the school or a psychiatrist to tell them what to do.
A mother of three children who is anxious about the number of hours her children spend watching television and yet who cannot seem to set limits, casts some light upon the crisis of confidence that afflicts American parents today:
"What's wrong with me is that I don't know what's right and what's wrong and neither do my children. Now my mother, to this day, believes in right and wrong, and she believes she knows what's right and what's wrong. But I absolutely don't. Outside of a very few moral issues, I don't know what's right or wrong about a lot of things. And the TV brings that to a head.
7. Parental Lack of Agreement
Some families' control problems are compounded by a lack of agreement between the parents themselves about the need to control television.
A father of a fiver-year-old describes such a situation:
"We had a lot of trouble saying no about TV because Peter would throw a real fit, an absolute tantrum, and that scared us, or at least me. I didn't really think television was so bad; I didn't think it was worth the struggle, since he wanted to watch so badly. But now the television stays off even if he throws a fit. An hour a day, that's the rule, and we stick to it. But it took us several years to establish it -- [laughs] several years for my wife and me to agree enough to establish it. Once it was established, Peter caught on quickly. But when my wife and I were not completely in agreement about television, he saw right away that this was a great opportunity to bug us, to drive a wedge between us. He saw how easily he could get us going with the whole television thing."
8. A Misguided Pursuit of Democracy
Some parents believe that it is somehow undemocratic to impose strict rules about television use. They fear that by laying down the law about television -- or indeed, about anything else -- they will cause their children to grow up overly rebellious or overly docile. As a result they find that their natural authority as parents and adults is undermined, and their ability to control television at home is weakened.
A mother admits:
"I know it sounds weak, but I just hate to be the one to be constantly disappointing people, regulating them, stopping them from doing something they enjoy. I don't like to be the heavy in the family. I'd rather we were all on an equal footing. That's why I have so much trouble getting the kids to watch less television, even though I see it's not good for them to watch so much."
A British mother says:
"The peculiar thing about American mothers is that they feel uncomfortable about many of the things their children do, but they won't do anything about it. They'll let them do anything. They're afraid of an authoritarian setup; that would be un-American. They don't like their children watching television for so many hours, so they set up a family conference and discuss setting up rules and so on. But the children end up watching just as much television."
9. Devaluation of Parents' Rights
Related to parents' belief that democratic principles must prevail in child-rearing, even with very young children, is a devaluation of parents' rights that sometimes accompanies the acceptance of a child-centered philosophy of raising children. A harried young mother whose consideration of her children's wants and needs have dimmed her awareness of her own rights reports:
"When my kids are being awful and rude while I'm talking on the phone, instead of disciplining them there's a part of me that says, "Yes, I'm on the phone too long.""
She has lost her perspective and sees life exclusively from her children's point of view. Such a mother will not turn off the television set when the child wishes to watch, even though she has a strong feeling that too much watching may have detrimental effects, because the child's desires [to watch] take precedence over her own [turn off the set] in most daily confrontations.
A mother of two children aged eight and four reveals a similar inability to assert her feelings and take action about television:
"I wish I had the strength not to let my kids watch. I get home at five-thirty and make dinner -- my husband comes home at six o'clock. So from five-thirty until seven or seven-thirty, the kids watch television. And there's the most horrible garbage on at those hours. Thing I can't stand, like The Flintstones.
"I just don't have the strength to make them turn it off. And these children have an almost unlimited supply of toys. But with the TV, they never touch a lot of them. Still, when I do turn the TV off, they go in and play with their toys."
10. Sleep Deprivation
The last reason parents get hooked on using TV as a baby-sitter may be the most compelling, and the one hardest to argue against. For parents desperately in need of sleep, families with a new baby, for example, or parents who must work extra hours in the evening, it is irresistible not to accept the few extra hours of sleep television offers, especially on weekends.
A mother of three boys says:
"I practically beg them to turn on the television set on Saturday mornings so they'll be quiet and I can sleep. When they play with each other they're just too noisy. They always play Emergency and imitate the siren noises - Weeeoweeowee! When they play with each other every toy is out, every hat is on, every truck is moving -- I suppose that's fine, but I can't stand it! I need my sleep. The six-year-old is usually up at the crack of dawn, and if it weren't for TV, he'd be playing with all the toys, too. But now he turns on the set and watches quietly until nine, when we get up."
Of course parents in the pre-television era had some tricks up their sleeves that bought them that extra sleep -- setting out special snacks in the kitchen the night before, or books or games or toys, for example, to keep the kids amused on those Saturday mornings. Bribery sometimes works -- if you kids let us sleep until nine, we'll go to the zoo in the afternoon. None of these strategies are completely admirable (or necessarily as effective as TV). Even so, for a family dominated by television, in the long run it may be worth losing a bit of sleep to gain control of that powerful medium.
My personal note about that last part: Though I was raised on TV, my Dad was pretty good to us on Saturday mornings. We woke up sometime between 7 and 8:30 (I don't remember exactly when) and while we watched the Saturday morning cartoons, he served us bacon, eggs, and other delicious breakfast on TV trays. While I don't do that with my children, preferring to eat breakfast with them, pray morning prayers, and do Saturday Morning Clean-Up, I like that Dad didn't make us wait until after 9 for breakfast and he was involved a little with us during that time. He usually took us to a park to play soccer or to a parking lot to use our roller blades later on too.