No television, no problem for three young boys

December 22, 2005|By ANN HILLERS

It's 4 p.m., twilight's witching hour, and children all over America are starting to get restless.

Here in my house it's fairly quiet. I'm making dinner with one son, age 4, who is whisking the oil and vinegar for a salad dressing. My other two boys, ages 5 and 2, are in the family room. One is playing with Legos; the other is listening to a CD and reading a comic book. There is no television blaring in the family room, no Sesame Street video teaching them their letters. There never is. And five years into this "zero-TV experiment" my husband and I embarked on, there never has been.

I am still a curiosity to friends and neighbors.

"How do you get anything done?" is the most common query. "Don't they watch a little while you're getting ready for school?" The answer is no, they truly don't watch any TV.

It's amazing how self-sufficient children can become if you force them into it. Because they've never had a television for entertainment, my kids don't miss it. We don't have to negotiate how much or when and what to watch. It's not a unit of currency in our household.

My husband and I are not new-age groupies. We don't run our house on solar energy, eat only raw foods or sew our own clothes. Nor are we anti-technology. We have a computer, and the kids are allowed the occasional game. We own a television, although without cable or bunny ears, we effectively own nothing. And because we're not trying to run a Soviet state or create a bunch of culturally deprived aliens, the kids have "Friday Movie Night," usually a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

It is not impossible to live without commercial television for young children. They just develop other audio or visual pleasures. They teach themselves to read. They listen to music or books on tape (the library has a terrific selection of cassettes that narrate all the children's classics).

Or they become enraptured with CD stories of giants, pirates and knights, narrated by Jim Weiss in a wonderful British accent. Without the distraction of television, they're forced to speak with each other and solve problems when they have rather unlimited time on their hands to play.

When they're older and on to our game, my children, I'm sure, will start demanding television. And just as surely, we'll give in. But we hope they'll be so turned off by the selection - is there really a wife-swapping show? - that they'll continue on this path of alternate entertainment.

Until then, I can't think of a case to be made for younger children being plopped in front of a set. The first two years of life are the greatest period for brain growth and absorption; what's learned then sets the stage for pretty much everything that's going to come later. Why not fill it with good stuff (just as you try to feed their little bodies with wholesome foods) while the opportunity is there?

Even if your family's lifestyle doesn't allow for as drastic a measure as zero TV, there's always a case for more-limited viewing. Turn it off when no one's in the room. Never have it on during meal times. Don't flip it on out of habit when there truly is time for something more family-centric.

Try cutting an hour out of the viewing schedule and dedicate that time solely to play: Break out the play dough, read a book together, bake cookies, do a puzzle. No matter how much your kids love Barney, they love spending time with you more. Guaranteed.

From what I've seen on the tube, I'm not depriving my children of anything. I'm shielding them, as long as possible, from a world of violence, overstimulation, poor grammar, product branding and name-calling.

This will be their world soon enough - a sometimes inhospitable, hard-to-navigate terrain of cliques and peer pressure and bad choices and disappointment.

For now, before the general unkindness of the world is thrust upon them, I'm happy to have my sons just a little clueless about who exactly the Super Heroes really are. Maybe they think they're my husband and me.

Ann Hillers lives in Lutherville. Her e-mail is annhillers@comcast.net.

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