Outsmarted, Sometimes Tart

Television, Lofty Ideals and The Pitchman

Back when we were pregnant and studying fervently for our advanced degrees in parenting, we came across this article which suggested that children under the age of two should not be allowed to watch any television, none at all.

Their theory was that the electronic medium of television alters the tender brain chemistry of toddlers and could play a role in some of the sensory issues that beset our children today, issues that we haven’t seen so much in previous generations.  That seemed like a reasonable hypothesis to us and so we went with it and it has served us well.

Not only do we think this policy has benefited Sean’s ability to focus and recall, but until he started public school, he had no idea what Transformers were or who Sponge Bob is.  And that, no doubt, has saved us a few bucks.

Surprisingly, we got a lot of push back on our no-TV stance from well-intended folks who couldn’t believe that we would deny Sean his right to Elmo.

“But Sesame Street is a good program,” they’d say mournfully as though we were withholding milk, “They can learn so much!”

Whether or not Sesame Street and Barney and the others are good or bad or somewhere in between is debatable.  But this is not about the message.  It’s about the medium.  Big Bird is not the issue.  The issue is the unrelenting barrage of imagery and noise that is television that screws with the brains of babies.

When we tried to explain this, that we were not Big Bird haters, the response was “But there are a lot of good shows for kids on television! They can learn to count!”  And I had to assume their inability to form a logical counter argument was that they watched television before they were two.  And I rest my case.

When Sean was about four, we relaxed our stance on television a little bit, but not much.  Now that he is older, our concern about the electronic nature of the medium has declined an itsy bitsy bit, but our concern over the message has increased exponentially.  We go to a lot of trouble to monitor and limit what he watches, but still, the crud creeps in, and boy is it sticky stuff.

Well, last week, we had the flu at our house and our highfalutin’ stance on television went right out the window. (And yesterday my stance on never wearing my PJs and robe to drive Sean to school also went out the window.  I can no longer sneer at those robe-wearers. This flu has been rough on us.)

Sean came home from school sick with the flu on Friday, about 10 days ago.  He was sick on the couch until the next Thursday and then I was sick on the couch Thursday through the weekend and then AD took his turn on the couch.  Sean watched television the whole time he was sick and then whole time I was sick.  We have watched more television in the past 10 days than we have in the past seven years.   He was still only allowed to watch movies and Animal Planet and Discovery and Myth Busters and Word Girl and his usual mild semi-educational fare, definitely not any network crud, but still – a lot of television.

And at one point, I noticed I was developing some seriously sour feelings towards Flo, the Progressive chick and the State Farm guy with the weird forehead and thinking how ugly and annoying their kid would be.  It was about this time that Sean called to me from the sofa.

“Mom, can you come over here?”

I leaned over the sofa to feel his forehead.  Was he feeling worse?

He looks  up at me and tenderly reaches for my face.

“Mom,” he says, “ProActive could get rid of those red spots you have on your chin.”


“It renews, revitalizes and repairs in just three easy steps.  You can order it on TV.”

“It works in as little as three days.  Katy Perry uses it.”

“Who’s Katy Perry?” I ask.

“I don’t know.  But you can get your money back if you’re not completely satisfied.”

I think they need to emend that study to report that not only does TV alter brain chemistry in children, but there is also the real danger that your kid will turn into Billy Mays in just 10 short days.

I guarantee it or your money back.

23 thoughts on “Television, Lofty Ideals and The Pitchman

  1. Sean is a stitch. On a more serious note…How i wish I could go back and undo the t.v. I allowed my kids to watch as toddlers. The first two managed to become voracious readers in-spite of the influence but my youngest (at 10) has not. She may have learned to count and sing watching all those Barney shows but now finds reading boring:(

  2. You need to write a book…seriously. Anyway, I have a question about the tv thing. I agree and am going to do this with our baby whenever he/she arrives! Did you not have the tv on at all when Sean was around (news programs/sporting events)? It makes so much sense to do this – one of my friends just realized that one of her daughter’s favorite programs was glorifying stealing and making it all “cute-like” by calling the act of stealing “swiping” – there is even a character called “Swiper” — she immediately cut all ties to the program, but wow. You make my day with your posts!

    * * *
    We just never had the TV on when he was up and about. Even if just the news was on, he was attracted to the commercials like a moth to the light. Kinda scary. The no-TV thing was a big adjustment for us because prior to Sean, we loved to sit in front of the TV together and eat dinner and watch Survivor or The Apprentice and we just couldn’t do that anymore.

  3. Prevention is one partial way to avoid problems. Learning how to deal with them is more important.

    When people want to know how we keep our grandchildren from drowning in the pool, the answer is simple: we teach them to swim at an early age. This combined with keeping a eye on them when they are in the pool works pretty well.

    When our oldest son was two, we arranged for swimming lessons. The first lesson: dunk his head and encourage him to reach for the edge of the pool automatically. Later he slipped in the bathtub and his head went under water. He instinctively reached for the edge of the tub.

    So this is a good teaching moment to explain the dangers of believing TV advertising.

    Hope you guys are feeling better.

    PS Concerning the red spots: the observational skills of children are truly amazing.

  4. Oh, you made me laugh at the spots on your chin.

    Apparently I have screwed up my kids brain just like my own was wired wrongly. But come on, Gilligan’s Island can teach you some powerful life lessons. 😉 We watched that and I Love Lucy EVERY DAY AFTER SCHOOL. 😉 My siblings are all upstanding citizens who do very well. I however, am checking blogs when I ought to be working. Gilligan’s Island’s revenge?

  5. We’ve been slow to get to the point you started from, but we abandoned cable last summer. My 10 year old, a few weeks later, reflected “Why did we have cable in the first place? We don’t miss it, and it was expensive.”

    It’s not just that it messes with their brains, but it takes up so much time that their small brains could valuably be doing something else. Though you do have to balance your child’s development against his/her mother’s sanity (which feeds into the child’s development process), and I’m not sure I could have got through the early years without the down-time that tv allowed. I’m just trying not to beat myself up here…

  6. re Sesame Street – Yes, the program emphasizes counting and the alphabet and a few other good things. However, as was pointed out to me years ago by an older, wiser, friend, SS/tv can never answer a child’s question nor interact with him/her the way a parent can.
    Our boys – now nearing 38 and 40 years, watched limited tv, and both like to read. We’re glad for that; but we don’t attribute their enjoying books to their tv times.

  7. We didn’t allow any screen time — TV, video, anything — before age two, and now that my kid is seven, he’s allowed an hour a week. We make sure he gets his hour a day of exercise, mostly outdoors; before he was in school, he got a lot more than that. And guess what? He’s got ADHD and sensory integration issues. (He also loves to read.) It’s easy to blame TV, comforting no doubt for parents of neurotypical children to congratulate themselves on all the things done right so their kids aren’t misbehaving like that brat in the grocery line over there. Okay, that came out sounding more bitter than I wanted it to, and I’m having trouble rephrasing. I think I’m a little oversensitive to implications that my child is the way he is because of parenting errors rather than inherited wiring. But that’s not what you wrote… sigh.

  8. It’s always nice when your kid points out your flaws, isn’t it? And if Katie Perry likes it, then well, it’s gotta be good. (I have no idea who she is either!)

    Hope you all get better soon! : )

  9. AM, I am so glad that we are not the only ones with non-TV children! Our rule for TV is that it is only for rainy days and sick days. Then, this month we also got the flu. Ugh. The amount of TV we’ve seen…I can totally relate to your situation.

    Moving on, Sean cracks me up!

    Hope you are all better soon!

  10. I recall being asked when Anja was one (1! As in, I can barely even walk) if she was “into” Dora. I replied that no, she isn’t, and that I guess she really isn’t “into” anything. Now we do allow the occasional PBS show (she likes Super Why) and Kipper (sooooooo boring and mundane, not sure why she enjoys it). But unless I’m sick or have way, way too much work, no more than 1/2 hr a day.

    I know you are an even bigger proponent of imaginative play than I am, and it seems the kids who are entertained rather than entertain themsleves utter this phrase most often, “Mama, I’m bored.” I hope (hope!) to avoid that one as much as possible.

  11. We got rid of our tv completely when our girls were 3 & 4. They never really missed it. Other than sports, we never really did either. We have a monitor and VHS/DVD unit now. Sometimes we actually find time to watch a movie, but it’s really rare.

  12. Our kiddos, too, watch much less than the average, and almost never t.v. with commercials (the begging for things they see in ads makes me a little nuts). My son’s 1st grade teacher recently told me that she could tell that he wasn’t a “screen” kid based on his ability to attend in class, and the way he responds to his peers. Sure it’s not entirely due to his lack of t.v., but it sold me! Thinking about ditching the cable, too, but we do love our Discovery channel and Animal Planet!

  13. I’m sorry, but that is hillarious. Hope the whole Antique clan is on the mend! (We, too, have been hit with the too-sick-to-do-anything bug, so I get it — the whole WAY too much mindless drivel from the box thing.)

  14. We are just moving into the commercials in the last few years. Watching mostly PBS and anything with commercials thru DVR, our kids were old enough to really explain about advertising before they got completely bombarded….I remember that first terrifying ad repetition! We are blessed that ours can take it or leave it with the tv. I’ve enjoyed experiencing so many amazing shows with them, but I am not looking forward to the war over more adult programs that my husband is waging these days. At the moment, we’re watching How It’s Made and ff’ing thru commercials….Sean would love this show, if you don’t heal before you have time to check it out 😉 Hope everyone is healthy soonest!

  15. I’ll never forget the morning when my 3 1/2 year old came into my room at 5:30 to wake me up and tell me we needed a Juice Tiger! He and I were on our own, and to say money was tight, well you know. It was really hard to explain to him that we didn’t have $400 for a Juice Tiger. He accepted that I could get him one for his birthday!

  16. We already feel the same way about TV, but I’m always delighted to hear about other people doing it & it working well. And that is hilarious– guess the ads are working (kinda!). 🙂

  17. Don’t beat yourself up too much. My mother had four little kids, including a set of twins, so she was known to call the television The Babysitter. As a matter of fact, we usually watched TV/movies together as a family. All four of us kids watched plenty of TV and have different personality types, but we all still became readers. I did a lot of my college coursework watching CMT or Auburn football games (not a habit I espouse necessarily), and still managed to graduate Summa Cum Laude with a degree in computer engineering. Two of my siblings also have engineering degrees, and the third is a physician assistant (which requires a Master’s).

    So from the experience of my own upbringing, I’d have to say that teaching discipline and good study habits and providing kids with varied experiences – all of which I’d put under the heading of character development – have a greater impact than the lack of TV watching.

  18. I know this is not about TV. Sorry. My comment is..next year you and your husband (at the very least) get a flu shot. Will save you days of misery, and you won’t spread flu to anyone else, either.

    * * *

    We did get flu shots, thank you very much. Your doctor will tell you that the flu shots cover about 89 types of flu, but if you get one that is not in the magic mix, then lucky you, you still get the flu.

  19. I love it when my boys tell me I need something from a commercial they saw. Then maybe I will tell two friends and they will tell two friends an so on and so on and…..

  20. Limiting TV viewing is wonderful for so many reasons…the need for physical activity, the need to develope creativity and motor skills, etc. However,it may not be the answer to the prevention of ADD. I believe the child with true attention deficit disorder comes programmed that way. What will help him/her most are the experiences he has while not watching tv. Don’t thinkk watching tv will cause ADD in a child who does not have that particular neurological wiring.

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