For two years, my husband and I posed the question (only, of course, when our children lay asleep, blissfully unaware of the domestic bombshell lurking in the wings) in contexts alternating from discussion to debate to dispute.
It amazes me to think that, before 1996, the question simply didn't exist. As a parent who wanted the best for her preschoolers, I welcomed what public television had to offer, particularly "Sesame Street." (As a Jewish parent, I got a kick out of the show's Monsterpiece Theatre segment spoofing Fiddler on the Roof: "Here in our little village, we have a fiddler on every roof. And how do we keep track of all the fiddlers? That I can answer with one word: Addition!")
But all too soon, our youngsters outgrew the wit and wisdom of "Sesame Street." They clamored for inane, empty-headed quiz shows, cartoons featuring violence and cruelty, and "family-hour" sitcoms with humor ranging from the sarcastic to the sadistic. Each TV craving celebrated behavior diametrically opposed to our family's values.
Quality, or the lack of it, was one problem. Quantity was another.
Quality, or the lack of it, was one problem. Quantity was another. "Our kids watch no more than one hour of television a day," we'd murmur cavalierly to our friends. We now admit that, on closer inspection, this boast was only one-half (actually one-third) true. For one hour prior to the designated TV time slot, while watching our kids slapdash through homework, we'd hear nothing but "Is it time yet? Can't we turn it on now? It's only ten minutes early!" During the sacred viewing hour, while watching our kids' sparkling eyes acquire a near-comatose glaze, we'd hear nothing at all. And for at least an hour after the tube's temporary demise, we'd hear (in predictable order) shrieks, grunts, wails and, occasionally, threats ("I'm not gonna take a bath..." "I'm gonna move to David's house..." "...if you don't let me watch more!"). Our kids were addicted.
The statistics alarmed us. In 1996, Nielsen Media Research announced that American children, aged 2 to 11, watch over 19 hours of television a week. In 1997, the Japanese press reported that over 700 youngsters were hospitalized after a cartoon show triggered seizures. And in 1998, Reuters cited research in Spain showing that children's risk of injury rose by 34 percent for every hour of television watched, adding that upon reaching age 70, the average person will have spent between seven and ten years glued to the tube. (For a more detailed analysis, see: The Truth about TV.)
Still, we agonized. Could our children survive the loss? Could we?
Then, a TV-less friend with remarkably well-bred children catapulted us to a decision by paraphrasing the Novominsker Rebbe: "As Jewish parents, we hope our children will live a life of integrity. When they are old enough, we teach them that there are three transgressions which we must resist even upon pain of death: murder, promiscuity and idol worship. Yet, what do we do? We bring into our home a little box that glorifies these sins. We don't just welcome the box; we worship it!"
Television's absence necessitates our presence.
Ten days later, our TV departed. We expected an insurrection. It didn't come. Within a week, our children were transformed into lovers of:
- Music. Our stereo experienced a renaissance. Tom Chapin rode high on the family hit parade. Our kids, then 8 and 6, danced arm-in-arm to the sparkling tones of James Galway's flute. They listened raptly to "Peter and the Wolf." They sang along lustily with "The King and I," "Annie Get Your Gun," "Cinderella," "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown" and "The Sound of Music."
Happily, there are many superb Jewish recordings that educate as they enchant. "The Marvelous Midos Machine [Volumes 1, 2 and 3]" takes youngsters into outer space, foreign lands and even the past to acquaint them with Torah-true character traits (midos), including honesty, modesty, kindness and respect. "Shhh! It's Lashon Hara!" spoofs the Dragnet TV classic, with police officers who patrol against gossip (lashon hara) and other verbal abuses that Judaism forbids. "Journeys [Volumes 1, 2 and 3]" offers soul-stirring English songs about baseball games, atheist conventions and kites, songs that speak to parent and child alike.
- Make-Believe. Whether they were running a paper-bag theater or a "grocery store," our kids discovered that using their imagination topped hearing a purple dinosaur sing about it.
- Books. Our kids discovered that nothing is more riveting than a good read. They clamored for our chapter-a-day rendezvous, always begging for "just one more page!" (What a refreshing change from "just one more show!").
- Athletics. Jump ropes, rollerblades, handball and hula hoops would occupy our youngsters for hours. What a relief to see them lose that couch-potato midriff!
- Scrabble. "Imma! What can I do with L, D, S, Y, A, K and F?" Those were often the first words I'd hear upon awakening. Words contribute to my livelihood, but words like these contribute to my life.
- Altruism. One summer afternoon, when my daughter hopped off the day camp bus, I looked her in the eye and said, "Tehilah, we've got an important job to do." I pulled out 60 pre-addressed envelopes about to be mailed to a local Jewish organization. "Sweetie," I asked, "how can we make each envelope beautiful so everyone will remember to come to the next meeting?" My daughter promptly ran for water paint, brushes, a cup of water, a glue stick, a white Shabbos candle and pretty postage stamps. Pressing the candle on parts of each envelope, then following up with water paint, she created magnificent, translucent, batik-like designs. My son and I became her pupils. "Imma," she exclaimed, "you're doing beautiful work!" I promptly returned the compliment. Before mailing the letters (and I let her do the honors), we photographed Tehilah, presiding over her envelopes, spread out in a rainbow collage on our dining room table. That photograph is prominently displayed in our home.
These developments have given my husband and me immense joy. But I cannot deny the bottom line: Television's absence necessitates our presence. When we consider the intellectual, ethical and emotional fees that our "electronic babysitter" used to charge, we are more than willing to take its place.
So, TV or not TV? For this family, there's no question about it.