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Cold Turkey

Cold Turkey

After some bouts of panic, a family decides to kick the TV habit.


My wife Jody and I had been out for the evening. Our usual babysitter couldn't make it, so we hired someone who we didn't know all that well.

What exactly transpired while we were away we may never know. But when we got home, the babysitter was upset. Apparently, she and 12-year-old Amir had gotten into disagreement over the TV. He wanted to watch. She said it was bedtime.

Now some babysitters may be bad. Some may even be true evil stepmothers-in-training. But there's a basic rule that enables the system to function. And that is: you don't hit the babysitter -- you listen to her.

My first inclination was to lay down some sort of punishment. I had just finished reading the kids the book "Ella Enchanted." Amir would make a fine scullery maid, I thought.

As I walked down to Amir's room, where I imagined him waiting in bed with dread anticipation, I still wasn't sure what I was going to do or say.

But I had a nagging feeling that the heavy handed approach stood a strong chance of backfiring. The goal here was to promote a lasting change in both TV and babysitting behavior.

There are eight stairs from the kitchen where I stood to the kids' floor. Somewhere on step six, I knew what I had to do: Listen. Just listen.

And somehow I did. I let him talk. He told me what happened. I didn't judge. And when I did speak, it was in empathetic terms.

Amir was flabbergasted. He had girded himself for the worst. And it hadn't come.

"Now Amir," I said at the end, "I want you to give some thought to how we can make this better, how we can make sure this kind of thing never happens again. We're going to have a family meeting in a few days and we'll talk about it then."

Then I kissed him goodnight and left.

Two days later, it was time for our weekly Family Meeting. Jody opened by asking all three kids if they knew the difference between a "right" and a "privilege." The concept was a little hazy, so I pulled out the Webster's Elementary Dictionary.

"A right is something to which one has a just claim, such as the right to freedom," I read aloud. "A privilege is a right or liberty granted as a favor or benefit especially to some and not to others. Now, how do you think we view TV in our house? As a right or a privilege?"

Ten-year-old Merav got it right away. "It's a right."

And what should it be?

"A privilege," she answered with enthusiasm.

Perhaps she didn't see where this might be going. Amir did, and he cringed a bit, but his resistance had already been broken by the conversation those two long nights before.

"So, do you think that maybe our family watches a bit too much television?" Jody asked coquettishly. "That we view it more as a right that can never be taken away?"

This time Amir jumped in. "Yes," he said, knowing that to not only be the right answer, but true. Now it was Merav's turn to look around the room uncomfortably.

"And do you think we spend enough time outside? Or playing with all the toys we have in the house?"

Five-year-old Aviv perked up at the mention of toys.

"Do you think maybe our family would function better if we watched less TV?"

Nods all around.

"Does anyone know the expression 'cold turkey?'" I asked.

You could see their minds picturing uncooked turkey on the kitchen counter.

I had done my research and traced the origin of "cold turkey." According to the website IdiomSite, the phrase describes the skin's reaction to heroin withdrawal. As an addict stops using the drug, blood is drawn toward the internal organs, thereby leaving the skin to resemble a cold, plucked turkey.

I left out the details of which drug we were talking about. But the metaphor was clear: we as a family had become hopelessly addicted to TV.

"We can turn TV from a 'right' into a 'privilege.' What do you guys think?" To my amazement, they bought in. Apparently they had realized the level of illness our family had descended to.

"I think the only way we're going to kick the TV habit is to go cold turkey," I said. "Not just a reduction from 10 hours this week to 7 hours next week to 3 hours to one. But completely stopping it."

"Completely?" Merav panicked for a moment.

"We can introduce it back in at some point for special treats. But no more automatic watching whenever you want or whenever you go home. I think we can turn TV from a 'right' into a 'privilege.' What do you guys think?"

To my amazement, they bought in. Willingly. Apparently they had realized the level of illness our family had descended to.

Since that point, the change has been remarkable. We've found toys and games that haven't been played with in years. Aviv has made riding a scooter his special passion. Amir picked up one of my favorite Sci-Fi novels and Merav is out playing even more often with her friends.

We didn't get rid of the tube and we're still plugged in to cable. We've already sat down as a family on several occasions to watch a movie as a Saturday night family activity. But the habit is well on its way to history. Jody and I might even be able to get out for an evening.

Now I wonder which babysitter we should hire this time…




February 14, 2004

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Visitor Comments: 7

(7) Juliet Barr, March 10, 2004 12:00 AM

What about those other distractions?

I liked Brian Blum's article a lot. I am not much of a tv watcher, but I do pay a lot of attention to what my three children are watching. Lately though, it's been less about television, and much more about the computer, Playstation (a recent Hanukkah gift, so maybe the novelty will wear off)and the gameboy. Did the author eliminate these distractions as well? We have one computer and have had to set time limits on everyone's usage. Any feedback from other readers?

(6) Aura, February 25, 2004 12:00 AM

Gave my tv to the moving man and never looked back!

When my son was 4 years old his uncle the pediatrician whispered in his ear that he should take a toy hammer and knock away at the tv screen.
As you can imagine I was initially upset, however I knew my brother-in-laws feelings towards the boob tube and not long afterwards while moving to a new apt. on the spur of the moment gave my 21 inch color tv to the moving men (in lieu of a tip of course)
In the beginning I missed watching the news and being left out at work when co-workers would discuss certain shows during break time.
However I am so pleased that I did it when my son was small enough not to object too strenously to this lifestyle change. I read more, spent time with family and friends more and overall improved my quality of life.
Tv today is Toxic to all people. Remove it from your home and life will regain its splendor and clarity.

(5) Sharon Katz, February 16, 2004 12:00 AM

Wish I had the strength to throw away the tv

I always say, that I wish I had the strength to take the tv out of the house when the kids were young. We had friends in Raanana, whose t.v. broke and instead of getting it repaired, they just left it broke, and I always admired their strength of character to take the tv out of the house. I've never done a socio or psychological study on -- if kids turn out better or worse, but I think they must definitely turn out healthier, more creative, and their minds sharpened by using their own imagination and not rely on the t.v.

(4) Dick West, February 15, 2004 12:00 AM

TV "cold turkey" works!

Some years ago -- as dad with two teenaqers in the house -- I insisted that we put the TVs in the closet for 30 days. We went cold turkey for the month of April.
Week 1 -- lots of grumbling and fumbling for things to do.
Week 2 -- talking to one another as a family! ...Finding things to do.
Week 3 -- getting to share thoughts and know one another better. Started family projects.
Week 4 -- TV forgotten. Family projects were working. Homework getting done and grades improved.
Week 5 -- No strong sentiments about restoring the TV. Daughter mentioned that she felt left out of some peer conversations because she hadn't seen certain programs. She mentioned with no apparent emotion that I had promised only a 30-day trial though.
I made a huge mistake and compliantly reinstalled the TVs. No one watched the things for ten days or so. Old habits slowly returned though. Everyone agreed that the family was better off without TV, yet after about another eight weeks we found ourselves back in the same old rut.
...Sigh. That's the way it goes with addictions.

(3) Cynthia, February 15, 2004 12:00 AM

Gave it up COLD TURKEY

My husband and I gave up TV cold turkey when we moved into our house 5 years ago. We figured since everything was changing anyway it would be easier then, and besides, we had a lot of other stuff to do.

Now we have two young children and they have barely ever seen TV. A handful of times they have seen us watching sports (often at a "playoff" party) but that is all. So far, our oldest hasn't noticed what she is missing but at some point when she starts asking we think we'll limit viewing to selected videos so it won't become forbidden fruit.

I have great hope that the absence of TV in my kid's life will prevent them from buying into the keeping up with the Joneses culture encouraged by the media. Also, I hope that they'll be more creative, well read people who accomplish a lot in the time they don't spend in front of the box. Good luck with your family.

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