It all started with an icky feeling that letting my children sit, jaws slack, eyes glazed over for hours at a time in front of a flickering screen, was not the best choice I could be making as a mother. But fighting them was so hard, and the peace and quiet purchased at the cost of my aggravated conscience was so guaranteed, so total, so immediate, it was nearly impossible to resist. I have given away television sets before, only to buy new ones a few months later. I have canceled our cable and not tried to use bunny ears to get a picture. I have set rules and systems governing amount of screen time, type of screen time, timing of screen time. I have agonized over content, wondering what is too violent, what is educational, what makes them more hyper or more prone to fight with each other. But in the end, if I am tired, if I "need" a break, if I want to escape, I let them at it and enjoy (with a guilty conscience) my vacation.
If you know me, you know that I like to do research. Screen time became a pet topic for me, and in my trolling of the library holdings on the subject, I came across The Plug-In Drug by Marie Winn:
It sat with its companions on my shelf at home for a long time until I finally took it with me on a road trip in read it in the car. The book changed my life. I am not prepared to tell you everything I learned reading this book (it is late and I am tired), but it did help me understand the guilty conscience I've had about using a screen to babysit my children all these years. Since I finished the book in August, I've been wanting to get rid of our television, but I keep talking myself out of this move for being too drastic. Besides, I reason, our lovely computer plays DVDs, so there would really be no point in getting rid of the TV because we could just abuse the computer screen instead.
Last week was a busy one for me, and I was counting on Friday to get a lot of housework done. Friday morning Eli woke up vomiting. That sort of threw a wrench in my day, and I ended up plunking him down in my bed with the television and a stack of movies. Esther, of course, made a bee line for the bed, and Naomi is a little angel child who never fusses or cries, so I sat down at the computer, freed from the demands of my typically needy children, to "check my email." The day went poorly for me. We watched our separate screens virtually all day long, and the next morning I was mad. I was mad at myself and I was mad at that screen for stealing my day and my children away from me. Now, getting rid of myself would be a bit tricky, but I knew I could get rid of the screen. So I finally sat down and wrote an email offering my television, DVD/VHS player, and DVD player to anyone who would care to take them off my hands. By Sunday afternoon the television and DVD/VHS player was gone, and today I dropped off the second DVD players at a friend's.
To be truly screen-free, we would have to get rid of the computer I am using to write this post. I honestly cannot picture doing that, although there are days when I wonder if it wouldn't be worth the extreme inconvenience. But one nice thing about the computer is that I have child locks on it that allow each boy 30 minutes of screen time a day. When that time is over they cannot get back on, even if they are being supremely sneaky, because they don't know my password. Another nice thing is that with only one screen in the house, I can't stick them in front of one and then stick myself in front of another. With the resource more scarce, we're going to have more competition for it, and hopefully less mindless wasting of hours and days.
If this post sounds radical to you (it kind of does to me), it is probably because I have not taken the time to walk you through Marie Winn's wonderful book and all I learned while reading it. It is not a radical or guilt-inducing book. It is a thought-provoking book, and I've given it a lot of thought. The things she says in her book ring true to me, and give form and weight and deeper meaning to many of the upsetting feelings I've had about the relationship our family has had with television over the years. I have been trying to implement things I learned from her over the months, and explaining my actions to my children as I go, so there wasn't much of an outcry this weekend at what I'd done. When Esther and Adam saw two big boxes of movies get handed from the back of our van to the back of another, there was a moment of panic, but they were easily pacified by the reassurance that the other family would give the movies back to us if we wanted them (no need to mention that I don't want them back). Dan, with the wisdom gained from watching my television purges of the past, did ask me to sign a statement promising that a certain amount of time would elapse before I went and bought yet another new television. I assured him that since reading Winn's book, I have no plans for such a purchase until the baby is a teenager and her brain is safely developed, free of "the plug-in drug."