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Making Time for TV

Why parents who love television should let their kids watch, too


Before we ever had children, my wife and I had answered that most vexing of questions for the modern parent: How would we handle television? We resolved that our future children could watch television, but only the same shows that we had watched at their age. We would raise little 1970s children. They would get started as toddlers with "Sesame Street." Soon they would graduate to friskily violent cartoons, like "Tom and Jerry" and "Looney Tunes." Later, "The Cosby Show." And in their adolescence, they could root for Kevin and Winnie to get together on "The Wonder Years."

Like the idea of our future children, the TV plan was both entirely conjectural and deadly serious, something to make us grin but also a profound assent to our shared values, a very meaningful glance across the room and then around the bend. Cyd and I are both a little wary of technology's role in contemporary life, and we share a kind of nostalgia for simpler times, a wistfulness that makes us err on the side of sheltering our children from the kind of things they would learn about on the local news. Raising children who are knowing and sophisticated, but by the standards of 30 years ago, had an intuitive appeal.

After the children began to arrive, our plan started to realize itself, in an almost eerily effortless way. In 2005, a year before our first daughter was born, "The Muppet Show: Season One" was released on DVD; in 2010, the year our third daughter was born, PBS began releasing "Sesame Street: Old School" DVDs, the first set of which includes classic episodes from the show's debut in 1969 through the magical year of my birth, 1974. Oddity after kitschy oddity, from Raul Julia on "Sesame Street" to Florence Henderson on "The Muppets," was available for my daughters' viewing pleasure. Best of all, my wife's sister found for us the DVDs of a very strange indie kids' show, familiar to New York–area kids from the 1970s, called "The Magic Garden." It features a pink squirrel named Sherlock and stars Carole Demas, who originated the role of Sandy in Grease on Broadway.

Over six and a half years of parenting, there have been some concessions to contemporary trash (and it all seems like trash): There was one Barney disk that the girls loved for way too many months, and our youngest really cherishes Dora the Explorer, who is abominable in two languages. But mostly our three girls have the lazy, happy television lives that my wife and I lived in the 1970s, with lots of on-screen corduroy and velour.

If there is a major difference between how the girls watch and how I watched, it's in the regulation of their hours, in both senses: how many hours, and which hours of the day. They occasionally watch in the morning, especially the youngest, for whom a few minutes of television can ease the transition from a parent to a babysitter, or can calm her down after one of our dogs has accidentally trampled her on the way to the food bowl, say. And they all watch about half an hour at night, before bed; they take turns choosing, and when the baby gets to pick, sometimes the older girls—no longer as interested in Dora, or Maisy Mouse—drift off to draw or read a book. But whatever rules we have, they are pretty flexible; their television routine is not, for their parents, a major source of anxiety.

This casualness is partly philosophical: We worry about all the things other parents worry about, from technology addiction to food additives, but also worry about stress and anxiety, and there's a direct relationship between those two sets of worries. You can get your children to eat all-organic, or to watch only educational television, parceled out by the tablespoon, but you'll drive yourself mad trying. The decision not to fixate too much on controlling television is also reactive—for me anyway, if not for my wife. After all, I have a peculiar history with television, and every time one of my girls watches television, there is a little part of me that is rooting for her, cheering her on, as if she's making up for lost time—mine, not hers.

Sometime in 1984, after much pleading from me and my brother, then ten and eight years old, my parents announced that they were getting a VCR, so that like all normal families we could go to Video Galaxy XIII on Belmont Avenue and rent movies. But there was an unexpected catch: They were making the purchase jointly, with three other families. The Torres, the Meeropols, and the DiDomenicos, all friends from the child-care co-operative where I had been made to eat a thousand nutritious rice cakes, were each purchasing a quarter share of the VCR. Each family would get the VCR every fourth week, with handoffs to take place on Sundays. Apparently, my family would be normal for only one week every month.

This countercultural VCR arrangement was just the latest knot on the rope that was strangling my TV viewing pleasure. About a year earlier, my parents had sat us boys down and announced that henceforth we were to be allowed two hours of television every week, and none whatsoever in the afternoons. Every Sunday, when the newspaper arrived with the weekly TV supplement, my brother and I were to dutifully plan our viewing for the week. In that first year, I usually settled on "Knight Rider" and "Dukes of Hazzard"; my brother usually joined me for "Knight Rider," on Mondays, then added "The A-Team" on Tuesdays.

But this new arrangement did not occur without a fight. No afternoon television meant none of my brother's cartoons, "He-Man," and, beginning in 1984, "The Transformers" and none of my campy re-runs. This was the heyday of the UHF channel, and stations like WTXX in Connecticut and WLVI in Boston beamed re-runs of "Hogan's Heroes" and "Gilligan's Island" all over southern New England. This was the kind of stuff that could plausibly entertain friends, should I be lucky enough to have any to invite over; it was mortifying to think that if there were a friend, and he came over, I couldn't offer him any television.

The root of all this evil was a book called The Read-Aloud Handbook, by Jim Trelease, a surprise best-seller published in 1982. My parents and everyone they knew seemed to have read, or at least heard about, this book, a long exhortation to read with one's kids followed by an appendix listing books that lent themselves well to that project. It sold over a million copies, in many languages, and launched Trelease as a pro-reading evangelist with a worldwide following (Poland once based a children's reading campaign on his book). The book was also rabidly anti-television, with an apocalyptic tone that now reads as more than a bit quaint. Today, we parents would be grateful if television were the technology we had to worry about.

Here was the worst part: Jim Trelease lived not two miles from me in Springfield, Massachusetts. He was everywhere in my hometown: giving speeches, getting honors, serving on panels, being our Local Writer. Despite being the home of the Merriam-Webster dictionary company, Springfield was never a hotbed of literary culture; the last notable author we had produced was Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. He had been born in Springfield in 1904, and although by the time I was a child he had long made his home, and written his books, in the more clement La Jolla, California, one could not help believe that Trelease was in cahoots with the creator of the Grinch. Here, it seemed, was one Springfield author telling parents to turn off the boob tube and corral kids toward the books of another Springfield author. It was like some great conspiracy to replace "Green Acres" with Green Eggs and Ham.

Reading The Read-Aloud Handbook today—the seventh edition comes out in June; Trelease is still alive; and yes, I hope you are reading this, Jim—it's clear that my parents, like the parents of some of my friends, had been inspired by him and had followed his prescription for limiting television, tested on his own children and laid out with a chilling, methodical cruelty. His family had lost touch with each other, his children separating themselves after dinner every night, retreating into their lonely TV worlds. This could happen to all of us. The parents of Springfield were frightened, as who wouldn't be? "When it is used correctly," Trelease wrote, television "can inform, entertain and, occasionally, inspire. Used incorrectly, television will control your family. It will limit its language, its dreams, its achievements. The choice is yours."

So the VCR weirdness was, in retrospect, predictable. My parents surely thought that whatever movies their children chose to rent would be more edifying than any television they would want to watch. And my parents craved this new gadget, which could magically allow them to see for a second time movies they once had loved: Cassavetes, The Graduate, New Wave, etc. On the other hand, they could not allow movie rentals to become the new television, undoing all the Trelease-inspired work they had done in the past year, as we children had grudgingly accepted the new regime: reading a bit more, playing outside a bit more, and often just gazing out the window, with a serene boredom, at childhood's endless horizon.

The shared-VCR experiment lasted about a year. The weeks when we had the VCR, four willful watchers fought over who could see their movies before next Sunday rolled around, and the machine had to be passed on to the next lefty New England family. I remember renting the early movies by "Saturday Night Live" alumni, like Animal House and Caddyshack. I think my father usually fell asleep before he watched whatever he had rented, then castigated himself for the wasted money. Having the VCR around could be a bit depressing: Either we made very good use of it, in which case we all felt bloated and overstuffed by our consumption, or we forgot to make much use of it, and felt the familiar, shameful glare of under-used appliances and gadgets.

Eventually, my parents bought a VCR to call our own. By then, my mother had gone back to work, so my brother and I could sneak after-school television. In time, we won certain concessions from our parents, like extra hours for Super Bowls, Grammy telecasts, and other weighty installments of the pop-culture pageant. Television slowly reasserted itself, so that by the time my much younger sister came along, there weren't many rules in effect. When I was a college senior, I once called home late at night, expecting to get my mother, and instead my sister, age seven, answered the phone.

"What are you doing up?" I asked.

"Just watching Letterman."

Although none of the other young parents I know remembers Jim Trelease, and although some of them grew up under much freer TV regimes, when it comes to our family's TV habits, we are all living with Trelease's baggage, dumped in our family rooms, something we have to elbow past to get a clear view of our new flat-screens. We can't escape the fear that screen time is bad for our children, something we definitely want to limit in quantity, not just control in quality.

But there's been a big change between then and now: Unlike our parents, we no longer think television is bad for grown-ups. To the contrary, today's parents don't reluctantly accept television—we revere it, for ourselves. We are all TV watchers, every last one of us. At parties, we compare obsessions: "Have you seen 'Homeland'?" "Did you stick with '30 Rock' until the end?" We even brag about our trashy favorites, as if trying to one-up, or one-down, each other. My friend Andy DVRs episodes of "American Chopper," which apparently has something to do with motorcycles and the mustached men who re-build them. During my wife's second pregnancy, she and I sat rapt through a month of "24," marathon-watching three seasons of a show so gruesome and amoral that I sometimes suspect it accounts, through a kind of gestational osmosis, for some of the more anti-social traits of the daughter my wife was incubating at the time.

And that shift in our perception of television, from vast wasteland to the most exciting creative medium going, has made the old anti-television creed impossible to uphold for children. Simply put, "The Sopranos" rendered Newton "Vast Wasteland" Minow, Jim Trelease, and all the other television skeptics irrelevant. If we grown-ups are going to watch this much television, on what grounds do we limit our children at all? Aware of my own potential for hypocrisy, I cherish my copy of Steven Johnson's 2005 book Everything Bad Is Good for You, and send its author a big telepathic bear hug of gratitude, for reassuring me that TV (like video games) is actually good for our children. "See, we had the right idea all along!" Imagine my excitement when I read, just last month, about the 2010 Dutch study that concluded that children with a computer or television in their own room were more, not less, likely to play outdoors. So just letting my daughters watch my television set isn't going far enough—if I really love them, iPads and Sony flat-screens for all three, pronto!

In truth, I suspect that both my parents' generation and my own have worried far too much about television. Or, rather, we've given it too much credit. TV probably can't destroy a good family culture, just as it never realized its promise of teaching children all sorts of things their parents and teachers couldn't. It's neither a prison nor a window to the world. It's just a box—or, nowadays, a flat, matte screen. Like other inanimate objects, it is what we make of it. (TVs don't kill families, families kill families.) Thinking back to my own childhood, I had a couple of friends who seemed to waste away whole years just watching re-runs of 1960s sitcoms; today, I know fellow fathers who, abetted by smartphone apps, manage to ignore their children for entire football seasons.

Two of my favorite authors, Andre Dubus III and Michael Chabon, have both written about their childhood love affairs with TV. They were both the products of divorce, their home lives weren't so simple, and they escaped into the tube. Chabon's fiction, in particular, shows the powerful effect of alternate realities imbibed from television, and comics, too. Would he and Dubus have been better off outside, playing? Well, they managed to find time to do a lot of that, too. As did I. As did my brother, who moved from "Transformers" to science fiction to adult fiction to nonfiction, and today is as learned as anybody I know.

The point is, the older I get, and the more I see of the wonder of my own children, the less I think of television. Not the worse I think of it, but simply the less. It seems smaller and smaller to me. If you're letting any screen—TV, computer, iPhone—raise your children, well then shame on you. But if you're spending time with your children and, more important, ignoring them enough that they have space for worlds of their own, then it may end up that television is one of those other worlds. For me, that wasn't such a bad tree fort to escape to.