Why I won't let my toddler watch TV
My darling daughter Lily is now 20 months old, and though she’ll occasionally wander into the living room and glance up at the TV screen for a few moments before I get a chance to click it off, I can safely say that my wife and I have never allowed her to watch television. We don’t use the TV as a “babysitter,” and though it might be nice for the two of us to relax together by watching a show as Lily plays on the floor nearby, we deny ourselves that all-too-convenient pleasure. As long as Lily is in the room, the television stays off. It doesn’t exist for her. We are proud puritans on the subject. Not that we plan to keep our daughter in the TV dark forever. At a certain point — maybe in the next year, or maybe not until the year after that, when she’s coming up on four — we’ll start to let her tune in to certain shows, and from more or less the moment we do, her addiction to the religion of television will have begun. I’m talking about the addiction that everyone in this culture shares.
I shared it from a young age, in what seemed back then like a TV era legendary for its prime-time schlockiness. It was the age of Hogan’s Heroes, Lost in Space, Flipper, The Beverly Hillbillies, and other landmarks of Western Civilization. Even as a kid, I watched these shows not because they were good but simply because they were on, and they exerted a major influence on my imagination. (So did Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and MAD magazine.) Considering my own affectionate, junk-calorie relationship to the trash I grew up on, it may seem hypocritical of me to say that my own child can’t, for now, watch anything. But actually, what I’m keeping her away from isn’t bad shows. It’s the simple act of watching television — of staring at people that aren’t really people because they’re just images on a screen. They don’t, you know, respond. And I don’t want that cozily passive yet fundamentally unnatural, I-sit-here-and-watch-without-interacting relationship to influence the development of Lily’s brain. Since she’s not even two years old, that brain is still being wired; she’s too young, really, to know what television is. For right now, everyone she looks at should be someone who looks back.
There are a great many things about childhood development that no one will ever understand (that’s why the mad science of linguistics will always consist, to a large degree, of theory). So a part of what I’m doing in keeping Lily away from TV is, by definition, conjectural. I really don’t know what’s going on in her head. Yet when I look at what’s on TV, I can’t help but be struck by how goosey and frenetic it all is. Even the best children’s programming takes its rhythms from the culture at large, and what our culture does, increasingly, is to fragment everything. Yo Gabba Gabba! jumps around like Laugh-In for tots. Even Baby Einstein DVDs, in all their aiming-high inventiveness, strike me as potential junior training manuals for ADHD. In the years that I’ve been a film critic, I have watched the rhythms of pop culture — commercials, action movies, what have you — get speedier and speedier, to the point that I don’t think a steady diet of it is always healthy for adults. So what does it mean for children? And what does it mean for a toddler who doesn’t yet have the ability to process what she’s seeing?
In a couple of years, when Lily starts to watch television, those rhythms — inevitably — will begin to creep inside her central nervous system, and she’ll become another citizen of our overly stimulated entertainment state. From that point on, she’ll watch television just like any other kid. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. But until then, before she even starts to think about such things, I want her to be able to find the uninterrupted space to have a calmer, quieter, more meditative, more purely childlike view of life, without electronic interference. Maybe it won’t, in the end, make a difference, and God knows, as an overstressed parent, there are moments when I long for the convenience of being able to plop my daughter down in front of the television-as-sitter. But by not doing so, I would like to think that I’m giving her innocence a greater chance to flourish. When it comes to the images manufactured by mass media, and to the potential effect they have on all of us, I’m more than happy to err on the side of caution.
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman