Thursday, May 3, 2012

Screen-Free Week 2012

This week is the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood's annual Screen-Free Week, so I'm reprinting below the long post I wrote last year about our family screen habits.  Little has changed, except now at age 7 N. has seen two more movies (on DVD at home): we watched "Miracle on 34th Street" just before Christmas, which we really enjoyed (although he found the courtroom scenes hard to follow, not yet being versed in the generic features of courtroom drama).  And after reading all the Mary Poppins books, we watched the Julie Andrews movie, which he enjoyed as well, even though it is so different from the books.  

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood promotes "Screen Free Week" April 14-24th to encourage families to evaluate their electronic media habits.  So I'm taking this opportunity to write about our TV, electronic games, computer/internet, and movie habits.  If your habits and beliefs regarding electronic media are different than ours (and they likely are), please note that I am not critiquing your approach but describing ours.  

We're extremists about TV; there's no other way to put it.  N. has never watched TV.  I don't watch TV.  We have a satellite so that Tim can watch the Minnesota Vikings and occasional Twins games, which is the extent of his TV viewing.  So TV is not part of what Holly at Unschool Days calls our "family culture."  Tim and I are simply not interested in TV ourselves, and we don't think TV offers anything to our six-year-old right now that he can't get in richer, better form elsewhere.  I won't rehearse here all the reasons suggested by child advocates for limiting young children's exposure to TV; you are likely familiar with them.  Our top concern (among others) is with the aggressive marketing of a specific, gender-restrictive vision of childhood in order to sell stuff to kids.  The world of TV does not align with our values.

Most of our friends with kids regard our zero-tolerance policy towards TV as if it is a heroic act of parenting that they admire but could never achieve (at least that's what they say to us; privately they might well think we are totalitarian zealots!).  But it is actually much, much easier never to turn on the TV in the first place than it is to negotiate limits with a child who has developed a TV habit.  Just don't start!

It is easy for us to maintain a TV-free home because that's our family culture.  But what about all the TV outside our four walls?  We always sit away from TVs in restaurants, airports, the dentist's office, etc. (TVs are so ubiquitous!).  When N. plays at a friend's house, we tell the child and parents that N. isn't allowed to watch TV, movies, or play video games, and even if people think we are crazy they've adhered to this because they know it matters to us.  The result is that the kids always have lots of fun doing all the other things kids do together.  When a friend has turned to screen entertainment, N. has, of his own accord, left the room to play with other toys or hang out with his friend's parent (he loves talking with adults!).  I only recently learned that this was how he deals with his neighbor-friend's occasional screen time, and I was so proud of N. for having the fortitude to stick with our rule.

I think this fortitude is one of the great side-effects of our TV policy.  I grew up all but TV-free and I experienced my parents' restriction of TV as part of their larger 1970s-inflected program to resist mindlessly conforming to mainstream American culture, an approach I was very proud of.  I internalized their commitment to living their values as part of my identity, and I see N.'s ability to walk away from TV as a sign that he is internalizing this commitment too.

All this is not to say that we will never watch a single moment of TV in N.'s entire childhood.  We taped a couple of speedskating races (2-3 minutes long) during the Winter Olympics and watched them together and N. has watched an occasional Twins at-bat with Tim.  I have very fond memories of watching The Cosby Show with my family as an older child so I recognize that watching TV together as a family can be fun, though I can't imagine there will ever be another such sweet and wholesome show!  In the meantime, who even has time to watch TV?

I have an implacable prejudice against electronic games of all sorts.  It makes me sad to see kids playing DS games while out and about, utterly absorbed in their own world and missing entirely the real world in which they are nominally moving.  Multi-player online games strike me as a poor facsimile of real social interaction.  I don't believe that supposedly educational electronic games are particularly effective.  I don't understand why you'd want to play a simulacrum of a sport on a Wii instead of actually going bowling or playing tennis.  I am convinced by the argument that violent video games are detrimental to players' humanity, and I think boys are especially susceptible to this.  I was not convinced by Steven Johnson's apologia for video games in Everything Bad is Good For You.  (In addition, I don't play Angry Birds or anything else on my iphone, I don't let my son play with my iphone, and I carefully monitor my own use of it so I don't fall into the habit of constantly checking my phone.)  So, we are unabashed in our absolute restriction of electronic games.

Computers and the internet can be good homeschool resources but we are nonetheless wary of giving the computer a prominent role in our daily life.  We always look things up in books first (we have two awesome encyclopedia sets) and we use the internet as a supplement rather than a primary source.  Partly this is just to reinforce bookish habits over screens.  We feel that we interact with each other more through book research and we feel somewhat passive and isolated when using the computer.  I haven't read Nicholas Carr's The Shallows yet, but I am very sympathetic to his claim that the habits of mind fostered by the internet may be antithetical to deep concentration and sustained thought.  N. doesn't use the computer/internet himself at all and has expressed no interest in doing so.  We don't use reading or math programs on the computer because I don't think they provide anything he can't get from paper methods.  At some later point in his education we'll certainly work on learning how to do effective internet research, to navigate and evaluate resources (a skill my conventionally educated, supposedly computer literate college students sorely lack!) but there's no rush for him to acquire these skills.  Until then, there is much reading, learning, and playing to be done away from the computer.  In fact, I could benefit from spending a lot less of my work day staring at my computer!

N. before entering the theater to see The General.
All these restrictions may sound so... restrictive, as if we spend all our time policing what N. is exposed to.  But we think of our role as curators.  We want to present a rich selection of material that is fun, interesting, thought-provoking, and consistent with our values; for us, electronic media is only going to be a very small element of that selection.

By limiting N.'s exposure to electronica we actually give them more power.  He's not visually jaded.  Because I watched very little TV as a kid, I found movies exciting, overwhelming, and sometimes unbearably frightening.  Film is a powerful medium!  And while Tim and I watch no TV together, we absolutely love movies and watch at least one almost every weekend.  Until recently, N. had never seen a movie or DVD.  We wanted him to have the awesome experience of seeing his first movie on a big screen, so we were waiting for the right opportunity to present itself.  In March, a local museum showed Buster Keaton's 1927 classic silent film "The General" complete with live piano accompaniment.  It's about a man and his beloved steam engine!  What could be more perfect for N.'s first movie?  He absolutely loved it, and it was so fun to share his huge laughs at all the train stunts.

Is our largely screen-free life inconsistent with the philosophy of unschooling?  Some people would certainly say that it is.  As I have written before, we define "unschool" for our family in a more limited way than some do.  We work with N. to follow his interests, but we also offer guidance.  By curating N.'s media experiences, we are able to offer powerful visual encounters that are consistent with our values and meaningful to N.

1 comment:

Alice@Supratentorial said...

We are much more liberal in our screen-viewing habits than you all. We've chosen to have less options (no TV service, no games systems). The kids watch movies and play the occasional game on The two year old watches an episode of Dora daily. We go through times of being more strict and times of being more lenient.

Even so, I have noticed a huge difference in the friends who come over who are used to a lot more screen time and those who aren't. Our kids are used to long stretches of imaginative play, running around the backyard, creating stories, making stuff up. There are some friends who come over and are equally good at that kind of play. And some, sadly, who are not. They always seem a little lost and uncertain of what to do with no Wii or game system or thing to watch together.