I do not know when my son first began to crawl. (Where exactly does scooting end and crawling begin?) I do not know when his gas smiles gave way to social smiles or even when he held his first bottle. Most of his milestones have been fairly ambiguous events. But the first time he watched television was impossible to miss.
He was about 2 months old. I strapped him into his bouncy seat and, as I went through my five-minute, breakfast-bathroom-hair-and-hygiene routine, I flipped on the news to find out what was happening in the world beyond diapers. Roscoe began twisting his head and arching his back, contorting his entire pudgy body to get a better view of the anchor lady and her flashy graphics. Eyes wide, drool pooling beneath his lower lip, he looked like a cross between an expert yogi and Linda Blair in “The Exorcist.” “Oh, TV,” his little months-old soul seemed to sing.
I dashed for the remote.
The desire to keep television out of our son’s life was one of the few parenting priorities my husband and I agreed on from the beginning. We debated the pros and cons of co-sleeping, of pacifiers, of chemical-free crib mattresses and baby sign language. The television question, on the other hand, was a no-brainer. I knew the American Academy of Pediatricians recommended against all television viewing for kids under 2. I knew the statistics — that by 3 months of age 40 percent of infants are regular viewers of television, DVDs and videos, and that by the age of 2 this number jumps to 90 percent. I’d read about the potential effects on brain development, the increased risk of obesity in kids who watched, the poor attention spans, the lagging social skills, the exposure to racial and gender stereotypes.
And, to be honest, the very idea of lethargic children sprawled out in front of the set brought to mind all the things that had for so long terrified me about parenthood; it seemed synonymous with huge, graceless strollers, cupboards crammed with Fruit Loops and sticky-mouthed gremlins going berserk in Target. Having a kid who begged for “just a few more minutes” of television was the antithesis of what I had hoped parenthood would be. It was resigning ourselves to a universe of want and consumption. Most of all, it was too much like the dynamic I had with my own parents as a kid who wasted hundreds, thousands of hours slack-jawed and zombified in front of the tube.
I don’t know exactly when I started watching television, but I know that Muppets and Smurfs hold privileged places in my memory. Without television, I surely could have mastered several classical languages or learned to play the violin, right? I could have been romping in the Virginia sunshine, riding horses and swimming in creeks, Twainian mischief, undoubtedly, just yards away. Instead I kept company with that weird robot on “Small Wonder.” My husband will sometimes cast down his eyes and ask questions like, “Do you remember that episode of ‘Diff’rent Strokes’ where Nancy Reagan showed up at Arnold’s school and told the kids not to do drugs?” And I will lower my head and say, “Yes, yes I do.”
We didn’t want Roscoe to look back with the same sense of regret and self-loathing, and so, when his eyes fixated on the screen as if it were the coming of the messiah, I panicked.
As adults, my husband and I would be considered pretty minimal television viewers, but we couldn’t say the same about our families. My parents are not extravagant people, but as of this past December, they are the owners of not one, not two, but three large-screen plasma televisions. That’s one for roughly every 400 square feet of their home. Were my husband’s little sister not also a dancer, we would have serious concerns about her susceptibility to couch-borne bedsores. If television is as addictive as it seems to be, and if addiction is hereditary, it would seem that Roscoe has cable wires woven into his DNA.
“You’ve got to get rid of it,” a relative advised. “If it’s in your home, it’s in his life.”
“But he’s only 2 months old,” I said. Could a newborn really be that interested in some wonk’s analysis of the subprime mortgage crisis? Could he really be that engaged by a quick clip of a Syracuse-Villanova basketball game?
At first, I tried to protect him from my habit. If I couldn’t resist the urge to watch (I’m a grown-up and fully entitled to my vices), I’d put him in his chair facing away from the screen. This worked for about three minutes. He could watch television from any spot in the room and from any angle. He could watch it upside down. I tried turning it on mute while he was nursing, but somehow able to sense my waning attention, he’d pull off of my breast and follow my gaze. If we held him, facing us, in our laps with our knees blocking his view, he’d crane back-first over the peaks of our legs to see.
“Is his head supposed to turn that way?” became a common refrain.
Worst of all, the moment his ears picked up the cable box’s telltale click, the objects that normally delighted him — our two small dogs, his squeaking elephants and wrist rattles, even his mommy’s smiling face — ceased to exist.
My breaking point occurred when I was feeding him his rice cereal while my husband watched basketball in our adjacent living room. Normally, nothing could distract Roscoe from his rice cereal. Boob, bottle and cereal were his holy trinity, his tasty alpha and omega. But for some reason, he didn’t seem interested. His eyes were glued to the dining room window, gobs of white mush clinging to his lips.
“What are you lookin’ at?” I asked him in the doting, high-pitched voice he loved. “You lookin’ out the window? You lookin’ at a pretty bird?”
But there was no bird. He was watching a reflection in the glass — Andres Nocioni dribbling a basketball down the court.
Apparently, my relative was right; if we didn’t want Roscoe watching, we had no choice but to banish television from our lives. I didn’t think this would be a great loss. After all, my husband and I were both enlightened, literate individuals. We set aside time for “Lost” and “The Wire,” like we’re supposed to. I enjoyed a little CNN with my morning cereal, and my husband might glance at a basketball game after work. That wasn’t so much, really. And then, of course, there were the somewhat less sophisticated but equally entertaining shows we ordered from Netflix, like “Deadwood.” But really, that was all. Except, of course, the programs I thought of as “multitasking” shows — reality shows and fashion programs and cooking shows and celebrity gossip spots I’d only let myself watch while I was doing something else, running on the treadmill at the gym, grading papers or answering e-mails or cooking dinner (never mind if a five-minute chore stretched out into a full half-hour). And then, of course, there were … others.
It took having an infant fixated on television to realize just how hooked I was. And even after becoming aware of the time I was wasting, I still wasn’t sure I was ready to live in a TV-free home.
“Personally,” my mother said, “I don’t see what the big deal is. As long as you pay attention to what he’s watching, how’s a little television going to hurt?”
“Because every minute he spends watching is time we’re not interacting as a family,” I said.
“Interacting?” she said. “When I was a kid, we didn’t have television. We had yelling. That was our entertainment. Taking bets. How long could Mom and Dad scream before the police showed up?”
Maybe she had a point. Maybe television viewing didn’t have to be an isolating, soul-sucking activity.
I have no choice but to admit that, for a while, I was a casual viewer of “American Idol.” By casual viewer, I mean I watched every episode aired between 2004 and 2007. And during this period, I did come to look forward to a weekly phone discussion with my father about the performances, and, my father being a psychiatrist, his spot diagnosis of the various personality disorders that exhibit themselves on that show with frightening regularity. I suppose it would have been better if we had called each week to discuss the war taking place right now or the spate of great new films coming out of Romania, if he’d been up for a regular heart-to-heart, an exchange of what he likes to call “sensitive thoughts,” but that wasn’t going to happen, and the “Idol”-centered conversations that did take place were honest fun.
The problem with letting tiny children watch, it seems to me, is that they’re not yet capable of this sort of exchange. I can’t exactly discuss the meanness of a particular episode of “Idol” with my 2-month-old or the genius of “The Wire.” For a baby, a child even, TV is purely passive, a series of received images with no outlet for response or examination. A baby’s world is an observed one; Roscoe’s only got what we place before him, flaws, faults and all.
And so while we’re not selling our set just yet, we are trying our best to let it gather dust. As to my own addiction: I miss my morning CNN. I miss flipping the channels. But then I look at my infant son, and I see something no news, no sports, no show at all can compete with. I watch him grab onto his plastic elephant and shake it and bite it and giggle unendingly at everything that surrounds him.