The Case for Television
It might take a discriminating eye and a few lessons learned the hard way, but TV does not have to be a total no-no for kids
By Neal Pollack
Recently, I recorded something for my son and I to watch: Mel Brooks' Silent Movie. I have fond memories of viewing this with my dad when I was about Elijah's age. Dad and I sat on the couch together and giggled uproariously, not something that happened in our house very often. This was an experience I'd always wanted to recreate with my own son when the time came. And now, on a rainy Sunday afternoon, the time had come.
The movie started. It was definitely not as funny as I remembered. The opening credits sequence went on far too long. Elijah said, "I don't get it." Then came an early moment when Mel Brooks, Dom Deluise, and Marty Feldman were all hugging one another and jumping up and down. A woman walked by and mouthed a word.
A placard on the screen read "Fags!"
"That's not appropriate," I said.
I immediately turned off the movie.
"I don't even know what that word means!" said Elijah, who's 7.
He wasn't about to learn from me. It's a shameful utterance in any era, but an especially toxic one in our world of "it gets better." My innocent memories of good times with my pop had created a moral conundrum based on a casual Hollywood prejudice from 35 years ago. Thanks a lot, Mel Brooks.
Figuring Out the Restrictions
My wife and I have heard the arguments for not exposing your children to television. We even agree with some of them. But we still let our son watch TV. A big flatscreen dominates our living room, a small flatscreen takes up a little bedroom dresser space, and an old 32-inch picture tube model (can you believe they used to be so big?) hides in a cabinet in the back of the house for those lazy Sundays when all three of us want to watch something different at the same time.
Even though we're TV-permissive, Regina and I do have some sort of a system. Sometimes, like with this essay, we find ourselves having to defend our TV-watching choices, saying things like, "He also reads two hours a day. From chapter book!." We shouldn't justify, because it's really no one else's business. But parents don't have anything else to talk about because having kids has completely destroyed our social lives.
Here are our two main strictures:
When he's not subjecting his kid to classic
comedies, Neal can be found upside-down.
1. We limit time. Compared with the way I consumed TV, hundreds of useless hours wasted on The Love Boat and Three's Company, my kid barely watches at all. Weekday mornings, TV is forbidden. Monday through Thursday afternoons, Elijah gets to watch one show, whether it's a half-hour or an hour long. Occasionally, if we're really busy cooking dinner or sitting at the kitchen table glumly looking at a pile of bills, he'll get a 20-minute extension. Friday nights and the weekends are free-for-alls, particularly Saturday and Sunday mornings when Regina and I try to sleep off a week's worth of mundane adult horrors. During those hours, the boy can watch as much gawdawful Pokemon crap as he likes. Same as it ever was.
2. We monitor content. I refuse to get one of those family "filter" gizmos for the TV, because they're developed by groups to which I wouldn't pay dues and tend to restrict some shows that I think Elijah would enjoy. We can handle it ourselves, most of the time.
PG-13, Sort Of
Generally, our guidelines are: No sex, not that Elijah has any interest anyway, no excessive gore, and very minimal profanity. In other words, it's a PG-13 routine, Simpsons acceptable to mandatory, South Park not yet, and Family Guy only in a bind. Also, if shows are taped, Elijah has to fast-forward through the commercials, or, if he's being persnickety about that, at least mute them. I don't know if this has muted his response to consumer culture or not, but at least we don't have to listen to the commercials. Those things are freaking loud.
That doesn't mean all adult content is out. For instance, Elijah seems to like the subject matter of horror movies, but not the gore. Therefore, he can get his creature fix with Godzilla movies and atomic-age potboilers like Them!, But he doesn't get to watch True Blood with us no matter how much he begs. We've learned that if you say no enough times, a kid will stop asking you to watch Alien Vs. Predator, though The Dark Knight is a harder battle to win.
As an intellectual supplement to all this, Regina will sometimes watch pseudo-documentary shows like Destination: Truth or Ghost Hunters with the boy, because she apparently not only wants him to believe in Santa Claus, but also Bigfoot and alien autopsies.
Meanwhile, I try to expose Elijah to what I love so we have something to share other than our mutual hatred of mayonnaise and a genetic predisposition to sitting around the house in our underwear. Most professional filters don't seem to think that a 7-year-old should be watching The Dirty Dozen, but I remember the profound effect that film had on 7-year-old me, so I let it through the gate. I consider an afternoon watching Enter The Dragon with him to be time well spent. Elijah claims that Steve McQueen is his favorite actor, based on the Turner Classic Movies-blessed trinity of The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and The Blob.
The Guess-and-Check Technique
Oh, I've made some mistakes. Four is too young, I learned, for a kid to enjoy The Naked Gun, and though Elijah likes dogs, that doesn't mean the opening scene of Best In Show, where Campbell Scott and Parker Posey complain that their poodle is ruining their sex life, is appropriate for him. But usually I do OK.
For example, after the Silent Movie debacle, we had some hours on that Sunday. I looked through my DVR playlist. Aha! There, ripe for the picking, sat Monty Python And The Holy Grail, perhaps not the best choice for a third-grader, but I know my kid. The black knight fighting without limbs, the galloping coconuts, and the catapulting cows are smack in his wheelhouse. Someday, I figured, my son would discover the knights who say "Nih!", and I'd rather it be with me.
Sure enough, he howled at the opening credits with the moose jokes, laughed hard at "I fart in your general direction," and generally sat there mirthfully the whole time.
"This isn't appropriate," she said.
"I'm fine, mama!" Elijah said.
"He's fine, mama," I said.
"Have you gotten to the part with the killer rabbit yet?" asked Regina.
"Not yet," I said.
"There's a killer rabbit?" Elijah said.
"Oh yes," Regina said.
With that, she sat down with us, and we enjoyed the rest of the movie together. It wasn't a scene out of The Waltons, a completely mythical family created for network television, but it was hardly a nightmare of dysfunction or a harbinger of some kind of cultural apocalypse. It was just my regular little family on a Sunday evening. We were watching TV, and we were doing just fine.