When our first child was born, most of the time I had no idea what I was doing. But one decision I made felt instinctively right: giving up TV. Although I’d grown up with copious amounts of TV, I didn’t think it was a healthy use of time, and I didn’t want it to be a part of my new baby’s life. I ran my plan by my husband, who reluctantly agreed to back my TV-free experiment.
I’m hardly a fanatic. We do still own a television, and have even watched special events on it, such as the presidential debates and inaugurations. Occasionally, our family rents or goes to the movies, and if my kids see a program at a friend’s house, that’s fine with me. But TV isn’t part of our family’s life, and now–several kids later–I can’t imagine ever going back. Here are five highlights going TV-free has meant to me and my family.
1. Books, Crafts, Plays, and Creativity
I know that every family enjoys creative activities, but I love the fact that, in our TV-free home, we have no alternative but to rely on ourselves for entertainment. There have been times through the years when, watching our kids do a particularly hokey or old-fashioned activity (setting up a miniature-golf course in the living room, sewing dolls-clothes from rags) I’ve mouthed a secret thanks we’ve managed to stay TV-free, that my kids have been driven (by boredom, I guess) to push themselves and their imaginations.
Reading is another bonus: With no television, books gain a new prominence. In their early grades, each of my kids has been “challenged” by their teachers to read for at least 25 minutes each night. Please! With no TV, reading often takes up most of the evening. With a host of studies linking academic success to reading, I’m thrilled not to have TV time to compete.
2. Calmer News Consumption
I’m a news junkie, but I find that getting my daily fix from the newspaper and radio makes me calmer–and better informed–than television viewing.
This hit home in 2008, during the terrorist sieges in Mumbai, when that city’s Chabad center and seven other targets were attacked in a massively-organized, three-day siege. As I heard about the attacks, I opened the TV cabinet and turned it on: Frenzied reporting filled our living room, and my kids soon clamored round. “What’s going on?” my young son asked in a fearful voice, staring at a picture of flames shooting from a hotel.
“Nothing,” I said, turning off the set and closing the cabinet.
My older kids found out about the attacks soon enough, but I realized keeping the TV off–and getting updates from the radio and my computer–helps me gain perspective, and not get sucked into the panicked tone of so much of the contemporary 24-hour news cycle.
With the average American child watching 50,000 commercials per year, going TV-free has meant not dealing with the headache of media-induced consumerism quite as much.
I remember once taking my toddler grocery shopping. When he caught sight of a display of bananas, he lunged for them and begged to have one to eat then and there. An elderly lady stopped and remarked how unusual it was for a child to beg for bananas instead of something unhealthy. I’m not sure it was because he’d never seen a commercial for anything sweeter or trendier, but I strongly suspected his lack of exposure to advertising had something to do with his preference.
4. More Magical Movies
While it might sound counterproductive to praise a TV-free lifestyle by citing the benefits it brings to another kind of screen-watching, I’ve found not being used to watching programs makes the times we do sit down for a movie much more special.
Renting “The Sound of Music” for the family a few years ago, I watched my kids’ rapt faces: They looked transported. Instead of making me want to give them more regular viewing experiences, it made me happier they’re rare. Watching a good movie is a special—transformative–event, not something to do when they’re bored or out of habit.
5. Different Dreams
Finally, within a few months of giving up TV, I experienced an unexpected change that convinced me it was the right decision for me. For my whole life, when I dreamed, it was as if I was watching my dream in a movie: I was the spectator, and the action took place before me. Yet after giving up television, my dreams radically altered: I was now in the middle of the action.
That’s what going TV-free has come to mean to me: being the center of my own life, freer to decide how I spend my time and structure my thoughts.