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Lucky Dad No. 15: Television

Like all parents, we had to monitor and regulate our daughters’ time in front of the screen. It was easier when they were small, because the only screen in the house was the television in the living room. Later, we learned to deal with the challenges of laptops, smart phones, etc. But the essential questions didn’t changed: How much screen time is OK? How much is too much? How do you control it?

According to Nielsen, American households were already watching more than four hours of TV per day by 1950, and that was only a few years into the television era. By the 1980s, average TV time was more than seven hours per day, and still rising. Today, of course, screens are ubiquitous, and our interaction with them is nearly constant.

Francine and I started with a distinct advantage, because neither of us watched a lot of television when we met. I didn’t even own a TV. At some point when I was about twelve years old, I stopped watching TV on a regular basis, and I found I didn’t miss it. This wasn’t an abrupt or principled decision. I just gradually found other things I wanted to do more. I got serious about my schoolwork about that time, and once I started prioritizing academics and other interests, there wasn’t much time for TV. Having kicked the habit in junior high school, I never went back. I have a theory that any success I've had in life stems from having several more hours every day than the average person to study, work, and exercise, because I don’t watch TV.

There’s a downside, because I have missed decades of great television. I have a nodding acquaintance with most of the famous TV series, but I have never been immersed. As for the glories of cable programming, I’ve missed almost all of it. This makes me oddly illiterate. When conversation turns to the latest episode of whatever is the show of the moment, I may know what people are talking about in a general sense, but rarely more. Same for sports. Did I watch the Big Game, did I see that Incredible Play? Unless you're talking about the Super Bowl, probably not.

Francine is not such an ignoramus. When we first met, she had a few programs she enjoyed, and she is sufficiently literate to come to my rescue when the social conversation turns to TV. And she has a real soft spot for awards shows. The Emmys, the Grammys, the Tonys; they are all bait for Francine. But it's the Academy Awards that really have a grip on her. In all other respects, Francine has been the most attentive of mothers and spouses. But once a year, when Oscar night rolls around, it's her Me Time. When the girls were small, that was the one night of the year when I was solo on the dishes, on baths, on homework, on bedtime stories, songs, and prayers, and everything else.

Having little ones brought some changes. Every parent knows that the TV is an invaluable babysitter, and in their pre-kindergarten years our girls consumed a steady diet of cartoons, Disney animated movies and similar fare. Once they started school, though, we implemented a simple but very effective regime. If school was in session, then the TV was off during the week. If school was out, then during the week the TV was off until 3:00 p.m. On weekends, the TV was fair game until 3:00 p.m. before then next school day. Oh, and there was only one TV in the house, so everyone had to share.

We were sometimes met with disbelief when we described this schedule to other parents. Several informed us that there would be open rebellion in their households if they tried something similar. But kids, especially small kids, only know one reality, and that’s the reality of their immediate environment. As long as rules make sense and are consistently and fairly enforced, children will generally go along. Our system worked well for us, and it make the occasional exceptions fun.

It also led to the great tradition of Family Movie Night every Friday. We instituted this when the girls were eight, six, and three years old, respectively, starting with classics such as Singing in the Rain, True Grit, and Old Yeller (with suitable counseling in advance!). With time, the tradition became more elaborate. The first stop after school on Friday was the video store, where each girl would pick out a movie for the weekend. Francine would sign off on the main feature for Friday night. Generic cheese pizza eventually gave way to individually selected pizza from a nearby specialty shop. Friends and relatives got in on the action, and by the time the girls were in middle school we might have up to a dozen visitors crammed into the living room with us.

During his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1984, Walter Mondale said “Parents must turn off that television.” Judging by the results of the election, they may have turned off the TV in the middle of his speech, but he did have point. Instead of fighting over the remote control, or trying to monitor the trashy content thrown at the kids, maybe it’s best just to turn the damn thing off.

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