My household is a user. We happen to like that plug-in drug called the television. Even the 2-year-old is tuned in. ("Scooby Dooby" was among her first words.) And I refuse to be embarrassed about it.
If you've been a parent long enough to have formulated a love-or-hate opinion of Barney, you've no doubt already heard all the damning statistics about how many hours of television viewing it takes to bake a couch potato. The news about the tube is relentlessly negative: TV is bad. TV numbs young minds. TV makes kids fat. TV makes kids greedy. The American debut of Teletubbies, targeting 1- and 2-year-olds, drew more of an outcry than the average horror movie aimed at preteens.
Maybe I like TV so much because I grew up with it. I can remember hardly ever seeing the screen blank on the big Magnavox cabinet in the living room. Our family even watched during meals -- and never anything as lofty as Blue's Clues. Back in those Neanderthal days of three channels and no VCR, my viewing ranged from old Bette Davis movies to the Match Game and Petticoat Junction. Yet despite such depravity, I managed to develop an addiction to Nancy Drew and the Scholastic Book Club. I graduated from both high school and college, and made Phi Beta Kappa to boot. What's more, I accomplished all this without degenerating into an obese, violent, or (I hope) unimaginative and antisocial cretin.
In many ways, TV is far better today than when I was a kid. The past several years alone have seen an explosion of admirable and educational children's programming, most of it narrowly segmented by age and a lot of it even commercial-free. My TV (and my VCR) are my friends, not my guilt trips. I'd rather reserve my worries for E. coli and kids who are bicycle-riding in the street.
Here's how a typical day in the life of our TV might play out: It's mid-morning. I have already watched Margaret, 2, assemble a "Busy World of Richard Scarry" jigsaw puzzle three times in a row. "Let's do it again!" she says every time she finishes. We've taken a walk outside to look for worms and ladybugs, practiced a potty run, and read some books. I need to make just a few phone calls without her koala-clinging to my leg. I reach for a Busytown video, knowing that it will guarantee 30 minutes to myself.
It's midafternoon. Eleanor, 4, is home from preschool. All day long she has played with classmates, sung songs, made paper collages, and served as line-leader or fish-feeder or whatever her designated job-of-the-day happened to be. "Can I watch something?" she asks, after showing me her artwork and refueling with juice and pretzels. And I comply. After all, who doesn't like to veg out for a few minutes after a hard day at work?
It's after dinner. Six-year-old Henry is wrestling his sisters in the living room. A racket is steadily rising. A little winding down before bath and bed is in order. But depending on the day, they've already been outside, or it's pouring and they can't go out, or it's midwinter and been dark since 5. Click. On goes the TV.
Some days, my kids catch just an episode of Quack Pack before turning in. But -- yes, I confess it! -- their viewing has also been known to stretch to a few hours. Or longer, like when they're sick or during Mommy's endless last trimester of pregnancy, when she barely had energy to waddle off the couch.
Now, I know families who ration TV time like candy bars, one program a day. I know others who boast of having no set at all. I admire them for enforcing rules that they believe in. (Even as I secretly wonder how they manage.) But I can't say that their children seem any more charming, intelligent, creative, or well-adjusted than my own. And I also feel a little sorry for the kids who lack the cultural references to Kipper, Noddy, and Bill Nye the Science Guy.
The truth of the matter is, TV deserves some rarely received credit. It can be more than an electronic babysitter and relaxation machine. Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa, and Po had my daughter counting to four well before she was 2. Mister Rogers showed her how to drum a pot and use the lids for cymbals. Barney taught all three kids to sing. (Gosh, I love that "Clean Up" song!)
"Mom, did you know killer whales are the fastest sea mammals?" my son, the Amazing Animals fan, quizzed me the other day. Sure, they would learn such things otherwise. But it doesn't mean a fact or skill is necessarily richer or better if gleaned from a live human than a talking head on the TV screen. (Heck, I wish that there were shows that gave instructions on shoelace-tying and bed-making.)
Ultimately, it's not the tube itself that's the demon. It's the way it's used. Even in our house there are a few hard-and-fast rules: Absolutely no TV in the morning before school or when a friend is over for a playdate. Ask permission to watch before you turn it on. We don't have sets in any of the bedrooms. And we always supervise what the kids choose to view -- especially now that the 6-year-old has figured out how to manipulate the remote. No South Park. No Celebrity Death Match. No sitcoms that portray parents as doofuses. No prime time.
I may be loose, but I'm not crazy. Contributing editor Paula Spencer is the author of the Parenting Guide to Your Toddler, and the mother of four.