Rethinking “TV-free”: Why I don’t censor television-watching

Earlier today, I was watching Disney channel with my kids, and we got to talking about childism in action on that channel. In particular, the show Good Luck Charlie. It’s about a “big” family (four kids), but the parents are self-absorbed, hapless idiots and they are constantly making comments that indicate that they would rather not have had kids. I am all for jokes and sarcasm, but IMO there’s a line that these shows cross, and I think it’s hurtful. Why do we want to perpetuate a cultural opinion of kids as a hassle or an inconvenience? How is that helping the relationships between parents and children?

These sorts of things are what my kids and I talk about as we watch TV. I think we get about 100 channels–maybe 200, I don’t know. We regularly watch less than ten of them. Personally, I think a lot of what’s on TV is garbage: disrespectful, overly commercialized, superficial, designed to get you to behave and think (and shop!) in certain ways that are not necessarily desirable, etc.

I don’t censor the things my kids watch, however. TV is a mixed bag. I want my kids to be able to discern programming that they feel comfortable watching for themselves, without my hovering and censorship.

I didn’t always feel this way. I was very limited in what I could watch as a kid. By the time I had my first child, I was very anti-TV/anti-media. I didn’t have cable in our home, and only allowed certain, approved-by-me videos to be watched. I was a big fan of books like The Plug-In Drug: Television, Computers, and Family Life, which harshly criticize “screen time” of any kind, for kids and adults alike.

Then I discovered unschooling, and my thinking started to shift.

Once, when my oldest was 4 or 5, he wanted to watch Lord of the Rings with his dad. I did not want him to be scared–I knew he was going to see Gollum and get freaked out. But he REALLY wanted to watch, even when I warned him that it would probably be scary. (I also probably got mad at his dad for wanting to watch a movie like that before I’d put him to bed–which, if it had happened now, I wouldn’t be–but I digress. This was at the very beginning of our unschooling journey.)

Frustrated, I sat down and watched with them both for awhile, and my son sat there happily–until Gollum came onscreen. Immediately my son hopped right off the couch, turned to me and said, “Okay, I’m ready for bed now! Let’s read a story!” At the time, I was scared that moment had traumatized him, but actually he had been able to decide for himself when his comfort level was surpassed, and this empowered him. I didn’t say anything, didn’t “rub it in” that I was right. I just let him make his own conclusions about that experience, and we read some nice bedtime stories together.

Kids who are not allowed to choose for themselves what feels like *too much* will often sit through things that make them uncomfortable, against their own inner judgment, just to exercise their own autonomy! If you tell someone they’re too young or they don’t understand, they will often try to prove you wrong once given the opportunity.

If you help a child to choose their own comfort levels with media (and other things), without judgment or “I told you so”s, there will be collaboration, trust, and ultimately a strengthening of the child’s own inner judgment–calibration of his comfort levels. This is essential for growing up–yet many kids aren’t permitted to start this sort of self-exploration and learning until they’re teenagers or older.

Many unschoolers embrace TV, but many others, like Laurie A. Couture, have consciously and cooperatively chosen to forego TV and media. This article talks about her and her teenage son’s mutual decision to stop gaming and watching TV.

Incidentally, Laurie’s an excellent speaker, visionary, author of Instead of Medicating and Punishing, and a passionate advocate of children’ rights. Her whole blog is very illuminating.

Like Laurie, I am a big advocate of deciding things together (explained further in this article, by Alfie Kohn)–and for us, right now, that means we watch TV.

There are things on the TV that are really, really world-expanding, in a good way. My kids have watched things on TV and then ran off on tangents of exploration, reading, pretend play, and more–all from the result of a 30-minute show. We’ve watched cooking shows and they’ve learned about new ingredients, or different foods that other people eat. We’ve also gotten up and cooked what they were cooking! We’ve watched cartoons and talked about how animation works, and how drawings can be exaggerated to show emotion or character.

We’ve watched HGTV and talked about different design styles, or how homes can look nice but actually be falling apart, or dangerous, due to faulty construction. We talk a lot about advertisements–how they’re convincing, or stupid, or exaggerated, or what techniques they use to compel people to buy their product; why sales and offers work, and what the manufacturer’s motivation or goal really is. We might hear a reference that the kids or I don’t get, and so we google it, and that leads to other thought-tangents.

I am not a wealthy mom, able to bring my kids to Europe or on multi-state vacations five times a year. TV brings the world to us in ways that I can’t necessarily replicate in the real world–at least, not yet! The internet is amazing, because you can find exactly what you’re interested in.

TV is amazing because it opens doors that you never even knew you didn’t know about, until you caught 15 minutes of this or that show.. 🙂

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