As Christmas approaches, I have noticed a trend on the various parenting sites/blogs/etc. Everyone is complaining that kids are too materialistic, that christmas lists are out of control and that TELEVISION is the culprit.
TV has been cast as the demon in most plays about childhood. The AAP recommends no screen time whatsoever before a child is two and afterwards to limit it to a few hours a day. Parents blame commercials for making their children want toy X or food X. I’ve seen TV get blamed for making our kids more predisposed to ADHD. It’s to blame for childhood obesity. In short, if there were no tv, the world would be a better place-our kids would be smarter, have better attention spans and never crave another piece of useless plastic crap.
I call bullshit.
As the parents in the house, you have choices….
- You can get rid of the tv (and give up watching tv yourself to set the good example–but seriously how many of you are going to do it?)
- You can buy a tivo and teach kids to skip through commercials
- You can let them only watch shows on channels that don’t have commercials
- You can let them only watch shows on dvd
- With kids as young as 4 or 5 you can watch the commercials with them and educate them to be smart consumers as well as educate them to the purpose of a commercial–to dazzle you into buying something you didn’t know you wanted
- Or you can do none of the above and just whine about how long your kid’s xmas list is online….
But none of that is going to divest your child of desire for things
When I was an undergrad, I had a professor who always said that history was about three things; SEX, FOOD, and STUFF. Humans crave sex because we’re hardwired to do so. Humans crave food because we require it to continue functioning. Humans crave stuff because we are aquisitive. When you heap shame on your kids for doing what we as a species naturally do and what we as adults do, we’re becoming hypocrites.
Granted, if you ask an adult what they’d like for a holiday or their birthday they’re going to think about you, your realtionship to them, your financial situation and come up with several well calibrated choices. They’re not going to look you dead in the eye and ask for a pony because their brains are developed enough that they can understand that a pony or a horse costs a great deal of money to purchase, to stable, to feed, to provide medical care for, to equip and a great deal of time to keep exercised, including paying someone else to exercise the animal when you can’t.
Children aren’t there yet. Children are often 10 or 11 before they can “step into someone else’s shoes” and see an argument from a perspective or opinion that is not their own. Some reach it earlier, and some reach it far later. They are still very much creatures of impulse…they see it and they “need” it and then they never play with it again. I see it all the time with Elanor, who can not walk past a build a bear without wanting to go in and wanting a bear…and after too many animals have come home and never been looked at again (hint–a LOT) I have learned to ignore it.
Beyond that, with the Christmas list for the very young, they’re not asking their parents…they’re asking SANTA who can make any damn toy he wants. The condition is that you just have to want it badly enough, right? So yeah, kids Christmas lists are long and they’re full of unrealistic expectations. CHILDREN are full of unrealistic expectations–but do you actually sit down and explain to your five year old that no, she can’t be a stay at home mom, a brain surgeon and an astronaut concurrently? No, you say that’s wonderful…I bet you can do it if you want to!…knowing that as she matures she’ll figure out the right course her life will take. The same is true with Xmas lists…no one is going to kick down your door for not buying everything on the list. It’s a list, not a mandate. Buy them the three things you think they’ll actually play with or really love or whatever and fill in some gaps. Pay attention to the toys your kids gravitate to over and over that didn’t make the list…I often forgot to put something I seriously was interested in on the list, instead putting flashy crazy expensive stuff on mine instead.
I think though, the thing that bothers me most about the tv causes rampant consumerism argument is how hypocritical it is. None of us are free from things we want or aspire to. I aspire to a 3,000-4,000 square foot house with a three car garage and a pool. It will probably never happen and I won’t be any less fulfilled whatever home we do eventually buy, but I will have that desire. My next car is likely going to be a hybrid sedan that can fit two carseats (NO, NOT PREGNANT, NOT TRYING…just likely that before E is out of one that we will be trying or have #2) instead of the sexy convertible that is beyond impractical in the Northeast. Sure, I’d love a sweater, but not as much as I’d love a full time housekeeper. A weekend away from the baby in CA? Great, but not as awesome as a week in Hawaii. The difference between our wants and those of our kids is that we know we can’t put our big unrealistic dreams on a list and hand them to someone and say “I want this stuff.” In many cases, what we want also isn’t advertised on tv. I can’t recall the last commercial I saw for a new Anne Bishop novel; which is a realistic item on a gift list of mine, but not one that’s shown in commercials.
For the record, using tv as your whipping is boy is like abusing a friend. You take them in public and whip the skin from their back and then take them home and whisper sweet nothings in their ear. Too often we want it both ways. To our children it’s this dangerous drug, but for us it’s a benign pastime. You really can’t have it both ways. The whole argument about you could be doing something better? Applies to adults as well as kids. But if you’re going to sit on the couch and let your ass spread, then you’re not really the one to lecture your kids. Lead by example.
Which brings me to a final point. Television isn’t necessarily a BAD THING…
When Elanor was only a month old and had been home from the hospital (the second time) only a few days, she was taken to her granparent’s home specifically to watch television. To watch football with her daddy. Ravi was still very unnerved by our delicate daughter and was not ready to take independent charge of her. BUT the thing he’d been dreaming of since we talked about kids was sharing his love of football with our daughter or our son. She already had a Dolphins (yes, the local team is the Patriots, and it’s a LONG story) jersey and even though she slept through all but five minutes of the game, the act of having her next to him and pointing at the tv and explaining things to his sleeping daughter brought Ravi and Elanor closer together. I now let Elanor watch a little Sesame Street most days, and yes it has brought Elmo into our lives (roll eyes) but we he talked about hands she clapped them with him. I picked up spanish from Sesame Street long before Dora had even been thought up.
Yes, Ravi and I watched FAR more than our fair share of tv growing up, but we were both also voracious readers. Yes I wasted hours watching Jem and She-Ra…but the first fed my love of music and the second was the first ass kicking woman I’d see on tv. I was happy when there was a new episode of Punky Brewster, but far moreso when a new Babysitters Club book came out.
Taking away the tv may achieve some goals in the short run, but in the long run it can also be harmful. One of my best friends only got two hours a week or something like that and it had to be educational. When other people our age start connecting over tv from our youth, she feels out of place and excluded, although we never meant to. She doesn’t get a lot of cultural references. She lost out, to some extent on the cultural lexicography of the 80’s.
Look, it’s all about moderation. TV is not TEH EVIL. Having a long Xmas list is not TEH EVIL. Sure, kids are more susceptible to the allure of commercials…so you have to teach them how to be a smart consumer, and you’ll be surprised how quickly the commercials lose their appeal. Kids get angry because someone is trying to fool them, which is what a commercial does. You can set limits; on television, on Xmas lists. You can talk to kids about being realistic when they’re 5/6. Dudes…you’re the parents, you get to make the rules.
But don’t do nothing and blame tv for the list….that’s just lazy.