TV or Not TV

Illustration by Mark Todd

My husband, Charles, is more of a helicopter mom than I am, so I was surprised when he began insisting that our toddler watch TV. I would have imagined he would include television in his list of no-nos, along with ice cream, chocolate, and polyester clothing. But when D turned 9 months, Charles discovered Teletubbies. He would put it on while we ate breakfast, and she would watch, transfixed, as the tubbies danced their moronic dance and giggled their annoying giggles. She loved it so much that whenever she got fussy, he would take her to his computer and play a YouTube video of the end of the show, with that bizarre baby-faced sun, and she would calm immediately.

A few months after we found Teletubbies, someone on my local message board, ParkSlopeParents, mentioned a Slate article that cited a Cornell University study showing a correlation between autism rates and the presence of cable television in the home. I was spooked—even though Teletubbies was on PBS. The next day at the Harmony Playground sandbox, everyone was talking about the study, and most were skeptical. My friend Douglas Rushkoff, who is a guru on consumer culture, admitted that even he let his toddler watch the cable network Noggin, whose motto is, “It’s like preschool on TV.”

If Doug Rushkoff lets his daughter watch TV, I told myself, there can’t be anything wrong with it. And I continued to go along with Teletubbies in the morning. Soon we found Noggin, and D started watching those shows, too, for up to an hour a day: Dora the Explorer, Pinky Dinky Doo, and Oobi.

Yet it made me uncomfortable. Part of the problem was that I didn’t like the shows. Dora was a know-it-all yeller, Oobi was speech-impaired, and Pinky was an Upper East Side brat. The only show I could tolerate was the Saturday-morning Upside Down Show because I had developed an intricate sexual fantasy involving the two Australian hosts and myself in the Outback.

A few months later, we got addicted to Baby Einstein. I had bought Baby MacDonald without thinking, when D was 4 months, and because she seemed to enjoy it, I checked out some more DVDs from the library (it can’t be bad if you get it at the library). One day, when she was almost 1, I pointed out some flowers to her on the street and she looked up at me and signed flower, which she had learned from Baby Wordsworth. I was so floored I called Charles to kvell.

Sometime around her 1st birthday last July, Charles began putting an Einstein DVD in each night while she ate dinner. “It calms her,” he said, “and she eats better.”

“But she’s 99th percentile for weight,” I said. “She could eat a little less. I don’t know if all this TV is good for her.”

“She likes it,” he said. “Besides, it’s not TV. It’s a video.” Even when I told him that Einstein creator Julie Aigner-Clark and her husband were Republican donors, it didn’t faze him. “We get most of them from the library anyway,” he said.

And so she watched an hour of Noggin in the morning and up to an hour of Einstein discs or The Simpsons at night (Charles said The Simpsons was the most intelligent show on TV and that any kid who watched it would grow up smart). I hated staring at her blank face as she ate, her mouth hanging open to take in food, all her attention on the screen. I wanted her to be watching us—watching us eat, preferably, so she could model our behavior and eat more varied foods—but Charles liked to feed her at 6 p.m. and us at 8:30, and since I couldn’t really cook, I was on his cuisine schedule, not mine. I wasn’t sure exactly how it had happened, but suddenly I was raising a toddler who ate fried food glassy-eyed in front of the TV every night.

This spring, when D was 20 months old, I came across an advance copy of Buy Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds, by Susan Gregory Thomas. I read it cover to cover the night I got it: in the living room as I fed D in front of The Simpsons, in the bathroom as she flipped through her waterproof Elmo storybook, in my bedroom after I read her one of her twenty Maisy board books. And I got scared.

Thomas argues that marketers are aggressively pursuing zero-to-3-year-olds with TV shows that claim to be educational but are really about creating character recognition and selling toys. In a chapter called “Elmo’s World,” about the licensing of TV characters, she detailed the money that Nickelodeon has made from Dora: In 2005, it raked in $250 million from her video sales alone. And 12 percent of Nickelodeon’s total profit came from licensing revenues (other networks average about 2 percent). I began to wonder whether Dora the Explorer was just teaching D to love Dora.

Even more disturbing was an interview Thomas did with an educational consultant named Iris Sroka. Sroka’s company, the Hypothesis Group, advises networks on the educational value of kids’ shows, and as part of its research on a Playhouse Disney show, she and her colleagues observed a videotape of preschoolers in Jackson Heights watching the program. It was designed to get kids moving, but the children just sat there. The consultants reviewed the tape of the kids and became concerned that they could not say the show improved motor skills. Then one consultant saw that a child was moving two fingers in a kicking pattern, mimicking the kicking onscreen. The company gave the show credit for “developing coordination and control of movement.”

The scariest finding in Thomas’s book is that “educational” TV shows might hamper a child’s development. A 2004 study of babies from 6 to 30 months found that watching Sesame Street was negatively related to expressive language use (frequency of single- and multiple-word utterances) and watching Teletubbies was negatively related to both vocabulary size and expressive language use. Even background TV (shows adults watch when the kids are in the room) seemed to harm kids; one study found its presence diminished both the length of children’s play episodes and their degree of focused attention during play. Thomas cited Jean Piaget, who said that young children have to understand what an object is before they can see it represented in another format, like TV. All these programs, if watched too young, had the potential to mess with the natural learning process.

I was still reading Buy Buy Baby after I had put D to sleep and when Charles and I were eating dinner in front of Cops, a show he says helps him wind down. “You’ve got to read this,” I said.

He gave me the same look he gave when he saw me reading How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It. “No, I don’t,” he said, as a 60-year-old female crack addict insisted that the pipe wasn’t hers.

“It says that TV’s bad for babies.”

“TV’s not bad! I grew up on it. Look how I turned out.” Then he turned back to the TV and said, “Take that, bitch!” as the cop arrested the grannie crackhead.

“I think we should limit her usage,” I said. “It’ll be better for her, and it’ll improve our marriage because I’ll be happier.”

“You know what would improve our marriage? If you stop reading crap like that.”

Thus began the battle over the remote. Each morning, I would go into D’s room, get her out of bed, and give her some milk and a banana. When I was finished making breakfast, I would find her rocking on her rocking chair or removing the contents of my wallet or jumping off the coffee table, but she never got hurt and she never asked for TV.

After half an hour, Charles would come in, find me reading the paper—a.k.a. ignoring our child—while D ate, and flip on Sesame Street on PBS. “But she’s happy!” I’d say, shutting it off.

“Elmo!” D would shout pleadingly, and he’d turn it back on.

One evening, I came home at 5:30 to find Charles cooking dinner while D watched Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear, the last show on Noggin before it becomes “the N” and plays teen-interest shows. I flipped it off. “If you’re gonna turn it off,” he said, “then you need to wrangle.”

“Of course I will,” I said, and then I left D in the living room and went into my bedroom to send some e-mails. A few minutes later, I heard a crash and a cry and I came in to find him kissing a boo-boo she’d gotten falling off her booster seat.

“I thought you were watching her!” he said.

“She doesn’t need to be watched every second. It’s all right for her to be bored. To have a high signal-to-noise ratio.”

“Is that from that goddamned book? TV makes her happy. Why do you have to have such an agenda?”

“Because I think TV is harmful. She’s already very hyperactive. In Studio Creative Play, she barely sits down for the activities. She just runs around the room. I think she might be ADHD.”

“She’s not ADHD! She’s an iconoclast! There’s a difference.”

That night in bed, I realized that Charles and I have completely different relationships with television. He was a child of divorce and had watched a lot of TV as a kid. As a result, he found it comforting. He saw it as benign. I had grown up listening to NPR and watching maybe four hours of TV a week, mostly when the entire family would gather for programs like The Cosby Show and Family Ties. We didn’t have cable, and I only rarely watched when I didn’t know what was on.

To me, TV was a loud, blaring, potentially harmful nuisance I wasn’t even sure I wanted to own. To Charles, it was a co-parent. He felt it helped him take care of D. It gave him a sense that she was being stimulated at times when he was not free to play with her.

I didn’t think she needed to be stimulated—even on those rare nights when I watched her alone. Instead, I gave her some bowls and spoons and let her bang them while I made dinner.

When she was a few weeks old and we were vacationing in Wellfleet, D got a blocked tear duct and we took her to the doctor. After the appointment, just as we were about to leave, I turned and asked the pediatrician, “What are we supposed to do with her? I mean, what games do we play to stimulate her?”

The doctor, a blonde mother of three, just blinked and said, “You don’t have to do anything. At this age, everything is stimulation.”

I have never forgotten that. I believe that what she said holds true at least for the first three years. Development is not something you make happen. It just happens. TV wouldn’t help, and it might hurt. So why watch?

But if I wanted my way as far as D’s TV watching was concerned, I would have to “wrangle” when Charles asked me to. This has been our compromise: Some mornings he puts the TV on and I let him, although I try to limit her to half an hour of Sesame Street. I rationalize that I watched Sesame and turned out all right. (Of course, Thomas points out that most Gen-X parents with fond memories of watching Sesame Street probably watched it at 4, not 2.)

Other mornings, as he reaches for the remote, I shake my head no. On those days, I give up on reading the paper and entertain D as he reads quietly. The extra effort is a small price to pay for a temporarily TV-free apartment. I never thought I would be this zealous about any aspect of parenthood. But as I learned long ago on Sesame Street, everyone makes mistakes.


TV or Not TV