Friday, January 23, 2009

That Girl

This will eventually become my second This I Believe” essay, but in order for it to make any sense we’re going to have to take the scenic route to get there. Trust me. I know where I’m going.

Right around the time Daughter was born, the American Pediatric Association issued a recommendation that children under the age of two see no television at all. I don’t always take doctor’s recommendations (See: Quinn’s vegetable intake), but this one made sense to me. I had all sorts of high-minded reasons for keeping children’s TV off in my house but the most resonant reason was the most selfish: Elmo.

Friends with older children had already warned me that even a single exposure to that fluorescent carpet sample would cause my Daughter to cling to the TV like a life raft, moaning “Elmo, Elmo…” ceaselessly until I brought him back. I wasn’t so fond of Dora either, and we don’t even need to discuss the big purple dinosaur. The No TV rule meant the brand-extension department at PBS didn’t help raise my child; she didn’t agitate for a particular variety of cookie because someone was on it. Sure, I didn’t have the free babysitting to use when I wanted to take a shower but I neatly circumvented that by showering in the middle of the night. Or not showering at all. No one ever said parenting was pretty.

When Daughter was three she still wasn’t seeing TV. One day I suddenly thought, “Mister Rogers is a very nice man, and if I continue to keep the TV off she’ll never know that.” So, gingerly, I allowed a little Mister Rogers which led to a little Between the Lions and then, fearfully, Sesame Street. Elmo, while appealing to her, was meant for a younger crowd and never held her captive. I think she saw Dora the Explorer twice and the big purple dinosaur once. I was knee-bucklingly relieved that she didn’t ask for him again.

TV is a part of her life, but a small one. We watch a movie on Friday night and she can see some cartoons on the weekends. She got to see some of the Olympics, which included the commercial half-time show of hearing her mother rant about the hypocrisy of the greatest athletes in the world being sponsored by fast-food and soda companies. I’m lax about so many things, but what she sees isn’t one of them. And then right before Christmas we were at my friend Marina’s house, and Daughter and Marina’s son were comparing notes on favorite television shows. I don’t remember what Daughter said, but Marina’s son was vehement in his choice of “Drake and Josh” as the finest half-hour on television.

“I can’t watch that,” said Daughter in a beleagured voice.

Marina, hearing this, looked at me and said softly, “You have to let her watch some pop culture. You don’t want her to be one of the weird kids, do you? You remember the weird kids from elementary school that didn’t get to watch TV.”

I remembered the weird kids all too well. Of course, since I went to school in the 1970’s in Los Angeles, the weird kids not only didn’t watch TV but lived in a geodesic dome, had birthday cakes made of tempeh and were named Starlight Amber. But the fact that they didn’t know which one was Bobby Brady and which was Peter just sealed their isolation. Maybe Marina was right, maybe I needed to loosen up. Over the Christmas holiday, Daughter looked through the TV Guide in the paper and noted hopefully, as she’d been doing for weeks, when Suite Life and Drake and Josh were on. Unlike every other day, where my usual response was a derisive snort, I said deliberately, “Well, it’s Christmas, you don’t have any homework..."

She looked at me, barely daring to breathe.

I sighed, “Yeah, let’s give ‘Drake and Josh’ a try.”

If a child screaming in delight indicates quality parenting, I’m up for a large award. I turned on the TV just as the show started and went off to fold laundry, confident in the knowledge that the show, while too teeth-chippingly stupid for me to watch without gagging, would be appropriate for my kid. After all, she was in the sweet spot, demographically, of their target audience. I came back in after a few minutes; there were the two leads and the little sister of one of them. Daughter was laughing like a loon. I listened; the dialogue went something like this:

PERSON: You’re stupid.

ANOTHER PERSON: You sound so stupid when you say stupid.

FIRST PERSON: That’s the kind of thing a stupid person like you would say.


Okay, I’m exaggerating, but not by nearly enough. It was several minutes of people only slightly older than my Daughter speaking horribly to one another, giving her a road map of how she was supposed to treat people. I flinched and said to Daughter, “You know I never want to hear you talking like this to anyone, right?”

She sighed and said, “I know.” The girl said something snotty and dismissive and Daughter cackled again. Now no longer confident in either Drake or Josh, I went to grab the laundry basket to pair up socks while also watching the show with her. When I returned to the living room, Drake and Josh had moved to some kind of coffee house. Drake or Josh was on a couch, locking lips with a girl about his age. Josh or Drake walked into frame, poked Drake or Josh in the shoulder and said, “Dude, you don’t even KNOW her!” The laugh track screamed in delight and I realized there are worse things than being the weird kid in elementary school. I grabbed the remote and switched off the TV. Daughter spun on me, prepared to fight to the death for this wonderful window into how an American teenager behaves . I opened my mouth to say something and froze. The emotion I felt the most strongly was anger, but it wasn’t towards Daughter. It was towards Nickelodeon and the producers of Drake and Josh.

Their audience wasn’t yet into its adolescence but the producers chose to make teen promiscuity a joke -- I was later to learn this is a running joke. The US has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the developed world, one in four teenage girls are infected with an STD and the Mensa candidates who wrote this show decided their best shot at pre-teen humor comes from dry-humping a stranger. A study came out last November which noted a correlation between early sexual activity and seeing sexual acts on TV. Does anyone else notice the heartbreaking disparity between a show where making out with someone you don’t know is a punchline bracketed by commercials for Legos? There is a time and a place for humor based on sexual situations. That place is called HBO.

I seethed and I planned. I’d say something to Daughter about why she wasn’t going to be watching the show anymore and then I’d write such an email to the producers of Drake and Josh and one to Nickelodeon while I was at it. I had now become one of those parents who, when confronted by the inevitable coarsening of the culture and eager to protect my child, indulges in the futile and antiquated weapon of the Sternly Worded Letter. I had become that person.

And here, dear readers, is where the My Belief comes in. I believe we should treat those people we find absurd with great care, because eventually we will become them. You might avoid becoming that person with the minivan only to wake up one day to discover you are that person with the home perm. Sure, you can mock that person who begins every new thought with “At the end of the day,” but you'll hear yourself bewailing the tiny print in menus that same evening. Whatever personality quirk you sneer at most vehemently with your friends has just inserted itself into your DNA, waiting until the most public and least-opportune moment to express itself. We are all someone else’s punch line waiting to happen. Karma dictates we must be kind to others, especially if we hold out any hope for our own weaknesses.

I, of the toothless Sternly Worded Letter, stared at my daughter trying to think of something illuminating. “I’m sorry," I finally said slowly. "But I didn’t like what they were telling you. Being snotty isn’t funny. Making out with strangers when you’re thirteen isn’t okay. And I will not let people into my house who tell you that.”

She scowled and raced to her room. I thought about following after her and telling her how much I loved her and how desperately hard I would work to keep her safe until she was old enough to make reasoned decisions for herself, but I wasn’t sure she’d be able to hear me over my blinding unfairness for at least a decade.

In the meanwhile, I had letters to write.


Blogger Lefty said...

Maybe they should bring the Brady Bunch and Batman? I don't think I could get the kids to even watch it. So much the better.

Thanks for your blog, Quinn.


12:43 PM  
Blogger Char said...

I am forwarding this blog to my sister, a mother of a 14 and 10 year boys, both are convinced she is ruining their lives by the rules she enforces to make them decent human beings. She will be glad she is not alone. thank you.

1:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I discovered your blog not too long ago and have been making my way through the archives. I find myself laughing out loud and nodding in agreement with quite a lot that you write. I've even taking to emailing bits and pieces to my husband, with the subject line reading, "See, I'm not the only one."


1:09 PM  
Blogger Leta said...

Our tv died when I was 10 or 11 and Mom didn't think that we needed another one, so I became the kid who didn't even have a tv! for the next few months.

I got to school one day and found out that Henry Blake had died on M*A*S*H the night before and I was the only person - in the universe, apparently - who hadn't seen it.

I started saving up for my own tv that day. It's a 12" b&w and I still have it. It annoys me no end that it will be useless in February after all the years of service it gave me, especially as the argument that I bought it with my own money meant that Mom, my sister, and I watched what I wanted.

1:11 PM  
Blogger greeneyes said...

I'm not a parent (or an aunt, even!), and after reading this *I* want to write a letter. I remember hearing a segment on the "tween" market on NPR a few years back, with all these mothers complaining about how they were just hapless victims of marketing ploys aimed at their kids and had no choice but to buy them whatever they wanted or allow them to control the remote. I remember thinking, why can't they just say NO? In my day (the 1970s also), the adults were ADULTS. And besides--no viewers, no listeners, no consumers...means nothing to market. The tween market didn't create and power itself. I commend you for turning off the television!

3:25 PM  
Blogger Sara J. Henry said...

Good for you.

3:36 PM  
Blogger CDP said...

I hate that show for exactly the same reason. I wonder if the producers even know that the audience for whom mild sexual humor is appropriate (college students) is actually watching "The Hills". Outstanding post.

4:25 PM  
Blogger Jan said...

Bravo, Quinn, Bravo.

8:16 PM  
Blogger Michaéle said...

My good friend and I have polar opposite ideas about parenting. When she objected to a recent presentation at our kids' school, she pulled her kid out of it. I had a discussion with mine before the presentation, explaining to her that there might be things in it I didn't agree with but she should make her own choices based on what she saw. I think what you did with your daughter was smart (did I just kind pat myself on the back right there?!) You didn't just have to TELL her what you ojected to, you were able to SHOW her that that was what that TV program was about. I bet deep down, she agreed with you.

9:18 PM  
Blogger margalit said...

Is there ever a happy medium?

I was one of "those" kids brought up without a tv in LA in the 50's and 60's. My parents didn't get a TV until my junior year of high school, and it was located in their bedroom behind locked doors.

I hated being so dense about popular culture, but soon learned that going to my friend's houses to watch TV at least filled in the blanks. I was a secret couch potato for my formative years.

And then, when I got the hell out of dodge and moved into my first apartment on my own, the very first thing I bought was a little 13" b&w Hitachi. A tv I didn't turn off for about 15 years. HOOKED would be a misnomer. I was a tvaholic of grand proportions. Still am. Love TV.

So when I had kids I was not a parent that restricted them from TV. I never had time limits, or pretty much any limits on TV, as long as homework was done and chores were out of the way.

Now my kids are teens. Neither of them watch anywhere near the amount of TV I do. They both have TVs in their rooms. My daughter watches the news in the morning before school, and she has a few favorite shows on the CW (sad but true) that she watches. My son doesn't watch much TV at all, and can barely watch a whole show. He does follow sports on TV, but he's so ADD that he turns it on, watches a few minutes and then wanders off leaving a basketball game blaring.

So I guess I can't really be supportive on no TV, but also don't think TV is particularly damaging to a child's psyche. We don't have cable, so my kids never saw any of those Disney channel or Nick shows. I guess that's good, huh?

And FWIW, I was pretty addicted to Family when it was on, and I'm still mentally healthy most of the time. :-)

10:51 PM  
Anonymous josita said...

Oh, just excellent.

Also, it's a pleasure to see your writing getting ever tighter and sharper. The "My Belief" paragraph is stellar. (Ok, when I read it aloud to my husband, I left off the last sentence. Everybody's an editor.)

Looking forward to your book!

11:12 AM  
Blogger Judy said...

I truly don't think there is a better gift a parent can give a child than the tools to learn to entertain themselves.

I have an old TV in a cabinet sitting in my garage. I'm trying to locate someone who can remove the old thing so I can turn it into a puppet theater for my grand children (okay. for ME. whatever).

Write those letters, Quinn.

3:57 PM  
Blogger miss cavendish said...

I so agree. We hook up our TV every so often (usually for the Olympics) because we're appalled by the TV shows for children (see "London" from Zack and Cody, for instance).

7:23 PM  
Blogger epiphenita said...

My children were in elementary school when they began to be sucked into the tv a little more everyday. I too, feared making the forbidden into the most desired thing. So I presented them with this rule/deal: No tv on school nights at all but they could tape any shows they wanted during the week and watch them on the weekend.

I gambled and won on the hunch that they weren't actively interested in the shows...just passively entertained. They grumbled but not as loudly when I reminded them that they could tape themselves into oblivion if they didn't want to miss a program.

Now they're adults and have thanked me emphatically (just when you get used to the idea that you probably have ruined their lives, they thank you. To keep you off-kilter). Once you get unhooked from television it's almost impossible to tolerate the inanity of the shows, and the positively insulting commercials.

Side note: I used to look at the brilliantly coiffed punk teenagers when my children were young and snort, "bet their mom is proud of them!" Of course, my children turned me into that mom in no time. It was ironic. But I didn't begrudge the younger kids' parents looking at me with pity and judgment.

Experience would kick their collective asses soon enough.

8:20 PM  
Blogger houseband00 said...

Welcome to the club, Quinn. =)

1:24 AM  
Anonymous francine said...

how do I subscribe to your blog, I cant seem to find the link?

6:22 AM  
Blogger K said...

I think you are a wonderful mother. I love the way you describe not letting these types of people into your home. Brilliant! You are making a lovely grown-up by making smart choices like that. BRAVO!

7:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK, first off, you do realize that Drake & Josh is no longer in production, and any email you may or may not send will be useless?
Secondly, although I read and enjoy your blog for the most part, you're coming off as an extreme whacko on this topic. My children are 12 and eight. They are straight-A students, both are scouts, my daughter has been on the distinguished honor roll in her school every marking period for the past two years. She twirls baton competitively. My son plays every sport under the sun. They are polite, respectful and kind. They also have NEVER had limitations on their TV watching, learned Spanish from watching Dora, learned safety rules from Barney and my daughter learned her alphabet from Wheel of Fortune. They also both love Drake & Josh, Suite Life, Hannah Montana and iCarly. Those shows have not caused them irreperable harm, nor changed their behavior in any way. They realize they are FICTIONAL. I can't see how isolating your child from shows like this will do her any good, other than to satisfy your self-rightousness and give you fodder for your writing. It will, however, cause her to be culturally illiterate and out of touch with her friends. Unless you prescreen them also, to make sure they pass your purity test? There's a whole big real world out there. Let her experience it and make her own decisions, and God forbid, her own mistakes.

7:36 PM  
Blogger Lefty said...

I think it's fair to say that every child is different. Every parent is different. Some children won't internalize the things they see on television, some will. It's up to the parents to choose as best they can and moderate TV viewing as they see fit.

America is much more sexually repressed than other parts of the world as far as what is allowed on television. Would opening up the limits of what is allowed on the tube negatively affect our children, or would it allow them to be more open about sexuality and reduce unwanted teen pregnancies? It's hard to say.

My kids love TV. We monitor what they see and they know not to watch things we don't approve of. Drake and Josh has come on before, and while I didn't see anything I objected to, neither did the kids find it compelling in the least.

I didn't know Drake and Josh was no longer being made. They did have a new holiday Drake and Josh movie in December, so it does still at least twitch from time to time.

8:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


9:26 AM  
Blogger Lauri Hahn said...

NOT toothless.

Not even close.
Sternly Written Letters have acquired the reputation for being toothless because they've morphed into fragments/abbreviated & phonetically spelled bullet points.

Your letters? They'll probably get read at the next board meeting.

Great work.

7:23 PM  
Blogger NJDecorator said...

I think every family has to make their own decisions. It not a matter of who is right or wrong, but how you are doing it right for your family.

That's what make the world go round.

and how funny? My verification word is "weirdma". A hidden comment?

7:13 AM  
Blogger Melanie said...

I totally agree with you. Totally and completely. And you said it better than I could.

8:57 AM  
Blogger guerrilla girl said...

Ah, I'm the weird kid from elementary school...who was writing Sternly Worded Letters to networks as a kid. We weren't disallowed TV; it simply bored me. I don't remember what it was that annoyed me sufficiently that I wrote to ABC all those years ago, but I do remember how satisfying writing those Stern Words felt.

My 14- and 11-year-olds have always had time and content limits on their TV viewing, and they've done just fine. It is, as others have said, a matter of doing what is right for your own children.

12:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quinn - you sound like a wonderful mother. From what I've read, it is obvious Daughter is very loved (and very lucky to have you.)

My only point is: I was a child who was (I felt, 'heavily') restricted in many social areas by my parents. I was often embarrassed by my lack of knowledge in the teenage cultural arena. (And let me tell you - As soon as I could, I rebelled and found ways to circumvent their rules... leading to (gulp) other problems...)

Have you considered TIVO-ing (or DVR-ing or taping) and pre-viewing the 'tween' shows Daughter wants to watch and only allowing her to watch the ones you believe are appropriate? That way she could stay 'tuned in' to the same things her friends are tuned in to, but you could keep her from watching anything you find completely inappropriate. Maybe you could explain it to her as a compromise where each of you get at least a little of what you want? I just feel that if my parents had compromised, even a little, I wouldn't have been SO rebellious as a teenager... and might have stayed out of some of the trouble I got into!!!

Not saying this issue will lead to Daughter having some crazy teenage rebellion... but just a thought...)

6:57 PM  
Blogger Dawn Maria said...

My boys are 13 and almost 16. They were the only kids who couldn't watch Rugrats. As they got older, past 7 or 8, I started letting them watch more. I think there are sound arguments on both sides of this issue.

It can be very difficult for a child not to participate in his or her peer culture. There's also a lot of crap on TV that is harmful to kids in many ways.

In our house, I've tried to find the middle ground. We've had very positive experiences with reality TV shows like Amazing Race and Survivor. These shows have shown my boys the kind of diversity we don't get in our predominantly white, Christian, heterosexual suburb. I'm grateful for that and the discussions that those shows have generated.

In the end, we all have to do what we're comfortable with.

7:10 AM  
Blogger Jakarta Rocks said...

My kids are 5,7 and 10. They are allowed to watch one hour of tv a day (5-6pm - after they have had a shower/bath) - lucky for us though, they are so thoroughly entertained by other activities that they usually sit down to watch it 5 minutes before the cut off time. They don't care. They consider it a priviledge to be allowed to watch a dvd when they get home on a Sat from Soccer.

This way we are not the bad guys (and when push comes to shove - I don't care about being a bad guy). They just have better things to do with their time.

I don't limit what they watch and I don't limit what they listen too. They are smart kids - they know behaviour that is acceptable and behaviour that is not.

Have a little faith.

3:42 AM  
Blogger class-factotum said...

We didn't have TV when I was a kid. Part of that was because my dad was in the military and we lived abroad, but we didn't have it in the States, either, because my parents wanted us to read and to go outside and play, dammit.

And yeah, I was the weird kid, but I was going to be the weird kid no matter what. I OD'd some on TV in college and after, but then got rid of my TV and have one now (after 15 years without) only because I married a man who has a TV. Otherwise, I wouldn't bother.

I wouldn't want my kids watching the trash that's on TV now. If that's the only thing your daughter has in common with the other kids, that's pretty bad. Aren't kids in band or drama or soccer any more where TV shouldn't be the only common denominator?

BTW, I heartily approve of Strongly Worded eMails. I use the same method myself. Sears, Starbucks, and Costco all fear me, I'm sure, as do my legislators.

5:17 PM  
Anonymous La BellaDonna said...

You know, Anonymous (the one with the spelling errors), Quinn IS actually permitted to ban from her livingroom behaviour that she finds inappropriate. It is, in fact, the JOB of the parent to ban from her livingroom behaviour that she finds inappropriate. It doesn't harm YOUR kids in the least.

Sarah Bunting, of Tomato Nation, was a child whose parents banned most television. Sars grew up to write a book on popular TV. If Alice needs to catch up on TV when she's older, I'm pretty sure it will still be out there and available.

10:11 AM  

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