The year was 2000 and we were in the middle of watching Harvey (the Jimmy Stewart classic with the six-foot rabbit) when our television made a strange little gasping noise and died. I was expecting rioting and bloodshed in the streets but my five year-old just got up to play with his trains and his two year-old sister toddled after him to chew on Thomas the Tank Engine and wreck general havoc on the Island of Sodor.
Fast forward 17 years. Here are just some of the things the kids and I have done with our time instead of watch television.
We’ve read. A lot. Our library lets us borrow 50 items at a time, and we’re nearly always at out limit. They say the average American has read three works of literature since graduating from college. I just finished The Sun Also Rises so that makes number 2,347 for me (yes, I do keep track).
We’ve had more time for music and the arts. We play the concertina, accordion, Irish whistle, guitar and Irish tenor banjo — our band, The Lost Gypsies, recently played on local television (I know, ironic). Our eldest son traveled with his Greek line dance group; I swing dance, avidly; the three younger kids and I do traditional (and dangerous) Philippine dances like Sayaw sa Bangko and Tinikling.
We’ve had time to play sports and stay physically fit, whether it’s cross country, tennis and track and field for the kids, or mud runs, Tabata and Ironman swims for me.
We’ve found more time to volunteer, whether with special needs kids or at our local food pantry. We’ve had time to participate in groups like Boy Scouts and 4H (this past year, the kids won 30 blue ribbons for baking, at one fair alone).
I’ve had time to write a book, a historical fiction novel, The Fire by Night, about front-line military nurses during the Second World War. It took me seven years to research it, and seven months to write it, and HarperCollins published it this month.
So, it’s clear you get more time, living TV free. But what else do you get?
I think you get discernment. When we see television commercials now, the advertising looks so phony; the idea that purchasing a mid-range sedan, or ordering a slightly larger-than-average meal could inspire such ecstasy just doesn’t ring true.
Living TV free can also make television — when we do watch it — a real treat for our family. The Olympics, for example, are a time for us to drive to my parents’ house each night and moan along with Grandpa when the ice skaters fall and cheer along with Grandma when the gymnasts stick their landings. These are true family gatherings, full of good food and laughter that create memories the kids will have long after the medal count or the names of the individual athletes have been forgotten.
As streaming of movies (on the weekends) became possible, I was impressed with how self-directed the kids were. Organically, the kids were incredibly selective, looking out for younger siblings. Debates over the relative merits of a Saturday night movie have taken a half an hour or more — and I’m just so proud of that fact. My kids don’t know what it means to turn on a channel, plop down passively and let whatever happens to be on wash over them, mindlessly — they choose what they watch, it’s not chosen, randomly, for them.
So this is what living without television has been like for us. It might not be like that for everyone. If you gave it up, maybe you wouldn’t want to write a book or join a dance troupe or read inordinate amounts of classic literature — maybe you’d just get four or five more hours of sleep each night (wait a minute, that sounds like a good idea right about now, doesn’t it?).
But when I finish scribbling down the last line to a short story; or nail a difficult jump in Tinikling; or recite 52 lines of Kipling — then see another adult screaming at a reality show, or humming along with some inane game show theme song, I can’t help imagining that there might have been something greater in store for them, too.
And now I will undo everything I’ve just written by saying there is a place for TV, and an important place at that. Back when kids got chicken pox my four kids got chicken pox and we were quarantined for, start to finish, a month straight. If you ask my kids, unanimously, they say they wish they could do it again — it remains one of their favorite memories.
We had just finished school for the year and they ran around in nothing but undershorts, eating obscene amounts of homemade fruit popsicles (alright, I was a younger mom then), ice cream and frozen novelties. And they continuously watched their favorite TV show; I don’t think they ever turned it off. When I saw the first, watery blister appear on my daughter’s back I called — I can’t believe I actually called them — Amazon, and telling the man on the line I wanted to order every season of I Love Lucy on DVD (the kids had seen one or two episodes before and adored it).
I remember him telling me I qualified for free shipping, and would receive the set in 7-10 business days. Seeing the second watery blister appear on my daughter’s left shoulder I said, no, I needed them now. It was like a MasterCard commercial.
I Love Lucy complete series with overnight shipping: $219. Having my kids wake up with full-blown chicken pox and handing them nine years of their all-time favorite television show: absolutely priceless.
Teresa Messineo lives in Reading, Pennsylvania, where she home schools her children. Her novel, The Fire by Night, was published by HarperCollins on January 17, 2017. Her personal motto is, “We Learn from Our Mistakes.”
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