Last month, for the millionth morning in a row, my kids popped out of bed begging for cartoons. While I poured my coffee, they cashed in their 30 minute TV “tokens,” grabbed the remote and ran to the couch. By the time I had poured the creamer, their bodies were already limp and their eyes fully glazed over. Just as the bright lights lulled them into the intended hypnotic state… the main event began: the commercials. Bouncing blonde children appeared like angels on high, beaming in their low rise jeans, thrilled to deliver the good news…apparently my children only required the latest transformer and hot pink scooter in order to be happy and cool! Hallelujah! And without averting their eyes from the screen my angels began their chorus….“Mommy, I don’t have…” Mommy, I want…” “Mommy, Sarah has…” More coffee, please.
Later, Tish squealed when she caught a glimpse of the “All New Dora Shopping Cart” at the grocery store. On closer inspection, we discovered that the cart played a constant reel of cartoons and commercials. I allowed her to climb in because grocery trips are so painful when she’s alert, and the cart seemed a lovely solution. As I shopped, the silence from Tish started feeling stranger and stranger, like she wasn’t there with me at all, which I supposed was the point of the Dora cart. I only heard her voice once, when she said while pointing to the screen, “Mommy, can we buy these fruit snacks? PLEASE?” “No,” I said, “those are not healthy.” “Yes they are,” she insisted,” The TV SAID THEY ARE!” And I realized that while I’d been busy shopping, Kelloggs had been busy courting and retaining a business partner in my 3 year old daughter. Impressive, really.
After naptime we took Chase to his friend’s house and drove to Tish’s well check. Since there was nowhere else to look, we spent our time in the pediatrician’s waiting room allowing a Disney movie, Peter Pan, to creep its way good and deep into our psyche. In the first scene, Tinkerbell checked her bottom in a mirror and then shook with fairy frustration at its perceived hugeness. For the rest of our wait, we were treated to scene after scene in which Wendy, Tiger Lilly, and Tink tried to kill each other to become the last woman standing and win Peter’s affection. Sadly for the ladies, Peter was too busy having exciting adventures to notice their efforts. Tish was captivated, and only tore herself away once to say “Mommy, I really want to be a fairy when I grow up.” I sighed wearily in her direction but also felt mildly pleased that I had finally discovered where the “Rock of Love” producers got their inspiration. While I contemplated asking the Disney family to pay Tish’s future therapy bills, we were called back for our check up. Since I heroically resisted the urge to answer the doctor’s “how are we feeling today?” with “quite misogynistic, thanks!” we were declared relatively well, and we headed out to pick up Chase.
When we arrived at Chase’s buddy’s house, I expected to find them outside playing, since it was a beautiful day. But instead I was led down to the basement to find them in a semi-dark room, looking not at each other, but at a screen, talking not to each other, but to the screen…as they patiently waited their turn to hold the controller to the video game that they were playing. And I took a deep breath and wished hard and deep that they were really playing. And then I finally realized my problem: theywere really playing. This is what the new “playing” looks like. It looks like moving your thumbs while watching TV next to a buddy.
And as soon as we got home, Chase and Tish started begging for a cartoon, because they’d had a long day and they were tired. And I regretfully realized that our day had become a maddening version of “If you give a pig a pancake” renamed, “If you show a child a flat screen…” Suddenly my mommy volcano that had been bubbling all day exploded, and I started ranting about how the screens were rotting their brains and imaginations and souls. And Chase and Tish looked at me just like I would look at someone who brought a blender of margaritas in my house, set it on my counter, and then yelled at me for wanting to drink it.
After dinner that night I rushed through the kids’ bedtime routines because I was exhausted, depressed and just plain desperate to fast forward to my evening routine. Which consists of spending the only two quiet hours of my life inviting ladies with Stepford smiles to deliver to me the good news…that all I require to finally achieve happiness and coolness is the latest cold cream or handbag or diet pill or house or fabric softener. And I started considering my body, my home, and my closet and felt discontent with what I had, because I started to confuse what I have with who I am. Which of course, is the whole point. And so I marched to my minivan with all the other ants (we all do it the same way) and drove to the mall, to numb my restless lessness with some bulimic shopping. I binged on new jeans and throw pillows and Gymboree bows, and felt high for awhile, but then guilty. So I resolved to puke most of it back up by returning it the next morning. And ultimately I ended up back on the couch, not feeling much happier or cooler at all, really. Just tired. So I turned on the TV…
“If you give an exhausted mom a reality show…”
The morning after this embarrassingly typical day, I decided to stop and think, which is always a dangerous thing for me, and only happens in the shower. These questions started nagging me like Chase near an ice cream truck: After thirty years, was I finally willing to admit that the cause of my restless lessness might be that I’d spent too much time listening to the wrong voices? Was I allowing myself to be brainwashed into wanting things that I wasn’t designed to want at all? Because if I got what I really wanted wouldn’t I be happier? Could it be true that you can never really get enough of what you don’t really need? And if it wasn’t really the “stuff” I wanted, then what would I want if I were left to answer that question myself instead of accepting the suggestions of advertisers? What would I value if I only sought the opinions of wise people without their bottom lines in mind? And most importantly, what would I consider, discover and create if I allowed myself some quiet instead of filling every moment with manufactured noise? What was I avoiding anyway? And who is actually benefiting from this screen time way of life?
I was pretty sure it wasn’t my kids. So I asked myself some tough questions on their behalf. Isn’t this idea of spending much of one’s childhood staring at images in a box a relatively new human experiment? What are the results of this experiment? Would Picasso ever have picked up a brush if he had a WII, a DS and Noggin? And most importantly to me, how would it alter my kids’ hearts and minds if they stopped hearing conflicting messages in our home? Would they trust me more? I teach them about kindness, peace, and tolerance, and the TV teaches them to vote off the weakest link. I explain the importance of sportsmanship and then cheer as a lineman dances over the quarterback he’s just flattened. I promise them that they are not what they own, and then the TV winks and argues…”Oh, yeeeees you are. Your mom is just jealous because SHE doesn’t have the new Brat doll.” And I don’t blame them for believing the TV instead of me. It’s shinier and never loses its patience or makes them clean their rooms. And my kids don’t understand yet that people can smile and be a villain. And others can be a drag sometimes but desperately want the best for them. They just really like dancing cheese sticks, happy meals, and Hannah Montana.
During the following week I started to realize that it wasn’t just the TV I was angry with…it was the magazines, the catalogs and every other means that the consumer machine used to infiltrate my home and my head. And eventually my anger turned to sadness as I considered the huge role big business had played in my miserable self image as an adolescent. I started sympathizing with my young, insecure, and defenseless self. Since childhood we’re barraged with the message that we are LESS and that lessness can only be remedied through buyingmore. Is it surprising, or intentional, that so many of us are suffering from insecurity, materialism, debt and emptiness? And with rising panic I considered that with my blessing, my kids were now accepting the TV’s ageless invitation: “Sit down and get comfortable so we can make you uncomfortable. ” And I realized that the truth was the TV was just doing its its job. The only question left to answer was…was I doing mine? If I had a visitor who showed up in my family room daily to counteract everything I taught my children, distract me from my husband and my other sources of joy, and drown the voice of truth and peace …would I keep inviting her in?
So one night while we were doing the dishes, I told Craig that I wanted to get rid of the TV. And he lit up because he thought I meant that I wanted a bigger one, but when I clarified, his face went from hallelujah to hell no. He admitted to me that he was worried we were getting weirder and weirder and that our neighbors were going to start thinking we were anti-establishment hippies. And I got excited, really excited. HIPPIES! I’ve always wanted to be a hippy. Well maybe not actually be a hippy so much as be thought of as a hippy. And I considered that maybe now with the “no TV” thing, I could really pull the hippy look off. I made a mental note to hit the mall and find a peasant skirt and beads to fit my new persona. And maybe I’d grow out my hair and I’d probably have to stop wearing make-up. Maybe I could get away with no makeup if I started going to the tanning salon again. That might work, but I was worried about the sandals. Didn’t hippies wear sandals? I hoped the new hippy look allowed for at least a small heel. Also, what do hippies wear to the gym? I hoped it wasn’t going to cost me too much to transform into an un-material girl. At this point the conversation ended because I had forgotten what we were originally discussing and Craig was all too happy not to remind me.
The next morning when I awoke to Tish whining for screen time, I refocused and resumed arguments with Craig. He spent a lot of time cocking his head and looking at me like he always does, slightly intrigued, mostly weary. Until one morning over breakfast I mentioned that getting rid of the TV might encourage us have sex more, since there’d be nothing else to do. I said I was pretty sure that hippies had a lot of sex. When I returned from the grocery store that afternoon, the flat screen had disappeared, and standing in its place was a bookcase full of our family favorites.