Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Old Yeller and the Rabbi (and the Television)
by David Gilfix

I can’t get my daughters to watch Old Yeller.   It’s not that I haven’t tried; I was so doggone excited about sharing the quintessential dog movie of my childhood that I was singing the tune for days before renting the DVD.  “Here Yeller, come back Yeller, best doggone dog in the West.”  (Dad, shhhhh, I’m trying to read).   The girls didn’t decline my movie invitation because Old Yeller is basically a boy’s story or because it reinforces Disney’s take on traditional American western values (come on, they’re only nine!).   I can’t even blame myself, even though, in a moment of weakness, I divulged the poignant, powerful, heart rendering ending where Travis shoots his rabies-inflicted dog to end the suffering, and in making that painful-yet-noble decision he takes a giant step towards adulthood.   It’s none of that.

I blame the Rabbi.
You see, when my daughters were young we had a wonderful Shabbat meal with a local Chassidic Rabbi, and somewhere in the conversation he shared with us some parenting advice.   Fifty percent of parenting involves turning off the television.  The other 50%, he added, is what you do once the television is off.

Now to be honest, his opinion isn’t radically different from the way my wife and I view parenting.   We want our children to develop mostly in an environment that supports our own ethical beliefs and values, certainly not to be mostly in an environment that was antithetical to those values.  But television is just that.  Most television shows involve petty, shallow, superficial, bratty, selfish, nasty characters struggling with their petty, shallow, superficial, bratty, selfish, nasty problems.

However, I still wasn’t convinced about the Rabbi’s “fifty percent” figure.  Fifty percent is a math term, so I decided to examine his statement as a simple math problem.  Ready?   Here we go.

For starters, according to pediatric researchers at the University of Washington, 90% of all children watch television for more than 90 minutes per day by the age of 2.  Even worse, the American Academy of Pediatrics believes the average two-year-old watches a screen (TV, computers, and/or devices like the Wii and the Nintendo DS), for over two hours per day.  Average television viewing among all ages in childhood is 3 hours per day.   (I’ll spare you the bad news about the amount of overall screen time in which most kids engage).

Three hours per day comes to 1095 hours per year.  Meanwhile, if we assume a 6-hour school day and zero student absenteeism throughout a 180-day school year, then a student only attends school for a total 1080 hours, amazingly less than the 1095 hours in front of the television.  In fact, my calculation is unreasonably biased towards children’s school-time, because it does not consider the fact that sick children usually stay out of school but rarely stay away from television.

Here’s another way to conceptualize the 3-hour daily television viewing.  Let’s say that on average a child sleeps for 9.5 hours per day and is in school for six.  Perhaps 1.5 hours are spent getting ready for and traveling to school, and another 1.5 hours are spent at breakfast and dinner combined (lunch is on “school” time).   Let’s further assume the child does homework for an hour a day.  Altogether, that accounts for 18.5 hours.  That means that of the remaining 5.5 hours, three of them (more than half) are spent in front of the television. 

The Rabbi’s “fifty percent” comment no longer sounds so outlandish.  He certainly knows his math.

But wait!  In the true Talmudic tradition of my brilliant ancestors, it is necessary to dissect at least one key word.  (Incidentally, all Jews have ancestors who were brilliant Talmudic scholars who didn’t watch television).  The key word is “parenting.”  In my humble opinion, parenting involves three important responsibilities: 1) Keeping a child safe, healthy, and feeling loved 2) Educating 3) Bestowing one’s values, ethics, and heritage.   If you disagree with these concepts then the rest of the article should be useless for you.  Go turn on the television.

Let’s begin with “educating.”  In a Boston Globe article by Barbara Meltz about a University of Washington study, parents cited “educational value,” as their reason for allowing children to watch television.  Unfortunately, these parents confuse educating with accumulating knowledge.  Even if their children only watch so-called educational television (and statistically we know this rarely happens), at best their children would gain a little extra information about the world.  However, real education involves discovering, differentiating, analyzing, conceptualizing, prioritizing, planning, evaluating, and creating -- in other words, active learning.  Television is completely passive and involves none of those activities.

Meltz goes on to discuss evidence that staring at a screen rather than interacting with the natural environment has a negative impact on a child’s cognitive development. Andrew Meltzoff, a developmental psychologist says that “…early viewing puts children on a trajectory that places them at high risk of attention deficit disorder, diminished reading ability, and obesity.”.

A child watching television is certainly safe - she won’t be run over by a car, and she is certainly loved, but she is also mostly likely ignored, and, believe it or not, risking her health.

The National Institute on Media and the Family website lists several studies by academic and medical institutions that correlate television viewing time to childhood obesity, lower cardio respiratory endurance, and low bone density.  Additional studies conclude that reducing television watching correlated with preventing obesity.  A recent study by the Journal of Pediatrics revealed that 9% of all US children (21 million) have deficient levels of vitamin D, as reported by Rob Stein of the Washington Post.   Among the causes were “…children spending more time watching television and playing video games instead of going outside.”

OK, back to Old Yeller.  One of my favorite scenes is when Travis gazes in wonderment at his natural surroundings during a hunting trip.  We, the viewers, see Travis’ perception of this magnificent wildlife as shot by Walt Disney (and nobody could film the natural world like Disney).  But my children won’t watch it.

And I can’t totally blame the Rabbi.   I blame ourselves; it’s because we’re average.

You see, I know that we’re average parents, with average skills for regulating our children’s television viewing and bestowing our values.  I know that if we made television a part of our children’s lives with the intention of only watching in moderation or only watching so-called, misnamed “educational” shows, we would fail – just like other average parents whose children now watch 3 hours a day.  So we have raised our children with almost no television. We never use television as a reward for completing homework or as a relaxation treat during the weekends. There are exceptions of course, such as when the real baseball season begins in October with the playoffs and we commence our annual ritual of hating the Yankees with every fiber of our being.

The Rabbi’s wife told me a story that a babysitter, after being informed that they owned no television, asked her, “but then what will the children do?”

Indeed, I have noticed that a common characteristic of children who don’t watch television is that they tend not to get bored.  Rather than watch television, they take the initiative to do more of the things we used to associate with childhood before the advent of cable and 200 crystal clear stations where something is always “on”.  My daughters, for example, make up games, climb trees, run around outside, get dirty, ride their bikes, use their pogo sticks, practice gymnastics, hunt for caterpillars, draw pictures, write stories, read (I’m one of those rare parents who tries to get his children to read less), play board games, fight, create crazy cooking recipes, argue, practice violin, write songs on the piano, play with their friends, play with their dolls, make up plays, do their homework, collect leaves, and on-and-on.  They’re not “better” than other girls; they’re just normal, and normal is exactly the way we want them to be.

Since my daughters were not raised with television, they never developed the time honored American pastime of staring vacantly at a screen for hours on end.  In fact, it bores them, and they can’t understand why anyone (including me) would enjoy this unbearable art of do-nothingness.  When I watch TV, one of them invariably tries to convince me to do something else (gee, can’t a guy enjoy just a little mayhem and murder after a hard day’s work?).

So in the end, I guess I can’t complain since they are a product of our own making, even though we'll probably never experience that blissful, bonding father/daughter Old Yeller moment.  (Violinist, can you play the theme to Born Free?).

I tried one final time to convince my daughters to watch the wonderful Old Yeller scene of the magnificent wildlife, but one of them said, “Dad, why do we have to watch nature on television.  Let’s go outside.”


Pavlik said...

Good stuff.

We haven't had Simon watching any television yet, though he did get hooked briefly on some Elmo clips I showed him on my computer in a moment of weakness.

adena said...

wow, David, you and Sharon should be proud of the great parenting you are doing! I'm afraid we allow Jordan much more "screens." His current favorite is professional wrestling. Boys are a whole different animal...

Lisa said...

You make an excellent point and fun of yourself at the same time
thanks for the link

Peter said...

Very nicely written David. I think it is worth discussing new media in this context as TV is intertwined with these other media forms that are increasingly dominating our lives. Some of them are significantly less passive than TV and are shaping the way to communicate and interact with each other (even at pretty early ages.)

ssancetta said...

Darn right! You're a genius. I'd come over and tell you myself, but I can't pull myself away from the computer.