Tag Archives: tv

Children, Communication, and No TV

Big Brother's New HaircutBig Brother had his hair cut today. He chose the style he wanted, explained it to the hairdresser, and then proceeded to have a long conversation with her while she cut his hair. They talked about board games (his favourite is chess, hers is backgammon), what books they’re reading at the moment, the pros and cons of grocery shopping, and whether or not school holidays should go forever. Then he told her about his plan to grow up and invent Helper Robots, complete with what they will look like, how they will help people, and how that will change the world.

At the end of this half hour discussion, Big Brother went and sat down quietly on the seat to wait while Little Brother had his turn. And since Little Brother is a lot more shy than his brother, the hairdresser and I talked.

“It’s hard to believe he’s only six,” she said, gesturing to Big Brother. “I’m always happy when I see you come in here. He always has great manners, and I’ve never met another kid his age who talks so well, and who can actually have a conversation with me.”

I thanked her, chuffed by the compliment. Of course. And then she asked me what school he goes to, and what we’ve done to help him get to this point.

Normally I wouldn’t bring it up, but she was interested.

So I talked about being firm on the importance of manners from the time my children started talking. I talked about leading by example — talking to them the way I want them to talk to me. I talked about the importance of reading books and telling stories and playing board games and not dumbing down language when talking to the children. And then I talked about how the children don’t watch any TV (except for our once a week family movie night) or play computer games.

She was on board with everything until I mentioned TV. But she asked, so I explained.

I explained about the latest research that shows the effect TV has on young brains. I told her that I believe TV encourages children to be spectators rather than to fully engage in the world. I talked about how not watching TV gives my boys plenty of time to play outside, read books, and stage elaborate puppet shows with their toys. But, most of all, I said that I’m not anti-TV. It has its place. Nor do I have a problem with people who let their young children watch TV. Every child and every family is different. But this works for us, and I believe it’s one of the contributing factors in the way Master Six interacts with people and the world.

“Yes,” she said. “But aren’t you worried that when your kids get older and learn about TV and advertising and social media, they won’t be able to communicate with people in the real world?”

To which, I referred her back to her original statement.

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Why My Children Don’t Watch TV

I’m not here to advocate that you stop your children watching TV.

But I do advocate that you make an informed decision about how much TV your children watch. Read what the AAP has to say. Read accounts from people on both sides (and preferably those who can still see the middle). Experiment on your children. Then make a decision to allow no TV, limited TV, or unlimited TV. Whatever your choice, if you’re making it from the place of knowledge, you can be assured it’s the right one for you and your family.

This is our story about our choice.

When Big Brother was born, my husband and I didn’t research the effects of television on children. We didn’t know we were supposed to. We just did what we thought was right (and what we thought would work) and hoped for the best.

By the time Big Brother was a year old, he was watching TV all day. Actually, I lie. He wasn’t watching TV all day, the TV was turned on all day. He’d come and go as he chose. But it didn’t take long before his ‘sitting in front of the TV’ time outweighed his ‘playing on the other side of the room’ time.

I was a working Mum and my husband was a Stay at Home Dad. On my days off, I’d take Big Brother to the park, or we’d do some colouring or some craft. But as soon as that was done, the TV was back on. I can’t say I was completely comfortable with the situation, but I wasn’t the primary carer and the situation was as it was.

When Big Brother turned two, my husband and I traded places. I worked from home and my husband went to work full-time. But nothing changed on the TV front. I had work to do and it was easier to let Big Brother watch TV than hear him complain about it. Besides, TV kept him occupied and happy.

That’s when I discovered that the “experts” had very specific advice about children and television.

I’m not going to lie. I spent a lot of time arguing against the AAP’s recommendations in my own head.

“But he also plays outside and colours and makes stuff. And he’s so polite and well-behaved. And he’s so clever and he loves jigsaw puzzles and books and stories. So how can TV be harmful? Besides, the shows are educational!

“And if given a choice he’d rather go to the park, or do some craft, or play a board game than watch TV. So it’s not like he’s addicted to it or he can’t survive without it.”

Then I continued to do what I thought was best (and easiest), despite the concerns hovering around the back of my mind.

But it didn’t take long for those concerns to intensify. I stopped turning the TV on in the morning and made the rule that the TV had to be turned off every time Big Brother wasn’t actively watching it. He still watched a lot of TV, but at least he wasn’t distracted and dragged back to the screen every time a new theme song played. I’d guess he was watching up to eight hours of TV a day. (And it KILLS me to admit that.)

Big Brother was just short of four years old when I had a sudden, guilt-inducing moment of clarity.

If given a choice he’d rather go to the park, or do some craft, or play a game than watch TV.

But he wasn’t being given a choice. Not really. We’d made the choice for him when we’d let him watch TV before he was even old enough to talk. And, because he was a child, he got hooked. Because he was a child, he couldn’t imagine a life without TV. Because he was a child, it was our responsibility to know what was best for him. Not his.

Besides, my husband can’t sit in a room with the TV on and pay attention to anything else. Why would a four-year-old be any different?

So I cut down on TV. Half an hour in the morning, an hour over lunch, and half an hour in the afternoon. Two hours a day. But half an hour easily stretches to forty-five minutes. And the TV is such a useful distraction when you’ve got a newborn who needs LOTS of attention and you just can’t spend hours a day entertaining a four-year-old.

But he was down to watching an average of 3-4 hours a day. It was a huge improvement. But did it make any difference to his behaviour? No, not really.

The added complication was that we’d enrolled Big Brother into a Steiner Waldorf school — an education system that, amongst other things, specifically discourages young children watching TV. So my husband and I talked about cutting out TV altogether. Well, I say talked. What I mean is that we argued passionately every day for months on end. We were both apprehensive about the change, but my husband was also concerned that by limiting Big Brother’s experience with “normal life”, it would make it difficult for him to relate to other children.

Eventually we came to an agreement. We would trial having no TV for two weeks and see if it made a difference. If not, we’d go back to letting Big Brother watch TV in small doses.

Day One

By 9:00am, I was ready to give the whole thing up as a bad joke. Big Brother had already asked me if he could watch TV at least seven hundred and forty times. He’d sulked, whined, cried, and thrown himself on the couch in a fit of frustration and boredom. But I held my ground. By the time bedtime rolled around, I was exhausted. And then something amazing happened.

“Come on Big Brother, time to brush your teeth,” I said. I anticipated the usual argument. Every night, he reacted as though teeth-brushing was only one step removed from water-boarding.

“Okay,” Big Brother said.

And that was that. We brushed his teeth, had a story, and he went to bed. In a good mood. Even though he was tired. It was the easiest bedtime in four years. (And I hadn’t even realised it had been difficult before!)

Day Two

Big Brother asked if he could watch TV about fifty times, but it took less to distract him. He was more willing to play by himself. But I discovered something worrying: he didn’t really know how. All he knew how to do was re-enact a mish-mash of things he’d seen on TV.

“Oh no! Roary ran out of petrol!” Pause. “Mummy, what happens now?”

“I don’t know. What do you think happens?” I asked.

“No,” said Big Brother. “What happens next in the story?”

“Let’s see… Maybe this green car could help him?”

“No.” He was frustrated now. “What happened next on Roary the Race Car?”

It took me a while to get it. All those stories and games we’d thought he was making up? He wasn’t. Not really. He was retelling stories he’d seen on TV, mashing them together or using different “creatures”, but still telling the same stories. And when he forgot how the story went (which happened remarkably quickly), he had no idea what to do next.

No wonder he needed help entertaining himself.

He ate all his dinner without being prompted. Bedtime was easy.

Day Three

Big Brother only asked about watching TV a dozen times. He drew pictures of animals rather than cartoon characters. He asked if he could please, please, please help do the washing and sweep the floors.

Days Four to Seven

Big Brother stopped asking about the TV and started helping with the housework. He ate his meals without needing to be prompted and listened to what I said with a level of focus I’d never before seen. He didn’t complain about brushing his teeth. And he slept better (and for longer) than he used to.  I’d thought he was well-behaved before, but the difference in his behaviour after only a week without TV was amazing.

My husband and I didn’t even have to talk about whether the “trial” was successful.

Day Eight

Big Brother made up and used his toys to enact a story that was his, rather than being inspired by something he’d seen on TV. He didn’t need my help. He didn’t need me to entertain him. All he needed was his imagination and half a dozen toys. Watching him was bliss.

Now

It’s been ten months since Big Brother stopped watching TV. We have Family Movie Night on Saturday nights, but that’s the only time the television is even turned on.

Big Brother isn’t perfect. But he’s so much more creative and expressive and empathic and helpful and… I don’t know… present than when he was allowed to watch TV. He listens. He focuses on what’s happening around him. He takes responsibility for himself and for his role in the family. He comes up with amazing stories and games, he thinks so far outside the square he can’t even see it anymore, and he can entertain himself for hours on end without the need for parental interaction, electronic devices or even necessarily toys. (Seriously, he can spend hours telling intricately woven stories of honour and love and betrayal using only two sticks and a couple of leaves.)

As I said at the beginning of this (incredibly long) post: I’m not here to advocate that you stop your children watching TV. Not at all. Your family is different to mine. Your needs are different. Your children are different. And in all honesty, perhaps we wouldn’t have seen such a large change if Big Brother hadn’t spent the first few years of his life watching unlimited TV. It’s impossible to know.

But if you sometimes feel that your preschooler isn’t really listening to you, or you worry whether she really knows how to play by herself, or you’re in the least bit curious whether watching TV really makes a difference… Give it a try.

Cut out TV and computers for one week. Not the week when you’re on holidays or you’re out of routine for some other reason. Just an average, ordinary week where any change (positive or negative) will be obvious.

Give it seven days with no screen time and see what happens. You can always go back to normal afterwards. And what have you got to lose?

What rules do you have in your household for children watching TV? Have you ever done a no-television trial?

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Entertaining Kids in the Car

Long distance car trips are something I grew up with. When I was very young, our family would drive from Melbourne, Victoria all the way to Toowoomba, Queensland for the Christmas holidays. That’s a car trip just short of 1600km (or 1000 miles) long. I have vivid memories of being three and four years old and being woken up in the middle of the night to drive to Nana and Grandad’s house. I’d stay awake for the whole trip, pointing out kangaroos near the road, singing little songs I’d made up, and counting cars and trees and sheep and anything else that took my fancy. We’d stop every few hours and have “car food”. Hot chips, or donuts, or sausage rolls — the type of food we never had at home. Sometimes, we’d even stop for a hot chocolate or an ice cream.

When I was a bit older, car trips were full of games. I Spy, Trivia, counting games, rhyming games, and home-made Bingo Cards full of things like cows and postboxes and Ambulances. The first one to see them all wins!

When I was a teenager, I got my first Walkman. I’d happily bliss out to my music for a while, but before long I’d be bored and playing Guess Who? with my sister (we memorised all the people so we didn’t need to use a board) or challenging my siblings to The Alphabet Game.

Car trips were fun, family events when I was a kid. And now that I’m a parent, I endeavour to make them fun for my boys as well. Even driving five-year-old Big Brother to school involves games, made up stories and rhymes. And a traffic jam is a perfect opportunity for I Spy.  
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There’s an interesting Facebook page that I occasionally visit called Brisbane Kids. They regularly post questions that have been emailed in to them by concerned, curious, or interested parents. I happened to come across this question last week:

My 15 month old is a shocking car traveller and has been for quite some time now, even on very short trips (less than 10 mins). I think he gets frustrated with being restrained, as he is usually so active. I now avoid driving places which is becoming pretty restrictive. Any suggestions as to how to improve the situation? We have tried singing, kids CDs, food (car is now a bomb site), box of toys next to seat etc.

Well, I know a thing or two about entertaining kids in the car. Plus,  I’ve been in this situation with both my boys in the past. Big Brother hated the car between the ages of 6 weeks and 13 months. Little Brother wasn’t quite so difficult (possibly because he was excited about being in the car with his brother), but still went through a stage when he was about a year old where he hated the car for a month or so. And in both cases, I did exactly what I would recommend to anyone else: I persevered.

This question sounds like it’s from a mother who has, and is, trying to persevere. She’s tried everything she can think of, and now she’s reaching out for advice, suggestions, and possibly even a simple reminder that it does get better. Good on her, really. It’s not easy to ask for help when you’ve got a small child, and I have a lot of respect for people who can bypass their pride in favour of doing what’s best for themselves and their children. But before I shared my thoughts with her, I decided to read the other 43 comments. Just to make sure I wasn’t repeating anyone else.

But what I found shocked me.

There were some good suggestions. Try moving the car seat to a different position. Make sure the car seat is comfortable. Use toys that are only available in the car. Sing songs. Wait it out. Persevere.

All good advice.

But twenty-three different people had a different answer. Twenty-three people suggested the mother invest in a portable DVD player for the car. Twenty-three people said some version of the following statements:

  • There’s only one way to keep kids entertained in the car and that’s a portable DVD player.
  • My child used to cry in the car, so I put in a portable DVD player and now she’s always quiet.
  • Just put children’s programming on a portable DVD player and all your problems will be solved.

I was really stunned by this response. Perhaps I should have seen it coming. Perhaps the fact that I didn’t see it coming is a sign that I’m not really in tune with modern society. Either way, as I read the comment I found my mood vacillating between outrage and despair.

I don’t believe that all twenty-three of those people are bad parents, but I do worry about the over-reliance on electronic devices to entertain children. Even disregarding the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that children under the age of two  shouldn’t watch any television at all, I have a number of concerns:

  1. Are the parents who suggested DVD players aware that there is scientific evidence that children of that age can be negatively impacted by watching TV? If not, what does that say about the way the message is being spread?
  2. If the first reaction of parents is to stun a 15 month old boy into silence through use of a DVD Player, what do they do at home when their kids are noisy or argumentative or upset or tired or loud?
  3.  If the only way you have to cope with upset children is to put them in front of a screen, what do you do when there are no TVs, DVDs or computers available?

Keeping a toddler quiet by putting him in front of a TV screen might seem like the easiest option, but is it the best one? At the end of the day, the only person who can make that decision is you. But remember this:

It’s cute when a two-year-old goes from shrieking to silent with the careful push of a button on a portable DVD player.

It’s not so cute when a twenty-year-old man has no ability to entertain himself for five minutes without a screen in front of him.

Instead of reaching for the ‘on’ button next car trip, try challenging your children to be the first one to spot a man walking a dog. Tell as many terrible knock-knock jokes as you can make up on the spot. Sing songs from your childhood. Take it in turns to sing a line of a made-up song. Try something different. See how it goes. Maybe you’ll discover the same thing I did, all those years ago: Being trapped in a car for 20 hours at a time isn’t a chore, it’s a fun-filled adventure that comes with its own captive audience.

Did you play games in the car when you were a child? What about now? Do you own a portable DVD player? Do/Would you let your children watch it?

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Book Review: Don’t Panic

I’m not usually a big fan of reading biographies. Even of people I admire. The thing is, if you really admire someone, you probably know a fair bit about what they’ve been doing with their life. It stands to reason. Otherwise, what do you admire them for? And, often, before you even start to read a biography, you know how it’s going to end: the main character is going to end up dead. And they don’t even include a spoiler alert on the jacket.

All that aside, I jumped at the chance to read the book Don’t Panic: Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy written by Neil Gaiman. This is a not a biography of Douglas Adams (arguably one of the most exciting, innovative and quirky writers in the history of ever) No, this is a biography of his idea. It’s a biography of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Douglas Adams’ relationship to and with it. It’s a biography of a thought, a concept, a radio show, a book, a sequel, a sequel’s sequel, a computer game, a TV series, the fourth book in a trilogy, an almost-movie, and the last Hitchhiker’s book that wasn’t. And it was written by Neil Gaiman, one of my favourite authors. How could I resist?

The original version of this book was published in 1988, and titled Don’t Panic: The Official Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Companion. It was then reprinted and renamed in 1993. Then, after Adams’ untimely and sudden death in 2001, the book was revisited, rewritten, and republished in 2002. One of the best online reviews of the book that I came across prior to reading it was written in 2004, and sums up the feel of the book perfectly:

The book does not feel like a night of solitary reading. It feels as if you casually ran into Neil Gaiman at a pub, bought a round, and giggle like a fangirl over the behind-the-scenes book legends of The Hitchhiker’s Guide. (This is not to assume Neil Gaiman giggles, which I can neither confirm nor deny.)

The book includes interviews, quotes, letters, and anecdotes that really draw the reader into the world of Hitchhiker’s and Douglas Adams. It traces the life of the original idea through the ups and downs, triumphs and tribulations, fame and infamy of its existence. And, even for a “fangirl” like me, it gave me a new and different insight into the life of the author, the book, and the environment that produced the Hitchhiker’s phenomenon.

I came away with an even greater respect for Douglas Adams, as well as the people who had to work with him. (I doubt anyone would have described him as low-maintenance. Genius? Yes. But not low-maintenance.) And I found myself wishing that he had lived long enough to see the massive explosion in the popularity of e-books and e-book readers that we have today, considering that he was writing about a dedicated e-book reader long before they had even been considered.

Read it. You know you want it.

***** SPOILER ALERT *****
Douglas Adams dies at the end, but the main character (that is, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) is still going strong. Did you know that you can play the Hitchhiker’s game online? Tastes just like the original, but now with added graphics.

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Everything I Know About Outlining I Learned From Bananas in Pyjamas

Last week I read a great article on Alan Baxter’s blog titled There are two types of writer…. In the article, he discusses the differences between ‘planners’ and ‘pantsers’ when it comes to writing a novel. Although I agree with him in saying that most people fall somewhere in the shades of grey between the two extremes, I would definitely describe myself as a ‘pantser’.

When I start writing a novel, I really only know where I want it to start, what the initial motivation of the main protagonist is, and how I want it to finish. (Although the finish is quite mutable.) Every single time that I’ve started by trying to write an outline, I’ve either immediately lost inspiration for actually writing the damn thing (I already know where all the twists and turns of the plot are, and I know how it all works out, so why would I want to go through the adventure all over again, bleeding words on to a page as I go?), or I’ve got 4 chapters in, and realised that my characters are trying to take me in a different direction, and I will either need to throw the outline out the window, or substantially change my character’s personalities.

All of these thoughts were going through my mind when I saw an episode of the new Bananas in Pyjamas on ABC2 the other day. (I have a 4-year-old – I have an excuse.) And that’s when I realised that, while some people may prefer to start with an outline, good old B1 and B2 are on my side.

The episode in question is Bananas in Pyjamas – The Bushwalk, and goes something like this:

The Bananas in Pyjamas decide that it’s a perfect day for a bushwalk, so they get into their bushwalking gear and set off, feeling full of enthusiasm.

When you know it’s the perfect time to write, sit down and get started. At that point, you’re usually excited and enthusiastic.

They haven’t gone far before they’re stopped by Rat in a Hat, who tells them that if they want to go bushwalking, they’ll need to visit his shop first.

Rat: You can’t go bushwalking without a hat to keep the sun off.
B1&2: Rat, we’ve already got hats.
Rat: Oh, so you do… Ah! Here’s what you need!
B1&2: Rat, we’ve already got boots, too.
Rat: Oh, cheese and whiskers…
B1&2: It’s alright, Rat. It’s just, we already have everything we need. Bye.
Rat: Wait, Bananas. There’s one more thing you need. A very important thing.
B1&2: What is it Rat?
Rat: It’s a map. You’ll need a map.

There’s always someone who “knows” what you need in order to write “properly”. Maybe you need a better office space, or a better computer, or a better writing program, or books on how to write. And when you assure that them that you have everything you need, they will tell you that you can’t start writing until you have a map; a plan; an outline of your prospective novel.

The Bananas buy a map that is supposed to take them to a Secret Waterfall, and off they go. Instead of enjoying their bushwalk, however, they spend all their time trying to follow the map.

B2: The map says turn left here, B1.
B1: Then left turn it is, B2.
<crash>
B2: That’s funny. There’s no fence on the map.
B1: There’s no fence at all.
B2: Maybe we were supposed to turn right, B1.
B1&2: Let’s try that instead.
<splash>
B1: There’s no pond on the map, either.
B2: No pond at all.

Once you have your outline, and you begin to write, it’s easy to get so fixated on following your outline that you don’t even notice what’s going on in your story. And when your characters start wanting to do things that you haven’t planned, you react by trying to force them back into the outline you’ve prepared.

 When the Bananas can’t find the secret waterfall, they return, dejected, to Rat’s shop.

B1&2: We’re back, Rat.
Rat: Hello, Bananas. How was the waterfall?
B1&2: We couldn’t find the waterfall, Rat. All we found was Pedro the Pig. So we’ve come to return your map.
Rat: There’s nothing wrong with the map! You just didn’t follow it correctly.
B1&2: But we tried so hard, Rat.
Rat: Don’t worry. Luckily, I have another map.
B1&2: Another map?
Rat: And this map is easy to follow.

If you persevere your way through writing your whole story, following your outline when it doesn’t even make sense anymore, you will eventually reach the end. But instead of a beautiful waterfall, you may find yourself confronted by a pig rolling in the mud. So to speak. Those people who claim that you can’t write without an outline will than tell you that the problem wasn’t that you should have “gone with the flow”; the problem was that you didn’t use your outline correctly. So you should clearly go back to the drawing board and start again. With a new outline. An easier one, this time.

When the second map leads them to the teddies’ back yard instead of a secret lake, the Bananas go back to Rat and tell him that his maps aren’t working and they want their money back. Rat assures them that there’s nothing wrong with his maps, and he has a better idea.

B1: Why are you dressed like that, Rat?
Rat: Because I am your new bushwalking tour guide.
B1&2: Bushwalking tour guide?
Rat: That’s right. I’m taking you to see the secret waterfall and the secret lake.

Rather than accept that the outlining process didn’t work for you, these people may even offer to show you how to “fix” your novel so that it matches your outline.

When Rat leads the Bananas to the promised places, they aren’t quite what he promised. The secret waterfall is just a hose blasting water into a pig-trough. The secret lake is an inflatable wading-pool filled with water. And Rat is forced to swim around aforementioned wading-pool pretending to be a turtle, so that his promises are all fulfilled.

So, all in all, there’s nothing wrong with sticking to your pre-planned outline, no matter what. As long as you think that a giant rat in a swimming costume is just as impressive as a sea turtle. Your choice, really.

 

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