Years ago, when columnist John Rosemond was about to become a grandfather, he wrote a column giving his son, Eric, just two pieces of advice about fatherhood.
Although I am not a Rosemond worshipper by any stretch of the imagination, and cannot even recall the second piece of advice, one piece has remained chiseled into my brain for life.
Rosemond’s suggestion to his son? To lock up the TV set until his child entered school.
The idea might seem radical, but it grew out of Rosemond’s own difficult experience raising Eric. After learning that he was failing third grade, Rosemond and his wife imposed a number of changes in household rules and routines. Convinced that Eric’s TV-watching habit was the chief contributor to his problems, they decided not just to limit the family’s viewing; they gave the family TV set away.
The results were dramatic and almost instantaneous, writes Rosemond in his book, Parent Power.
Eric and his sister began playing more creatively and calmly, and sibling conflicts – typically fights over TV shows – lessened remarkably.
“Undoubtedly, some of the improvement was due to the other changes we were making,” writes Rosemond. “But I’m convinced that the single most critical variable in Eric’s rehabilitation was the sudden and complete absence of television in his life.”
Ben Carson, the famed surgeon, tells the story of a similar dramatic turnaround in his own life.
Carson and his brother were raised in poverty on the streets of Detroit by a single, teenage mother who had little education; but she was one smart mom and was determined to raise them right. When her son fell behind in school, she took away both boys’ TV privileges and instructed them to read two books a week, write reports, and read them aloud to her (because she couldn’t read herself).
Within a year or two, Carson says, he went from being considered “the dumbest kid in fifth grade” to one of the top students in seventh grade. The benefits spilled over into his personal life, and he began to devise ways to outsmart street thugs, deal with racism and keep his temper in check -- eventually going on to Yale and a career as a gifted surgeon and best-selling author.
Leading children to addiction?
Of course, both the Carson and the Rosemond children grew up in an era when TV was the main time-waster and source of addiction for vulnerable children. Today, the gallery of addictive devices has expanded to Nintendos, X-Boxes, PlayStations, computer games and all manner of handhelds and cell phone games. And often, it is the parents themselves buying the items that lead their children to addiction. As Stephen Moore lamented in a 2008 Wall Street Journal column, addiction to video games can turn even “normal, sports-loving adolescents” into demons who rant, rage and curse and throw things when deprived of their toy. “My teenage sons have been abducted, and I want them back,” wrote Moore.
After discovering Xbox and online war games, the boys began spending five or six hours at a time in front of the computer screen, said Moore, and “withdrawing ever deeper” into violent fantasy worlds. Other parents told Moore that their children were so addicted that they had stopped bathing and taking bathroom breaks and were skipping meals and foregoing sleep.
“Computer games are the new crack cocaine,” said Moore, who said he wished he had never let one in the house. “A mind really is a terrible thing to waste.”
Yes, you might say, but what about all the benefits of video and computer games? What about the research that says video games can help train pilots by enhancing eye hand coordination and reaction time?
So I’ve heard – just as I’ve heard that video games have been shown to benefit persons with special needs and disabilities.
I still believe that video games have absolutely no place in early childhood, and that any screen time for preschoolers should be parceled out in only the tiniest of doses.
Computer games, video games, TV and other manufactured forms of entertainment are not merely useless when it comes to educating children, or preparing them for school or adulthood. When allowed to replace active, hands-on learning experiences that are crucial to neurological and physical development, they are downright toxic.
It’s not the content that harms kids as much as the passive habits induced by too much screen time – especially for the preschool set.
What red-blooded American kid, after all, is going to be motivated to read, explore, or get psyched about school when he’s spent his formative years pushing a button and mainlining his entertainment – without making a move?
Taking the right path early
It’s not hard to figure out that keeping kids free of screen-time addiction is best done in the early years. And if you start them down the right path when they are toddlers, it’s a piece of cake compared to the Rosemond and Carson interventions.
One of the moms who wrote in response to a previous “Slow Kids” column told me that her home is decorated in “Tinker Toys and Legos in various stages of build” – reminding me of my girls’ pre-Lego years, when I used to joke that my house was decorated in “Early Fisher-Price.”
In the toddler years, all it takes is a few good toys and a little help from parents – okay, some days it’s a lot of help! – to get kids into a routine of playing with puzzles and blocks instead of watching TV. (Note, Mom and Dad, that this is easier if the TV is not the focal point of the living area, and is not watched non-stop by adults). I have known some families to keep their TV in a closet or an out-of-the-way room, but my girls’ dad wouldn’t hear of such a thing, so our television was typically secured in a cabinet with a child lock all day.
I can’t begin to list all the benefits of this nearly TV-free lifestyle for my children, but, like Rosemond, I consider it the
central reason that they grew up to be good students, responsible adults and hard workers.
The lack of TV also had some nice, unexpected side effects – such as the minimal amount of begging I heard at holiday time. The other moms in my playgroup complained of relentless whining from their kids for cartoon-inspired and commercially-promoted toys and junk cereals. My kids? They barely knew such things existed.
But perhaps best of all, the absence of TV brought out all the childhood traits that were so enjoyable for me to observe as a parent: the girls’ curiosity, initiative and creativity.
I’ll never forget the neighbor child who came over one day to play with my six-year-old, and who greeted me by marching to our TV set and flipping it on without a word.
After I had informed her that parents turned on the TV set in our house, and reminded her that she had come to “play,” my daughter – realizing that she and her sisters had an extra playmate – launched into one of their make-believe games. I can’t remember if the game was “store,” “restaurant,” “school,” or “college girls,” but in no time my three were deep in their fantasy – and the neighbor child was watching in open-mouthed astonishment.
Wide-eyed and completely dumbfounded, she looked at me and asked, “What are they doing?”
I felt bad for her – and felt resentment toward parents who would rely so heavily on plug-in toys that their daughter had been deprived of the “let’s pretend” experience.
Today, 20 years later, I can’t bear to think how many more children are growing up deprived of books, blocks, puzzles and make-believe because their homes are full of gadgets that do the imagining for them. Too often, parents are buying these computer games and gadgets – envisioning them as vehicles for family entertainment, or thinking that having the latest game will keep their kids occupied and or even give them an edge.
So in the next “Slow Kids” column, we’ll examine some of the myths surrounding different forms of electronic entertainment, and take a look at the educational value of computer games, videos and lapware.
Till then, here’s to the life unplugged!
St. Joseph's Villa’s Flagler Housing & Homeless Services was one of three entities to earn the National Alliance to End Homelessness' Champion of Change Award. The awards were presented Nov. 17 during a ceremony at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
NAEH annually recognizes proven programs and significant achievements in ending child and family homelessness.
Flagler completed its transition from an on-campus shelter to the community-based model of rapid rehousing in 2013, and it was one of the nation's first rapid re-housing service providers to be certified by NAEH. > Read more.
Richmond International Raceway's 13th annual Community Christmas tree lighting has been rescheduled from Dec. 6 to Monday, Dec. 12, at 6:30 p.m., due to inclement weather expected on the original date.
Entertainment Dec. 12 will be provided by the Laburnum Elementary School choir and the Henrico High School Mighty Marching Warriors band. Tree decorations crafted by students from Laburnum Elementary School and L. Douglas Wilder Middle School will be on display. Hot chocolate and cookies will be supplied by the Henrico High School football boosters. > Read more.
CAT Theatre and When There’s A Will director Ann Davis recently announced the cast for the dark comedy which will be performed May 26 through June 3.
The play centers around a family gathering commanded by the matriarch, Dolores, to address their unhappiness with Grandmother’s hold on the clan’s inheritance and her unreasonable demands on her family.
Pat Walker will play the part of Dolores Whitmore, with Graham and Florine Whitmore played by Brent Deekens and Brandy Samberg, respectively. > Read more.
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CalendarThe film “Ice Age Collision Course” (rated PG) will play at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. at the Henrico Theatre, 305 E. Nine Mile Rd. Tickets are $1 and can be purchased at the door. For details, call 328-4491. Full text