Let Your Kids Watch TV!

Family Matters on 06.01.11
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Photo: smudie/Creative Commons


Not long ago, I sat my son, Stefen, on the couch and showed him old Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock videos on YouTube. He's 14 months old. He looked at the computer screen and then looked up at me like his own personal rainbow sprouted from the heavens and released a sun shower of puppies that kissed his face.

At that point, my husband and I had not yet introduced Stefen to television. We held off for a long time. I mean, how often are fingers waved at you, people telling you not to let your kids watch TV, before you understand the reality of parenting? But about two weeks ago, we finally succumbed. Stefen has hypotonia and can't explore the world independently yet, so I figured seeing new things on TV could expand his mind more than just looking around from his perch and me carrying him around would. And, to be entirely honest, I work at a magazine that closes every Monday night between 2 and 4 a.m., and Nick Jr. comes in really handy on Tuesday mornings. Because: 7:30 a.m. + 3 hours sleep x 1 antsy kid with the energy of a toddler but with no outlet = ohmygodpleasedon'tmakememove. If Stefen can't run around, Moose A. Moose is a damn fine pal for him while I drool my way out of bed.

It's not the best parenting. But TV guilt is a rite of passage, and we're all in good company. (A thought: If everybody shares the same source of guilt — letting our children watch too much TV — that should obliterate the guilt because it's just a common parenting trope, right?) But more to the point: Kids need TV. Not only does it give them language and inspiration, but they need to be part of the culture that will shape them, whether you like it or not.

A Born Fanilow
An extensive knowledge of pop culture has always been a big thing in my family from the time I was zero. At 5, I went to my first real concert: Barry Manilow. I fell asleep on my mom's lap, woke up during "Copacabana" when Barry rode onto the stage on a palm tree, and then I peed on her leg. March was TV's greatest month, because Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz and the Oscars were all on, they were events, and I was allowed to stay up late. I watched The Blob and The Day of the Triffids on "Creature Feature" Sundays and had to sleep with the hall light on. I still have the copy of TV Guide with Rick Springfield on the cover that I shoplifted from the supermarket. I never thought boys were gross because my parents had a Shaun Cassidy album that I looked at every day, knowing in my soul that somebody so beautiful could never be icky.

So now that we've crossed over to the dark side, I think about what in pop culture will be important to Stefen. I want TV and movies and music to matter to him. I grew up in the late '70s and early '80s with Saturday morning cartoons, and I want that ritual for my child. I'm sad he'll never know what it feels like as a teenager to camp out overnight in a parking lot to buy concert tickets. But he will very much be a child of his era, and which ever cartoons he and his friends watch, and however they get concert tickets, I want it to be important to him.

While I do not want Stefen to loaf all bleary-eyed in front of the TV — and, of course, this would never be at the expense of all else, including and especially exercise and reading books — I actually find that having a strong grasp of current cultural references is crucial to a child finding his place in the world.

Who's That Guy?
When all else fails when you're trying to fit in — if you're socially awkward, if there's a lull in a conversation, if you're not feeling confident that you've mastered any one area of expertise — enough cannot be said for being the kid who knows who sang what song, who starred in what movie, who said what line. There's a satisfaction that goes with knowing a whole lot about something so fun, and it certainly feeds a sense of humor. And lord knows that when you're growing up and you don't have a handle on your place in the social universe, a sense of humor is the one thing that saves you from feeling like you've been shoved into a locker.

This may all sound biased. I work at Us Weekly. My entire career, which I love, is pop culture, and I owe everything to it. But I felt that way long before I learned that stars are just like us. I felt that way during a canoe trip at summer camp when my bunkmate asked me to recite Sixteen Candles from beginning to end to pass the time. I didn't think that I was a very beautiful girl when I was 13, and I always simply sucked at math, but I felt like I ruled the world when I said, "Wow! Do I feel funky!"

Caveat: Here Is a List of Things I Am Not Looking Forward to My Child Getting Into
Movies starring Brendan Fraser
Justin Bieber
Any Cyrus
Video games that were not originally played on Atari

Looking Forward to Looking Back
Everything is cyclical, and everything I grew up with is new again. (I dressed Stefen as Gargamel for Halloween last year. My nostalgia will be his nostalgia, mark my words.) When Stefen thinks about his youth, will he have the same fondness for DJ Lance Rock's hat that I have for Fred's very sassy neckerchief?

I feel that, as his mother, it's my duty to steer him toward the good stuff because I hope he connects to these references for a long time. Not only do I want him to like what he likes, I want him to know what I like. When I was young and a song came on the radio, my mother would tell me exactly where she was the first time she heard it, who she was dating, and what she was wearing. When I was a teenager, when we could talk about nothing else, we could talk about a movie. We could sing the song playing in the car, the one she heard for the first time while she was wearing the yellow dress, making out with her boyfriend in the field behind that one church.

Most people like movies. A song will always put you in a time and place, for better or worse. If you do not live in a cave, if you do not create a vacuum of your life, the culture of the day will slap you across the face. But I want my child into the culture. Really into it. It provides definition to your memories, to your own era. It calls out moments, the best ones. It connects you to the people around you. And I want my child to feel that by embracing to the forms of art that give us daily release, he'll have found his own strength and whimsy at times when he needs them the most.


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