As a producer for Good Morning America, my life is TV. But about a year ago, I realized that while I love the medium at work, I was competing with it at home. Returning from the office each evening around dinnertime, I would inevitably find my two boys -- Greg, 10, and Douglas, 8 -- sitting in the living room with their eyes glued to the television set. After seeing the results of a recent Stanford University study, which found that schoolchildren who decreased their television viewing exhibited markedly less aggressive behavior, I started wondering what life would be like without the boob tube.
Then one night, I walked into the house around 7 p.m. after a long, stressful day at work, wanting some cuddle time with the kids. Instead, I was greeted by the backs of their heads and their hand motions asking me to be quiet so they could continue watching The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. That was the last straw. I stormed up to the set, forcefully pressed the power button to "off," and announced that the future had arrived -- and it did not include television on school nights.
The children sat in stunned silence for a moment, then began protesting loudly. They pummeled me with questions: How long will this ban last? Can we still use the Nintendo? What about the computer? I told them that this experiment would last for at least one month and that videos and video games were off limits as well. In an effort to not be too harsh, I said that the computer games could stay, and since I do work at Good Morning America, that's the one show I would allow them to watch.
When I finished my explanations, Greg began to cry and Doug gave me an angry look. Baby Casey, who is 2 years old, had no comment.
Day 1: The first full night of the ban. At the start of the evening, the boys were still angry. But then an amazing transformation began to take place. Since the characters in a book that Doug was reading were playing Parcheesi, he got out our set. It had been so long since we'd played, we had to read the instructions all over again. So that we could play without the baby messing up the game, we decided to set up the board on the bathroom floor while she took a bath. About 45 minutes later, my husband, Paul, came home. He was awestruck at the site of the four of us, in the bathroom, playing!
Day 2: Tonight I hosted a meeting for a breast cancer awareness organization. Normally, I would have sent the boys into the bedroom and let them watch TV while the group met. But not this time. I told Greg (Doug was out on a playdate) that he was going to be working at the meeting. To my delight, my eldest was the perfect gentleman, taking coats, pouring soft drinks, and making sure the baby was occupied. He even participated in a conversation about which celebrities we might ask to be on our honorary committee. I was extremely proud, and the night was a big success. The whining I had expected from the boys about TV deprivation has not happened.
Day 3: The nagging has begun. "When will the experiment end?" the boys whined. "This isn't fair!" I used all my best mom lines -- that I know what's best for them and this is the way it has to be, that it would do them no good to complain.
Day 4: Our babysitter, Donna, says she's happy with this new version of life in our house. She has an easier time getting the boys to do their homework, and they're interacting more with their baby sister. However, she and I have both noticed that they're playing more roughly -- wrestling, playing football in the apartment, and generally releasing their energy physically. But that's much better than the blank stares of kids being pacified by electronic media.
Day 5: I'm wondering if I should have banned computer games after all: Greg played "Rollercoaster Tycoon" for two hours today. And since the boys are not allowed to watch TV at night, Casey is also not allowed to watch her baby videos. That means I don't have any personal downtime in the evenings, which is tiring.
Days 6 & 7: THE WEEKEND! Television has returned with a vengeance. From the moment the boys awakened, it was cartoons, sports, and movies. You'd think they had been deprived of their favorite food. When we tried to get the kids to go out with us to run errands, it was like prying a pair of metal parts off a giant magnet. What is it about television that creates this kind of attachment? The boys don't understand why I'm being so strict and have started calling me "Monster Mama."
Day 8: After only one week with no nighttime TV, Paul says it's great. When he gets home from work, he's thrilled that the boys run to give him a big hug, and he's glad I'm not talking on the phone as much (which was easier to do when the kids were parked on the couch). Plus, the fights over which show to watch are gone.
Day 10: I found Douglas secretly watching TV in my bedroom when I returned from work this evening. He was checking out his favorite show, Ripley's Believe It or Not, which tonight featured a man who'd turned himself into a tiger with tattoos and massive plastic surgery. Doug was transfixed. Even I was unable to turn it off. This could be a problem. I watched the show with him and then let him know that he got lucky this one time -- his cute chuckle and twinkly green eyes make it hard to get really angry with him. But I reiterated the rules and asked that it not happen again.
Day 13: The kids say they no longer want to have their friends over to our house because it's more fun to go elsewhere (read: they can watch television at someone else's house). When they do visit friends, I gently remind them not to watch too much TV, but I don't really worry about it because they spend relatively little time away from home on school nights. However, if I hear that they've been watching inappropriate movies at their friends' homes, I let the parents know that I don't approve.
Day 16: The baseball season is starting, and Paul desperately wants to watch his Yankees and Mets games when he gets home from work. The kids want to watch with him, of course, so I've made that an exception to the rule. Though I'm not happy, I really don't want to fight this battle with them -- or Paul. Still, there have to be some limits. Paul has agreed to turn off the TV around the boys' bedtime and to wait until they're asleep before turning it back on. That way, the boys aren't tempted to stay awake trying to hear what's happening in the games.
Day 17: Greg manages to find a loophole: He watches ESPN at 6 in the morning -- before I get up -- to see the highlights of the games he missed. If I catch him, I usually turn off the TV and ask him to read about his teams in the newspaper. Sometimes, though, I give him a break and let him watch for a bit -- after all, the rule is no TV at nighttime, and he's a real early bird anyway.
Day 18: I have gotten very strict about reading schedules, demanding that Greg read each night for 30 minutes and Doug for 20. This was a struggle at first, but after shutting their bedroom doors and putting my foot down, I've noticed that their reading has been improving. When I ask Greg specific questions about the plots and characters in his books, I can tell by his answers that he's comprehending more and more.
Day 21: An amazing thing happened today, exactly three weeks into the experiment. It was parent-teacher conference day, and Greg's teacher, Miss Tierney, told us that his reading seemed suddenly to be improving by leaps and bounds. She wondered if we had been doing anything different at home. I told her about the ban, and she thought it was great -- she wasn't at all surprised at the connection between the new rules and the improvement in the classroom. I feel an extreme sense of accomplishment!
Day 22: The boys have begun to invent games to play with each other in the living room. They set up goals made of couch pillows and play until both of them are drenched with sweat. I'll still find them sneaking a peek at the TV now and again -- they go into my room, shut the door, and keep the volume turned low. They know they're breaking the rules, though, and don't fuss too much when I shut off the set and reprimand them.
Day 23: It's hard to come home exhausted and still try to be creative when the kids get antsy. There are nights I feel like just turning on the TV and taking a nap. But I'm trying my best to avoid sabotaging this experiment, since it really has been having a positive effect on our family. I've started suggesting getting out of the house when I sense a moment of television withdrawal; a new favorite is taking a walk to the local bookstore. Since the kids are allowed to watch on weekend mornings, I can try to get some extra shut-eye then.
Day 26: The month is nearly over, and I've decided I really like life without TV. The kids, however, want it back as soon as the month is up. I've been dropping mom-style hints that they won't be returning to their former habits. They roll their eyes and say, "How can you do that, Mom, when you said it was only for a month?"
Day 27: Today I told the boys that the TV will remain off on school nights indefinitely. They were unhappy, but since I had been hinting at it for a while, it wasn't really a surprise. Plus, their lives are so busy with schoolwork, extracurricular activities, and the books, games, and sports that have replaced TV that they weren't as upset as they could have been.
Day 30: The month is over, and we did it! I decided not to have a celebration since I want this to become our way of life. This is a breakthrough for me as a parent; it reassures me that my instincts are correct and that I don't have to give in to what everyone else in the family wants. My husband is happier, the babysitter is happier, and the boys' teachers have noticed the positive effects. A state of quiet acceptance has settled over the household -- though the real test will come when baseball season ends.
Six Months Later: Baseball is over, and the boys have continued with their routines (though I still catch them sneaking TV sometimes). The nice weather helps -- the kids and their friends have been playing a lot in our building's courtyard -- and though their computer use was up in the beginning, it too has tapered off. If I were just launching the experiment today, the one thing I would do differently is to begin more calmly. I'd explain it more rationally, with Paul beside me. But even producers at Good Morning America have 20/20 hindsight sometimes!
Copyright © 2001. Reprinted with permission from the October 2001 issue of Child magazine.