Lucy, who was not yet 2, was sitting in the bathtub playing with big foam letters. She would pick up a letter, name it, look to make sure we were watching and stick the letter to the side of the tub.
"A … E … D … M." Lucy stopped at M. With her fingers, she slid the M upside down, looked at it and said, "Now it’s a W!"
Of course we were amazed and proud. What a smart little girl! And what great parents we must be to have brought along that little mind!
I thought about it later, remembering my own childhood days watching "Sesame Street." If Lucy had grown up watching television, I probably would have thought, "She must have seen that on ‘Sesame Street.’ " I would have missed all of those thoughts about amazing Lucy or Sue and I, the very capable parents.
But she didn’t see it on television because we really don’t watch television. We have one. It stays in the closet most of the time. We drag it out when our kids are sick, when a Chicago team plays in the World Series, during certain Olympic competitions and on those few occasions when we watch a movie.
We didn’t plan to live without TV. After Lucy was born, my wife and I first thought we just wouldn’t watch television while our daughter was awake.
So, most nights, we would watch after Lucy fell asleep.
But two weeks before Lucy’s first birthday—June 17, 1994—it all changed. That night, O.J. Simpson took his famous drive up the Los Angeles freeway and into America’s homes. I stared with thoughts of fascination and dread. But my wife had a different thought.
"If this is what’s on television, let’s get rid of it."
Throwing it out seemed a bit too permanent. So we put it in the closet. Eleven and a half years later, it is still there.
We don’t miss much
In our home, we have, most weeks, most months, watched no television. Lucy, now 12, and Ella, 10, never watched "Sesame Street" or "Barney." We have never seen "Survivor," "American Idol" or "Friends."
Years ago, most folks who were critical of television complained about the lack of appropriate, quality programming for children.
But it’s not the quality of programs I worry about. It’s the sheer volume of shows, so many of which are aimed at our youngest children, an audience for which there is no "appropriate" programming, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Between public television, cable and video, a young child can view "age-appropriate" quality programming for the best hours of the day.
Children who are in front of a screen are missing everything experts and pediatricians say truly fuels development: time to interact with a loving parent and time to play.
Playing is no small thing for a child or for a parent. Playing together is how parents and children learn about each other and from each other. It’s also how children learn to play alone. They take the foundations of family playtime and expand it into their own play repertoire.
What we’ve gained
When our girls were little and folks learned we live without TV, the most common question was, "What do the kids do when you need to make dinner?" Our answer: "They play." Or, "They help us make dinner." (OK, "help" often meant dinner was more work. Still, the payoff is that Ella is now quite an accomplished cook.)
It wasn’t always easy. Generally, our girls are self-sufficient. But there were moments when they would nag, complain and follow us around. Sue and I would get frustrated, saying, in so many words, "FIND SOMETHING TO DO!" And sometimes there were tears. But usually those tears were followed by the most elaborate pretend games or some of the most creative art projects.
Those stressful moments are when many parents would turn to a video. If the television had been there, I might have done the same. But what do the children learn from that—to avoid looking inside themselves and pursuing an interest?
Often, my wife and I are asked if our girls feel alienated from their friends since they don’t speak TV.
It doesn’t happen. Our daughters’ friends have much more to talk about than last night’s program.
When our girls were young, TV would have taken time away from our family play, which helped them learn to play alone. Now that they are older, I know television would take time from their dance and music.
So, when people want to know why we choose to be missing out on television, I found myself thinking about all the things we would have missed if we had made time for television.
The truth is that television steals time and nothing is more important to a family than time together to play.
Jim Gill is a children’s singer/songwriter who lives in Oak Park with his wife and two daughters. He has a master’s degree in child development from the Erikson Institute of Chicago. He has produced award-winning recordings of music play for young children and families as well as a picture book. He does not produce videos for children.