Thursday, May 13, 2010

COLUMN: Something’s off when TV’s not on

In case you somehow missed it, the nation recently celebrated “TV Turnoff Week.” This is the week when families all across America turn off their TVs and sit around their kitchen tables staring at each other like frightened bullfrogs.

That’s because as we all know, TV is the glue that holds families — nay, societies — together. For instance, without TV, nobody would have any idea who Barney Fife is. What kind of world would that be?

Despite that, though, my wife Theresa and I decided to try TV Turnoff Week this year after we read a few disturbing facts that left us concerned about TV’s effect on our kids. Things such as:

· 45 percent of parents say they use the TV to occupy their children. I’ve done this, but usually by giving them a screwdriver and suggesting they try to figure out how the TV generates all those magic pictures from outer space.

· Children 6 and under spend an average of 14 hours a week watching TV, but only 38.5 minutes engaged in conversation with their parents. Even less if you don’t count the time spent talking about what’s on TV.

· 97 percent of children have products based on characters from TV shows. This would explain why, if we had to send our kids to one of those Montessori schools that bans character logos, we’d have to cover their clothes almost entirely with masking tape, and then pray that their underwear never makes an appearance.

· 59 percent of Americans can name The Three Stooges, while only 17 percent can name three Supreme Court justices. In our defense, though, that number would skyrocket if the president appointed somebody named “Shemp.”

Unfortunately the TV turnoff began inauspiciously in our house — first of all it was raining, which should be an immediate deal-killer for TV Turnoff Week, like when NASA scraps a shuttle launch. Also, my wife was working the first night, and she’s much more ambitious than I am about planning family activities. For instance, she might organize, say, arts and crafts projects, whereas I might suggest hide and seek and then wait for my kids to realize I’m not actually “seeking.”

But I did my best, actually going out and buying a new board game, which I believe is how Amish people pass the time when they’re not building barns. Unfortunately, it seems I picked a game that was a little too easy — it occupied a total of about 20 minutes, leading me to wish I had engaged them with something more complicated, like Monopoly or the U.S. tax code.

On the second day Theresa again got them through the after-school hours without any TV, apparently without the use of tranquilizers. And after dinner we decided to try bike riding, which I admit is more productive if your kids have actually mastered pedaling; otherwise you have to spend the whole time pushing them down the hill in plastic Little Tikes cars, which tend to hit the side of the driveway and roll over like a Ford Explorer negotiating the Autobahn.

In fact, we made it through pretty much the whole week, although we did have to bring their bikes to increasingly exotic locales to keep them interested; I thought we were going to wind up driving town to town in search of a half-pipe. We also read more and listened to more music, and I admit that at one point around Thursday I considered commissioning a mime troupe.

Then on Friday night we sat the kids down to congratulate them. “Even though TV Turnoff Week is over, we proved that we didn’t need television to have fun, right, guys?” I started to say, although I only got through the “over” part before they trampled me on their way to the Disney Channel.

Still, we must have done something right, because they seem a bit more willing to turn off the TV and head outside this week. Also, a subsequent informal poll showed that my kids are, for now at least, among the 46 percent of children who say they’d rather “spend time with their fathers” than watch TV.

Presumably, provided I start putting a little more effort into the whole “seeking” thing.

Peter Chianca is a managing editor for GateHouse Media New England. His original column runs every other week; this “Best of Chianca” column is from 2006. Follow him on Twitter at

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