I wasn’t going to let my daughter watch TV until after she was already two years old. Famous last words or what? But when she was born, I so wanted to keep her sweet little face away from a buzzing screen. In her first two weeks of life, I'd be so annoyed if the TV was on when my daughter was in the room, say, if my mother was watching her for a few minutes, or my husband. I know newborn babies don't do much, but that's no reason for adults to have to have the TV blaring. And yet, just a few weeks later, sometimes, in the very early mornings, when I couldn’t believe I was awake again or still awake after no sleep all night, I admit, even I turned on Good Morning America so I could feel like I might have a semblance of a good morning.
A bit later on, usually at night, after I went to a meeting and came in the back door, yes on purpose, I'd catch my husband in the act, watching a Cinemax movie like 300 or Gladiator. (What is with those movies that he thinks they are good to watch, usually the same middle part with blood and guts and violence, all in slow motion, over and over?) Much less in front of our three month old daughter, whom you could argue, didn’t know what was going on, but I’d argue that her little brain was picking up wave after wave of dark, bloodied bodies and trying to process what she was seeing. I’d steam through the ears and tell him to “Turn. Off. The. TV.” I’d then lecture him how on most days when I was with her all day, alone, with no help, I would rarely watch television, and if I did, at least it wouldn’t be violent (although, admittedly, watching George Stephanopoulos try to comment on, say, the latest craze in women’s beauty products could be considered a form of violence). So, for that one frickin’ hour while you’re parenting our baby daughter could you just not turn on the boob tube?
Fast forward another fifteen months. My daughter and I are at the park, and we meet some neighborhood friends and my daughter loves other kids, especially those “older” people, like these friends’ five year old boy, who is truly adorable. So, they’re playing in the wood chips and rocking on the playground springy rocking horse-things, better known zebra and horse and, inexplicably, the giant chipmunk with a stumpy tail, and my daughter is having so much fun that when the boy’s parents say they need to get home, he’s so overcome with joy and appreciation that my daughter doesn’t want him to go, he decides to give my daughter a present. He holds up his little finger and says, “I’ve got something for her.” He runs to the trunk of their car and pulls out a little green plastic doll. He hands it to my daughter and I recognize Shrek as the character. Press the doll’s belly and he speaks in his Scottish rolling-R brogue, “Hey, what arrrrre you doin’ in my swamp?” And my daughter recoils and hugs me, looking suspiciously at the doll. The boy foists the doll upon my daughter and she squeaks in fear. I laugh a little, tell my daughter, “it’s only Shrek, honey,” but thankfully have an excuse for declining an electronic and obnoxious doll, telling the boy, “That’s so nice of you, but I think she’s afraid of it, so we’ll pass.” He looks crestfallen, and immediately tromps back to the trunk, apparently littered with toys, and brings out another small, plastic green toy, this time a seahorse that does nothing. “Thanks, I say,” and give it to my daughter who says, “Seahorse.” That animal she knows and I’m relieved I don’t have to deal with Shrek.
Fast-forward another week or so and my daughter is sick. Fever, runny nose, likely teething another set of teeth that will drive her and me crazy for a long time. She doesn’t want to do anything but sit on the couch in her mama’s lap. For hours. My day is long, I get absolutely nothing else done, she needs to be held and picked up and cuddled all day. I’m starting to lose my mind. It’s getting late in the afternoon, my husband isn’t home. I’m weak. “Let’s watch a little TV,” I say, and turn it on. Cinemax is up and there’s Shrek. The original one, where he’s cute and funny and the animation is great. “Look, honey,” I say, “There’s that ‘Hey’ guy, the one that boy at the park was trying to show you. See he’s not scary.” Her head perks up. She watches Shrek and Donkey and I love Eddie Murphy and am just glad for a moment of relief from the whining. She’s interested in this whole scene and happy for a moment. We watch about ten minutes and she calls Shrek the “Hey guy.” She’s not scared any more. For some reason, I DVR the movie so it’s there in case we need it again.
And we do. A week later, I needed to get some work done. No baby sitter, no husband, no help. I turn on the movie. She watches it for about twenty minutes. I fast forward through the scary dragon part. You can guess what happens now. She wants to watch Shrek all the time. She knows his name, she knows Fiona. She loves Donkey. I’m fucked. I try to distract her. She doesn’t yet know the words “I want,” but she knows how to ask for what she wants. I say often, “let’s go outside.” It is summer after all.
Then, the big day. We were moving for the month up north to follow my husband’s work. And guests would be staying in our house while we were gone. I had no help, again, but not only did I have to pack for a month’s time, I had to clean our house well enough for other people to actually live there, which was a daunting task. We’d gone to music class in the morning and my daughter had woken up too early, so she was particularly tired, but I didn’t want to put her down for an early nap since we had to drive North an hour and a half, I wanted her to sleep in the car. Shrek to the rescue.
At nineteen and a half months old, my daughter lay on the couch and watched the entire Shrek movie, scary parts and all, while I raced around cleaning, packing, doing laundry, and feeling sick to my stomach every time I passed by the living room where she was completely engaged and dazed and I could practically see her neurons shooting around her head, creating pathways of conformity to the masses, inabilities to think critically, and an all around lack of imagination. I felt so terrible yet so grateful for that dumb movie because I really got done what needed getting done. For the record, I had called for help beforehand, friends, our babysitter, even the kid’s mom who tried to give her the Shrek doll in the first place whom I really didn’t know that well. The fact that I made the choice to allow my lovely, smart, wonderfully creative and imaginative daughter sit like that, dazed, resting, confused probably while trying to sort out the vivid and complicated images on the screen, really turned the “Bad Mother” tape in my head on full blast. But I did it, and by the very end, where the whole cast of characters were singing “I’m a Believer,” I was all packed and ready to go. I thanked my daughter for letting me get all that stuff done, said we were going to see Daddy, and felt quite excited that the house where we were going had no television reception or DVR. I got her in the car and drove away where she fell instantly to sleep, probably dreaming of crazed kings and poor gingerbread men with their legs cut off.
In the “summer home,” as I call it, the home of a friend and colleague, my daughter spent a lot of the first week playing with all the new toys of the owner’s daughter’s. Dolls and a cool dollhouse, lots of musical instruments, and such. We took lovely walks downtown, explored new parks, met a few people. But inevitably, my daughter wanted to watch TV. I tried to explain that their TV was broken. It did have a VCR and DVD player, but I didn’t know how to get them to work and that was the kind of job I always assigned my students to do in class and never bothered to figure out.
But one day, one of those days when for whatever reason, my patience was short and my mind was on writing I wanted to do or a friend’s novel I was supposed to be reading, or I hadn’t slept enough or I was stressed because even though we were up there “with” my husband, he actually was on a fifteen hour work cycle that meant he really wasn’t home to be a co-parent at all. So, I caved. I figured out how to make the DVD work and found, of all things, the movie Shrek in a case on the shelves. I was excited. “Look honey they have Shrek,” I said. My daughter was excited. I put the movie in and it didn’t work. I tried again but then looked at the actual DVD and saw a huge crack along its backside. My daughter jumped up and down with wanting. I said, “Sorry honey, it’s broken.” Let’s try this one. And popped in the movie Ice Age. It worked. It became known at the “elephant movie.”
It gets worse. One night, when we finally did have the chance to have dinner together and be a family, we all went to the movie rental place. My husband and I rented a movie for ourselves, and then, seeing that they didn’t have Shrek for my daughter, we rented Shrek 2. I don’t know why. I’m so damn weak. So, to make this too-long story a little shorter, by the end of the month, my daughter had watched both Shrek 2 and Shrek 3, not straight through on either of them but probably all of each movie over time in fifteen or twenty minute increments. She only liked Shrek 2 up until the point where the ogre turns into a man, at which point she can’t grasp that the man is Shrek and she keeps asking where’s Shrek? I thought the latter Shrek movies weren’t as good as the original, but that’s because the original has the surprise element of introducing the other fairy tale characters as more dynamic elements whereas that idea becomes commonplace in the subsequent movies. Anyhow, they are all completely age inappropriate and ridiculous for a not-even two year old to be watching.
That month away was more stressful that I would have guessed. I loved our digs and the town where we were, but I really had very few breaks in the full-time mommydom that that had become my life. I might have been in a bit of shock. At least at home I had the one day where I could look forward to our babysitter coming for a few hours. And, really, my husband seemed gone all the time, home during the week about three or four times for dinner and maybe a little playtime. Plus, I felt even more lonely and run down because I didn’t even have my few regular mommy friends around. I’m really not making excuses, I’m looking back trying to figure out how I could have been so lilly-livered on this whole television thing. So, after all the Shrek movies had been watched and Ice Age, too, I started trying to pull myself together by reading Ekhart Tolle’s book, A New Earth, and there I read this passage…
"So does television watching create inner space? Does it cause you to be present? Unfortunately, it does not. Although for long periods your mind may not be generating any thoughts, it has linked into the thought activity of the television show. It has linked up with the television version of collective mind, and is thinking its thoughts. Your mind is inactive only in the sense that it is not producing thoughts. It is, however, continuously absorbing thoughts and images that come through the television screen. This induces a trancelike passive state of heightened susceptibility, not unlike hypnosis. That is why it lends itself to manipulation of “public opinion,” as politicians and special-interest groups as well as advertisers know and will pay millions of dollars to catch you in that state of receptive unawareness. They want their thoughts to become your thoughts, and usually they succeed.
So when watching television, the tendency is for you to fall below thought, not rise above it. Television has this in common with alcohol and certain other drugs. While it provides some relief from your mind, you again pay a high price: loss of consciousness."
My daughter’s pure consciousness was dissolving before my eyes. My resolve got a little better. I returned the movies, grateful we’d be going home soon. When we got home, I told our daughter that Shrek and Fiona and Donkey were on a much-needed vacation. That idea worked. I DVR’d some Sesame Street and decided it was time for Elmo. She soon starting saying “I want,” and she wanted Elmo’s World. Yes, she was still watching TV, but at least Elmo was only fifteen minutes long and age appropriate.
At the start of the new year, we got rid of cable and started streaming in movies and shows. The effect of this new TV system was that I stopped watching TV for the most part, but my daughter discovered, with my help of course, shows like Kipper the Dog, and lord oh lordy, Barney. I noticed around this time how her gaze became more steady in front of the TV. Before, she’d get up and move around, play a game with herself while sort of watching. But nowadays, she could, like the time I let her watch the whole Shrek movie, really space out and passively absorb an entire show. Diligence on my part is even more important now. I loathe watching the loss of her sweet consciousness.
The TV thing is so hard because screens are a part of our world and there’s no avoiding them, even in the sticks where I live. My daughter sees my husband and me on the computer, she sees computers at the library where kids are playing games, she sees the screens on our cell phone and digital cameras, hell she even sees a screen in our car where we have a GPS unit. I do make the effort to limit her screen time and we do a lot of interactive activity on most days of any given week: we go to story time at the library and check out a dozen books each week, we go to art class, we go to music class, we take walks whenever it’s not pouring rain, we go to parks, the beach, take walks, we do art at home, read as many books as possible together, and we play lots of games where my daughter is leading me around the house with one creative scheme or another – just last night we were both attached by the “toe keeper” of a crocheted scarf in which we gave rides to her stuffed animals with our feet.
Still, my now two and a half year old child watches TV, almost every day. I feel guilty when she does because I’m guilty of allowing it. Just like I feel terrible when I raise my voice at her after asking for the sixth time to get her pajamas on, I loathe these moments in myself, typical for a parent I’m sure, when I am too tired or annoyed or uncreative to do something different. I feel superbly awful when my child would rather watch TV than read a book with me or play with a puzzle or her letters, with me. I usually wrangle her out of her wanting, but I know the “television version of the collective mind” has gotten to her, like the brainwashing of a cult. She’ll survive, yes, and most likely the hour or so she does watch won’t give her attention deficit disorder, but I have to be vigilant about her screen time because, just like that first drink, the first few minutes of TV time can be a slippery slope. And, God help me, I don’t want my child to go down that slope, because it leads to an ogre’s stinky swamp.