Slate is reporting today on a new study from Cornell University that links increased television watching with increased autism rates. It’s nice to have some scientific backing for a philosophy Kate and I think is important just on the face of it.
Surprisingly, we have received a bit of push-back on our desire to not expose Ruby to any television until she’s a few years old — generally from people a generation older than us. The most common argument in favor of early TV is that it gives the parent a much-needed break, or time away from the child to cook dinner or take care of other chores. Trust me, I understand how powerful those arguments are. But Kate and I feel that the short-term benefits are outweighed by the long-term negatives.
The single most important reason we don’t want Ruby to watch TV now is because we don’t want Ruby to want to watch TV later. In a few months, when she becomes able to make requests (and then demands), I want her to be clamoring for a trip to the park, not for another Dora video. One of the things she’s learning right now is what kinds of fun things we do. We go to the park, we run around the lake, we play with toys, we sing and wrestle and play the piano. We don’t watch TV.
That still doesn’t answer the question about why we think TV is bad, though. Autism studies aside, I don’t like the passive nature of watching TV. I’d prefer Ruby to be active — not just physically, but mentally. Her downtime can be filled with quiet reflection, reading, daydreaming, and wild bouts of imagining. The ability to enjoy quiet time without depending on outside stimulation is an important skill that (IMHO) is sorely lacking in modern society. Her spiritual and mental development will be greatly enhanced by learning to contemplate.
Another reason to avoid TV is the mass-consumption mythologies it peddles. Dora and Spongebob and the latest Disney animation are all for sale, and the people marketing to children are very good at what they do. I don’t want Ruby to get hooked on other people’s stories. And I don’t want Ruby to learn to view the world through a Disney lens. When we go to the zoo, I hear kids calling the lions “Simba” and the giraffes “Geoffrey”. At the aquarium, all the clown fish are “Nemos”. Although it’s nice to give these kids a way to relate to the animals, I worry that it’s a dead-end road. The natural world is much more complicated (and interesting) than a cartoon. (For similar reasons, we’ve tried to avoid mass-market characters in our house — and, curiously, received similar pushback from the same people.)
There are so many stories that we can tell each other — about our pasts, our futures, our dreams, and our feelings — and I want those to be our family mythology. When Ruby sees a clownfish, I want her to think about her Mama and Papa swimming in Mayalsia. When she sees a pygmy marmoset, I want her to remember that she’s the Queen of the Tiny Monkeys. These stories are important, they belong to us, and they are a part of us and our family. Those family stories are something that television can never provide.