My mother had a unique way of arguing with me. Her proof points were so long and quickly-stated that you really had to come prepared. It might play out like this…
Me: But I don’t understand why I can’t watch TV?
Mom: It’s terrible. TV is bad for you; it will destroy your eyes, and your brain, and make you stupid and you have homework to do!
Despite her long litany of difficult-to-argue proof points on the subject, I did watch a lot of TV in my youth. It was the 70’s and I was “a latchkey kid.” After making myself some popcorn (in a pot!) and eating Nestle Quick chocolate milk powder straight out of the can after school, I could get three or four hours in before mother got home. Enough time to watch the original Batman series and the original Superman series. And, usually, some version of an I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, Three’s Company, Hogan’s Heroes and a M•A•S•H rerun. If it was a rerun I’d seen a bunch of times, I’d switch to something else — like Bonanza, or Happy Days. Most nights, assuming I got my homework done, I might catch a first-run show, too: Good Times, Jeffersons, All In The Family type stuff. As the years went on, I developed different favorites, so there’s different eras of the 70’s for me. The Brady Bunch Era, the Welcome Back Kotter Era, the Kung-Fu Era, the WKRP Era. Then there were the later, evening shows that Mom actually liked — Barney Miller, Taxi, more M•A•S•H, Columbo, and the family favorite, One Day at a Time, which we felt a special affinity toward for having been created seemingly in our likeness. The three main characters even shared our same first letter initials, J, A and B. And there were special shows that would suddenly appear, like gifts from the gods, which I would become completely obsessed with, honing my argument skills in order to watch: The Incredible Hulk, Six Million Dollar Man, Battlestar Galactica, Bionic Woman, Mork And Mindy, The A-Team and, of course, Charlie’s Angels. I won those arguments more and more over the years. Or perhaps I started to just grind her down with my own litany of reasons.
If you think that’s a lot of television, then you don’t want to hear about the weekends. I looked forward to TV-watching on Saturday with a kind of vibrating anticipation that grew through the week. It’s a fading time in history now, but Saturday was the day you got all the kid shows at once. So vivid, electric and overwhelmingly good was it that I would wake up early to prepare. I had some warm-up shows that I would watch, like Popeye, Heckle and Jeckle, or even Sesame Street and Electric Company, which I had outgrown, but they were fine to wake up to. They would ease you in further with some of the older cartoons: Bugs Bunny, Flintstones, Yogi Bear, Jetsons. But then it really kicked in. Hong Kong Fooey seemed to be that transitional show that opened the door for some real creativity and I was fully awake by then. Live action shows, like H.R. Pufnstuf, Sigmund the Sea Monster, Tarzan, Land of the Lost, SHAZAM and The Mighty Isis seemed to intertwine with animation like Jabberjaw, Josie and the Pussycats and, the ultimate, Super Friends. As hard as it might seem to comprehend, TV actually became unwatchable by about noon or 1pm. Saturday Morning Cartoons really did happen in the morning. Amazing how they crammed that all in.
I did get outside. Then I’d look forward to Love Boat and Fantasy Island. And, of course, Sunday I’d watch the NFL.
By the late 70’s, I was watching no less TV, but I had added a healthy dose of video games on the Atari, as well as with the Mattel and Coleco devices that I would play under my covers until I couldn’t stay awake anymore. Then, the Eighties — Castle Wolfenstein, Zelda and on and on. Video games really deserves its own discussion.
Interestingly, despite what it might seem, ours was a highly education-focused family. Failure in school was not an option. College was the only option. Reading and critical thinking were mandatory activities in our house, which was always engaging in intellectual discourse. We ate at the dinner table together, where discussions where competitive and intense. And my mother entertained eccentric friends with lively, heated wine-filled debates in the living room until the late hours of the night. All of my mother’s rules were geared toward high-mindedness — she made us promise to question authority, to always take the high road, to keep our options open and the complicated, but accurate warning that “the less you bet, the more you lose when you win.” We talked about movies after we watched them and it was practically bad manners to agree.
As I sit here watching a YouTube video of the original NES Legend of Zelda gameplay, just for reminiscing sake, I have zero worries about the amount of time that my children spend on the screen. I have no desire to limit it, curtail it, demean it or create some long list of how bad it is for them. Truth is, they stand little chance of ever reaching even half the amount of screen time I had. But it’s depthier (an inside joke with my mom) than that.
At the end of her life, my mother confessed to me that she never really went into parenting with a preconceived idea of how to do it. That she just winged it. And that she hoped she did okay. I gave her a long litany of reasons why and how she did. I mentioned that she once sewed me a cape, with an S on it, to wear while watching The Super Friends.
To my mind, raising children isn’t about what you keep them from doing — it’s what you encourage them to do. It’s how you add, not how you subtract. Cultural trends will dictate their downtime activities. It’s on us parents to be interesting, challenging and the kinds of people who are as memorable and pertinent as what’s coming through those screens. And make no mistake — as I continue to sit in amazement at what I used to think was fun — the stuff they’re watching today is actually quite good.
If parenting really just entailed getting our kids to be on their phones less, it’d be a pretty easy job. It’s actually much harder than that because the stakes are higher today. The thing is, I enjoyed my mother’s company more than I enjoyed The Super Friends. That was her super power. She was fun and lively and interesting and cool. And she knew how to be Superman’s mother. Do my kids feel the same about me versus PewDiePie, Rooster Teeth or Minecraft? I don’t know. It’s definitely getting tougher to just wing it.