Friday, April 23, 2010

A Television Apologist

Three days after Emerson was born, I was informed I had to brave the frigid December temperatures and compose my exhausted, milk-soaked body for a trip to our pediatrician's office across town. The baby needed his first check up - and the only time slot allotted for newborns was some ungodly hour first thing in the morning. We did as we were told, but for the first time we realized why the baby books warn you to pick a pediatrician ahead of time and research their office policies.

After a frustrating breastfeeding encounter in the waiting room, we were shuffled into a room with a woman who was not the main pediatrician, but apparently the only doctor available for newborns. She gave him a look over (was the hundredth person in a row who failed to notice our child had NO pigment) and then started firing questions at us. One was about our sleep situation, so I responded that he was sleeping in a bassinet next to our bed and it seemed to be going well.

She narrowed her eyes menacingly, "In a few months, you're going to regret that. Move him into a crib in his own room."

If someone treated me like that now, I would just say "I don't remember asking your opinion, nor do I value it." And then walk out. Instead, we were both so stunned and overwhelmed with new parenthood, we said nothing. A few days later, we moved him directly into our bed.

We stayed with that office since the main pediatrician was a wonderful woman, but we couldn't always see her. Our bad encounters with the other doctors eventually pushed us away and we went on the pediatrician hunt. Through word of mouth, we found a small, natural, hippy dippy practice much closer to our house.

During our very first appointment with the new doctor, he took one look at my pregnant belly and said, "Make sure to call my office after the baby is born so we can schedule his first visit."

"We're having the baby at home," I said hesitantly.

He didn't even flinch. "OK, I'll do a house call."

The new doctor was warm, open-minded, and asked a lot of questions to make sure the family was doing well - not just physically, but emotionally as well. The first time he asked me how much television Emerson was watching, I took this as yet another good sign. I didn't believe in letting children watch a lot of TV, if any at all. I fell into that smug, "people shouldn't use television as a babysitter" camp. Most of our friends in Ann Arbor felt the same, and even if they didn't, they were too ashamed to admit it.

The anti-TV mentality applies to adults as well as children. I've heard many conversations that go something like this:

Person 1: "Did you see that show last night?"

Person 2: "Oh, no. We don't watch that much TV."

Person 1: "You're really good. We try not to watch too much - just this one show."

Person 3: "Yeah, we don't even own a television."

Person 1 and 2: ""

Robbie and I watch television - not as much as some people, but certainly a lot more than our hard-core friends. We vowed we wouldn't use our TV as a babysitter, though, and for a long time we could confidently brag to our doctor and friends that Emerson didn't watch TV. This wasn't because we were strict parents, it was simply because he showed no interest in it, even when we were watching. The only thing that ever caught his attention was the theme song to Northern Exposure, and for a brief period, he'd watch a few minutes of the Daily Show or the Colbert Report. We had the best of all worlds - we got to be self-righteous without any of the actual work.

Then that all changed. He started noticing TV more and more, grandparents started turning on cartoons for him, our non-Ann Arbor friends who do watch TV would turn on a kids' movie during a playdate. He started sitting through short shows. Over Christmas we bought him the Curious George movie and he quickly learned to sit through an entire movie. Then he wanted to watch multiple times in a row. Grandma and Grandpa came to visit and introduced him to PBS On Demand and it was at that point we realized we were totally screwed.

Now we do have to monitor and restrict. Gone are the days of easy bragging. And yet....I'm finding myself grateful for the transition. When he first started watching, I realized I could talk with him about what was going on and get him interested in things he wouldn't normally be interested in.

For example, back then, we would go on a walk and if we passed a duck in the pond, I would say, "Look Emerson, a duck!!" He would slump down further in the stroller and scream, "No!!" It was as if he wanted to shut the world out all the time and only explore small bits - on his own terms. He wouldn't look at a duck, but he would open and close a door a hundred times, or explore a set of stairs over and over again. To say I was beginning to despair was an understatement.

Now, however, I say, "Emerson, look at that duck! Remember when Elmo went to the duck pond?" And suddenly he's eagerly looking, making duck noises and jabbering away. If an episode of Calliou is about making pizzas, I'll have Emerson help me make pizzas later that week, and he's actually enthusiastic. I don't pretend that TV is solely responsible for these changes, but I've been able to use it as an aid. The world that seemed too big and scary and hard to see is now right in front of his nose on TV - bigger than life and under his control. (And yes, like most kids with albinism, he stands RIGHT in front of the TV in order to see it.)

A few months ago, I was watching a series of videos made by a woman with albinism. She talks frankly about her experiences and mentioned that social skills can be hard to learn when you can't see the subtle facial expressions and body movements that people use when interacting. She said her best tool for overcoming this was watching TV. On TV, she could see up close how people interact - how they make eye contact and the facial expressions they make. I felt a flood of relief. Not only was I not going to win Worst Mother of the Year Award for letting him watch TV, I also had another tool to help me with his struggling social skills.

Of course I recognize that TV is full of consumerist messages and as he gets older we'll have to be diligent about teaching him media literacy. We'll always have to monitor and set time limits. But our hardcore friends will continue to "tsk tsk" whenever Emerson asks to watch a show while they're over or whenever he plays with a TV brand toy in front of them (although I find it interesting how many of them don't think twice about watching hours of YouTube or Hulu). Our doctor will continue to lecture us about the evils of exposing young children to TV whenever we go in for a visit. And sooner or later I'll have the energy to express why I've changed my opinion.

In the meantime, I'm doing what I think is best and that's all that matters.

Speaking of which, I'd better stop here. It's 11am and we're still sitting in our pjs in front of the TV.

Don't hate.


  1. What can I say? I am an evil grandma. My life is so boring if I didn't watch television I'd have nothing to talk about. Both my girls were raised with too much tv and yet they both turned out to be intelligent, fascinating creatures. Maybe we just got lucky or maybe it was a good mix of tv, outside play and lots of family time. Whatever you're doing it's working with those boys. I can see them progressing by leaps and bounds. Keep it up.

  2. No hate here. My kids watch too much tv, they always have. We actually canceled cable last fall and since we don't have a digital convert box thingy we went a couple of months with zero tv. Then we ordered Netflix, hooked a computer up to the tv and now with streaming we are nearly back to where we were. At least we don't have to worry about commercials.

  3. Uh...I think we are those "hard core" people you're referring to? No judging here. Your mom is right, every time I see Emerson he's doing something new and demonstrating some new skill and Fionn is just a little jabber jaw so whatever you're doing, it's working. And even though we can still say that we don't own a TV, the fact that TV has still found its way into our DAILY (yes daily) lives is still a little shocking to us. But hey, we have a 16 month old daughter, so thank God for Hulu otherwise we'd be going to be at 8:30 every night instead of staying up to watch TV!

  4. Hmmmhmm. Had to chuckle. Sometimes I'm really glad I don't live in Ann Arbor anymore and sometimes I really miss it. Though San Diego has it's own share of people to whom I want to scream, "Oh my Lord Almighty...flippin' get over yourself." So thanks for the chuckle, Cass.