December 25, 2009

Television 1: We don't have the technology.

 televisions broken china sepia Hypocrisy is the Achilles' heel of parenting.  Go ahead and hide it or deny it--your kids will find out.  They will find out that you have sex, that you don’t like one of your siblings, that you are depressed, that you read supermarket celebrity gossip magazines, and that you watch television.  Go ahead and try and hide it from them.  See how it works for you.  Here’s how it works for children.  They learn that you are intentionally deceitful.  That you lie to them and have been doing so for a long time.  Maybe they learn that you lie to your boss, your spouse, the IRS. Maybe they won't hold it against you, but they will learn from you.

In a previous post, I cited the good epidemiologic study which examined the sexual activity of teens who had taken a ‘virginity pledge’ compared with those who never pledged.  The pledgers initiated sexual activity at a younger age, and had more teen pregnancy.  Seriously, whose idea was it to have a teenager make such a pledge?  It doesn’t work.  These are good kids, who presumably made this kind of commitment to please their parents.  Or, at least what their parents said.

Here in Berkeley, there are plenty of families who don’t have a television, and make their kids play with wooden toys.  Among my favorite toys as a child were plain maple blocks that could be made into anything and couldn’t be  broken, couldn’t even be chipped.  I remember the LEGOs my parents brought  back from Denmark in the 1960’s.  Plastic, yes.  But it was just a box of uniform yellow blocks.  I could make them into anything.  Most construction sets are now marketed with precast purpose-designed parts. I think it takes less creativity, not more, to assemble the moonbase or skyscraper or castle out of these kits. Holding a piece of undifferentiated wood or generic plastic blocks and making zooming noises as it flies through the air is symbolic play at its best.

Still, it seems like a lot of the people I’ve met who have embraced this antitech lifestyle, who try so hard to compost whatever is left over from their visit to the farmer’s market, whose produce is carried home on bicycle panniers made of unbleached hemp fiber, live here.  And for the most part, nearly anywhere in the San Francisco Bay area is expensive.  How do they live?  Are they woodcarvers and henna artists?  Stonemasons and communal subsistence farmers?  There are no demographic statistics I can cite, but I live and work here and call it like I see it.  These parents are PhDs and knowledge-workers, making a great living from the service economy, high-tech industry, and new technologies.  Oh, did I mention the stock options?

The disavowal of technology in these families, I predict, will often not end well.  I think it’s likely that these successful, intelligent, well-off parents will probably sire intelligent kids that have all the advantages of growing up in a household with financial resources and high educational attainment.  But what will they think of their parents?  Every mobster’s kid knows how the family makes its money.  Why are these kids different?  Why are these parents ashamed of working for a Fortune 100 corporation?  If you’re a true believer, go for it.  Find some land and live off it, if you can.  You’ll need practical skills and knowledge that is hard to come by.  And you’ll need to work very, very hard.  Expect to be tired, and hungry, too.  At least your kids will eventually admire you for seeing one world and choosing a different one that is more meaningful to you.  (Think Amish.)  They will visit you in the compound/bunker and respect you for making a hard choice and being true to it.  Many times and in many contexts I have met adult children of parents who follow a strict code of some sort, usually religious.  Though the children have made different choices, the ones I have met mostly have no problem with the way their parents live, whether in Provo, Utah or Brooklyn, New York.  It’s the parents that are often intolerant of other choices.

There is also a curious denial of the ubiquity of television.  In New York, it’s in the taxis.  It’s in airports and some public transit stations.  It’s on your cell phone and laptop.  It might be on your watch.  It’s certainly in your child’s school, and every library.  Indeed, the grinding advance of electronic media suggests that books as we know them will be accessed on a screen by the time your little ones are doing research for their college term papers.  If you are deeply orthodox in some religion, it’s usually possible to find some educational institution to send your child.  Evangelical or Hasidic, Islamic, Catholic or Mormon, there are such places designed to facilitate your continuing enforcement of the walls you have erected around your child’s life experience.  Where will these children go?  To the university without computers?  Is that where you learned the skills you use every day to support your family?

Because of the insular quality that helps to define a cult, groups generally identified as cults have been heavily studied in social psychology, sociology, and other fields.  One important aspect of a cult is limitation of interaction with people and institutions outside of the cult.  I worry that the children without television will have some social limitations.  Will their parents limit their playmates to those living in similar households?  That sound fairly restrictive.  Will they be able to see TV at their friend’s house but not at home?  Won’t that make the parents appear hypocritical to the child?  Since they can’t share typical topics of conversation for kids--characters in the media, popular anything (music, TV, movies, games)--will they seem odd and out-of-touch to their peers?  Can you really limit their friends to members of this same cult?

It may sound like I’m in favor of wiring a cable box directly into the crib.  Not true!  I love those wooden blocks, and encourage their use (as long as they are from sustainable species).  This post is a warning to parents about the difficult line they draw with dogma.  The more rigid the belief system, the brighter and more inflexible this line is.  My concept of empathic parenting embraces the individuality of a child’s needs and talents.  Forcing every child’s unpredictably-shaped peg into a rigidly uniform hole seems to me likely to injure a lot of kids.

For more on the topic of television, stay tuned.  Same bat-time, same bat-channel.

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