Note - this essay was subsequently published on fatherly.com as My 7-Year-Old Doesn’t Watch Any TV, and has gathered a bit of attention. You can read it there, but both articles are essentially the same.
This is a brief account of a child who lives in the modern world without any media. She is my daughter.
Let me begin by saying that I like you. Regardless of the choices I make, or how we might agree or disagree, I also respect the choices you make. What I share here has nothing to do with what you should be doing. It is simply a window into our life, a life that is disappearing as we (myself included) are increasingly surrounded by media and technology. Actually, it’s not so much disappearing as reappearing.
I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where I watched plenty of TV. Back then (the 80’s and 90’s), we still called it TV because computers and video-on-demand weren’t readily available. We didn’t have cable at my house, or a VCR until I was in high school, but that didn’t hold me back. I watched cartoons most mornings before school, most Saturday mornings, game shows in the early evening, and eventually more adult shows and movies as I got older. On a whim, I gave up TV in 2003, my first year out of college, but I continued to watch movies here and there with friends and family. Eventually, I gave those up too. I now watch nothing at all. Except, of course, the world is still here and I watch that in real time.
Aside from the lack of media, my daughter and I are basically modern and normal. I have a bank account and a car. We go the grocery store and buy our clothes from retailers. Her mother and I are divorced, which is sort of normal. I even have a blog. The title is Off Grid Kids, which implies something not normal, but if you met us at the playground you wouldn’t guess it. We did live off the grid for some of her childhood, but we no longer do.
Still, I would be disingenuous to claim that we’re average. To begin with, we live in New Mexico, which pretty much defines us as weirdos. We live at the end of a long dirt road, and from our house we can walk into miles of unpopulated wilderness. We commonly do. But so do lots of other people and it’s not like we’re walking around in buckskins. My daughter likes pink dresses. I wear sweatpants. All made in China, as it should be.
The other day I was talking with a friend. Our children both attended the same school, an outdoor kindergarten called the Earth Children. Our kids are close like siblings, and for a period we even lived together. It was another parent we were commenting on, gossiping as we sometimes like to do. This parent, whose daughter is a few years older than mine, is raising her daughter without any media and had expressed to my friend how that’s occasionally challenging because other families just couldn’t quite relate. So, we were smiling and clapping ourselves on the back, expressing our gratitude for each other, when it suddenly dawned on me just how weird we are.
When I say that my daughter has no media in her life, what I mean is that she never regularly watches: movies, TV, videos, computer games or anything. She has seen one full-length movie in her life, Mary Poppins. She loved it, of course. Two years ago, she watched Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer with Grandma and Grandpa, the classic clay-animation that I watched every year as a child. A few years ago, when she had the flu, we watched a few nature documentaries, but I’ve stopped doing that because I no longer need them. Besides, we get plenty of well-documented nature at home. She has also seen bits and parts of movies or videos here and there with friends or family. This summer, having watched twenty-minutes of some recent animated movie on an outdoor screen at a park with her cousins, she told me later with both excitement and confusion how, “a coyote, who was really a person, had scared someone and their head fell off.” She couldn’t quite make sense of it.
If we happen into a restaurant with a TV behind the bar, my daughter will twist around in her seat to watch replays of NFL football, commercials or news anchors on mute. I don’t stop her. On occasion, she sees short videos or clips from Facebook or that kind of thing, but I’d estimate less than five a month. To my knowledge, that’s the extent of what she’s seen. She’ll be seven years old in January.
Now, why am I such a terrible and mean-spirited father? If my daughter, in the last seven years of life, has watched what the average child does in one week (2 hrs/day according to PBS), I must be exceptionally severe. There must be a lot of crying and stoicism in our house. I bet you eat porridge. Without salt.
But here’s the thing, and this is exactly what was lighting up my conversation with my friend the other day. Our children are thriving. You might suspect that my daughter is wheedling me here and there to watch movies, or feels left out. But that’s not the case at all. You might be shocked to hear this, but the number of minutes my daughter has spent asking me to watch a video is – are you ready for this? – zero minutes. It has never happened once.
It never happens because it’s not in our life. It’s a total non-existence, like eating snails. She never asks for those either. Since she never sees me (or her mother) watching TV, she doesn’t expect to do it either. But the main reason it doesn’t happen is because we don’t not-do things. We don’t spend even one minute not-watching TV. We spend all of them eating or talking, playing and walking or any of the myriad things we do. Let me share just one of them.
There are millions of ways for children to express their creativity (including clever jokes and allusions to TV characters). My daughter does it in all sorts of ways, but she’s recently taken to drawing. She cannot read or write yet (which might also shock a few parents), but she will sometimes produce as many as thirty drawings in an evening. They’re books. She numbers the pages, each one a scene in a colorful story full of actions and subtle details. Not one thing is extraneous. From the outside they appear like any children’s drawings, no better or worse, but it’s what’s happening inside that floors me.
As she creates these drawings, she is telling herself the story. Her characters might appear simple on the page (she’s not a masterful drawer), but to her they are full of life and action. One page is not merely a scene in a story, it is alive with purpose and emotion, both happy and sad. Watching her draw (and become alive in her stories) is sometimes so intimate and endearing that I have to fade to the background, lest I intrude on what rightly belongs to her.
This goes on for hours.
I never asked my daughter to draw anything. I never suggested that she make a book. She spontaneously chose it. Months ago, she played with a set of matryoshkas (Russian nesting dolls) in much the same way. In a pinch, she’ll do it with stones.
All children have this imaginative world. I’m not suggesting my daughter has something unique. I’m simply reporting that the experience of her interior life is full of joy and possibility. She wastes no time, literally none, wishing she had something else (like a video to watch). She’s just fully present, and with little need for guidance or support. Maybe she’d be just as happy and robust if she were watching cartoons. Maybe everyone’s children are like this. Maybe I’m not reporting anything unique or useful.
But here’s the thing. I’m also a teacher, a mentor and a caregiver. I spend the bulk of my waking hours with children, and not just my own. I’ve seen the kids who are trapped in their movies. It affects their games, their ideas, their clothes, masks and – here’s the kicker – their relationships. It’s sometimes exhausting to us adults, but imagine what’s going on for the children themselves. At a young age, indeed often right as they develop into consciousness from infancy, they see themselves and their world through the eyes of those characters. I’m not suggesting this is terrible, or that my daughter is substantially different, just that the imaginative world which she sometimes inhabits is entirely her own. It belongs completely and fully to her, and no one else. My friend’s son is much the same (and the daughter of our common friend). The fluidity of their play is breathtaking.
Why would that be important? First of all, let’s be honest and say that we don’t really know. No one does. I want to reiterate that I’m not writing this to convince you or anyone else to live like we do. I like diversity. And it may well prove out that a certain amount of screen time is actually better for a developing child. Maybe my daughter will be left behind, and essays like this will be laughed at and forgotten, like the Y2K bug.
But I don’t think so. I think my daughter, and others like her, will grow up to be clear-headed and self-directed. I think she’ll have an advantage. She’s just as bright and crisp as the rest of America’s children, but she has no baggage from boredom. There’s nothing lacking for her, like there appears to be in some kids who have a managed amount of screen time. Maybe it would be best to simply let them have all they wanted. At least they wouldn’t be missing something.
If my daughter can carry that creativity and presence through her teenage and early adult years, I believe she’ll have a gift that few of us adults have these days: she might like herself. She might have peace. Maybe she’ll know how to spend her evenings and weekends. Slicing apples with a friend or lover might be enough to make her laugh. Maybe she won’t do anything all that interesting, maybe she won’t be successful in the eyes of her peers, but maybe, if she’s lucky, she’ll just like what she’s doing all the time. Wouldn’t that be cool?
Fifteen years ago, I gave away my TV. It was just a test. Would I miss it? Would I become untrustworthy? Would I no longer be able to make informed decisions? In time, I found myself more in touch with my internal creativity. I gave up newspapers and magazines. I became a storyteller and a singer, then a father. These were talents I had never recognized in myself before and they caught me by surprise. Today, I sit on the ground and arrange leaves, twigs and berries, often while a handful of children play nearby. I feel like I’m the king of the world.