Turn Off The TV and Cultivate Reading: The Best (But Not The Easiest) Solution

The Question: “What are your practical suggestions for developing alternatives to popping on the TV when we want to relax? …It’s just too tempting to pacify the children by popping on a cartoon, especially when you’re exhausted and overwhelmed like me and my wife usually are.” (Thank you for your comment and question, Malik)

This is a million dollar question. Every caring parent with a television grapples with this question because TV is the most efficient babysitter. It is cheap, easy, and always available. Parents can so conveniently deposit a child of just about any age in front of a TV and the TV will keep that child in one place —quiet and content– for potentially hours.

TV most effectively lulls the young viewer and draws them into a state of half-consciousness that is so helpful to a tired parent who just needs a moment or two (an hour or two) of peace and quiet! What healthy, wholesome activity can compete with that? Honestly, there is no alternative that is so easy, so effortless and so convenient. TV weaning is like so many other family habits we seek to break (like poor eating habits or inactivity). It requires real commitment and life change. There are no easy answers. I suggest a two-prong approach, which would involve an act of omission (i.e. Not watching TV. Unplugging all of the TVs in the house for a week or two) and an act of commission (i.e.starting to read!)

Why do you need to go TV-cold-turkey? Because when you get rid of TV viewing, you jolt yourselves out of the automatic-TV-Turn-On routine and you are then forced to deal with the empty time that the TV normally fills and the difficult situations that the TV so easily addresses. After a while, without the TV, everyone adjusts, everyone survives and you realize that you don’t need the TV after all. If you announce that you are going to turn off the TV as a big family experiment or a challenge, then you can engage the family in trying to find meaningful substitutes. Like reading.

But Reading is work!! Yes, reading is such labor for a child who is used to the passivity of the television. This is why children who watch TV excessively experience delayed reading. But if you initiate a family reading program, whereby you read to your children (of any age), they get the benefit of being relatively passive while they are exposed to the exciting world of the written word. I guarantee you, if your kids liked the Harry Potter movies, they will LOVE the books. And they will love the interaction with you.

Without fail, children who are read to, become readers. It’s never too late to start reading to your children. Start frequenting the library or the bookstore (instead of the video store) to borrow or buy books to share. Make finding new books to share an exciting adventure. Also, let them see you reading for pleasure (even if it is just the newspaper).

In anticipation of times when you are too tired, rent or buy an audio book. Its not as good as listening to a parent, but it is still fun and engaging and much better than TV. Its even more rewarding if the book is unabridged (I only listen to unabridged books on tape. There’s a big difference in the quality of the story line). And listening is best of all if the child has the actual book to accompany the listening.

Eventually, as reading is more embraced by the children, on the nights that you are tired, you can have them read to you. Or at times when you need some alone time, send them off with a book …or a book and the tape. A love for reading and books is cultivated. If you do not read for pleasure and your children have not discovered the joys of reading, this may take some time. But it is worth it. Children who read for pleasure do better in school; score higher on the SAT; have a better vocabulary…I could go on and on about the proven benefits of reading! So by turning off the TV and reading as a family, you not only avoid the detrimental effects of television, but you give your children the lifelong gift of literacy and achievement.

A note to other tired and overwhelmed parents: How well I know the feeling of coming home from work and feeling barely able to get dinner on and the household locked down for the night!! There have been times that I’ve felt I only had enough energy to get out of my work clothes and into bed! BUT when you commit to cultivating reading, the family time will be like a balm to your soul. It will remind you of what’s important and allow you to end the evening with joy. There have been times when I have fallen asleep after only five minutes of reading. And I am awakened by the giggles of the kids who are amused by how my voice trailed off into a soft snore or how I began to babble words that were not on the page. Fatigue notwithstanding, the reading is one of my favorite parts of the day, even when it’s only a precious few minutes.

Cultivating a love of reading is not a quick fix to the TV dilemma. But because it is a life-enhancing change, it can be the most rewarding and the most enduring solution for everyone.

© Gina Carroll

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