"I've done my homework, now can I watch TV?" the 11-year-old asked the other evening.
"Me, too," said the 9-year-old.
"Me, too," said the 7-year-old.
(The other one is too young to talk).
Homework vs. television, as anyone engaged in the conflict knows, is a continuing struggle that holds the promise - if you're on the side of homework - of defeat with every passing "family hour." The battle can even prompt desperate thoughts of an easy solution: end the homework, throw out the TV, put the kids up for adoption.
Contending with this eternal problem had seemed to me a solitary struggle until recently when I noticed the subject being aired increasingly on television and in the newspapers, by educators and parents. Knowing I'm not alone helps me cope.
I take a tough stance.
"How well have you done you homework? And you? And you?
"Did you really finish or are you secretly planning to finish in the morning?
"Did you do your homework when you should have been doing the dishes?
"And, you, what about that paper due the day after tomorrow?"
Let me say in defense of this apparent hard line, I have learned from experience that the statement "I've done my homework," while seemingly a straightforward simple sentence with no room for ambiguity, somehow can have a less than literal meaning to homework-laden youths daydreaming about what they're missing on TV.
How often have you heard a revelation such as "Gee, Dad, I've got a little math to do . . ." when the set goes off, long past bedtime?
Then there's the trick of studying spelling words, or whatever, in bed with the light out and the book under the covers. One night, while making the late rounds, I came across a book called "Level 20" beneath the sheet.
A month and a half ago, all of this lead me to impose, more or less, a Monday-through-Thursday night TV ban. Again, in my defense, I'm amenable, I think, to a well-documented argument, from any one of the off-spring, that an exception is in order.
This usually means a homework inspection. If all seems in order, then anguished pleas are answered and on may come the likes of "Redskin Sidelines." "Star Trek," "Happy Days," "The Brady Bunch," "The Waltons," or the "San Pedro Beach Bums." (I have learned who all these people are except the San Pedro Beach Bums.)
The other night I received yeses and reassurances all around about the homework. Stepping aside so as not to be trampled, I gave the go-ahead.
It used to be a lot easier for them. All they had to do was turn on the set I was lenient in those days.
A sap, I think, their mother had put it.
But I was not alone. I saw a Gallup poll the other day saying that 50 per cent of parents with an oldest child of 12 or younger put no time limits on viewing. The figure rises sharply to 70 per cent for parents with an oldest child of 13 or up.
As guilty as it makes me feel, now, I have to admit I even let them eat breakfast in front of the set. I never paid much attention to what they were watching (was it the "Flintstones?") or to the crumbs stretching to the kitchen. But the practice ended abruptly one morning when I kicked over a full glass of orange juice in the middle of the floor.
That was followed by other revelations, leading eventually to the weeknight ban. Once I found a small boy who wasn't mine in the room. He was watching cartoons. I inquired as to his presence and he informed me that his mother wouldn't let him watch on their set.
So it was that I learned from one so young that I had been running a lax ship.
I began to snoop around, ask questions. One night it was very quiet, the set was off - everybody doing homework, no doubt. Then I found Andy Griffith in a soldier suit barking orders in my bedroom, his diminutive fans seated on the floor in the glow of the picture. The old upstairs TV trick.
That didn't happen again because, conveniently, the downstairs TV burned out permanently and the upstairs set was moved down. In fact, almost out. But I decided that some TV might be okay, even beneficial, and that I'd try to improve on those Gallup statistics that said the typical child 12 or under watches two hours of TV every school day compared to 45 minutes spend on homework.
I was congratulating myself on that decision the other night as they all marched upstairs quietly after enjoying a lifting on high. Then . . . thunder from on high. All that surplus energy from sitting in front of the set, like tinder, ignited.
It's like those teachers say: Large amounts of time in front of the TV can make not only for sleepy children the next day but also the overly aggressive ones.
I think I know that they mean about aggressiveness. I've been in the battle zone after the TV goes off and am able to report firsthand that TV brings out aggressive, surly behavior in children.
This is because no physical or mental activity is required to digest what ever comes up on the screen. So when one comes along, pushes the off button, and sasys it's time to vacuum, or time to go to bed, time, in fact, to do anything their little phyches are jolted.
No more mister nice guy. Because it's true, having fewer of these week-night shows on has made for a happier and more productive household (not necessarily a more quiet one, though). To begin with, no two children go to the carpet to decide with force between "The Waltons" and "Welcome Back, Kotter." Optional schoolwork has been done and other books, actually open, have seen in use.
These days, when I see such scenes I get mellow. Once I was moved to ask the 11-year-old, "That's not such a bad rule, no TV on schoolnights, is it?" "Yes it is," he said. Fatherhood is not a popularity contest, I tell myself. You've got to steel yourself for the tough decisions.
Like when one of the charges, when least expected, will bob up with an apparent airtight proposition for turning on the set. But what if, say, there are others and they are still doing homework? Will it be justice or harmony?
The job doesn't pay enough for decisions like this.