Q. My wife and I have a problem: television.
Our daughter, who is nearly 6, watches TV all afternoon after school and most of the evening, until bedtime. At one point we extended her bedtime from 8:30 to 9 because most shows begin and end on the hour, but she usually falls asleep in front of the TV before 9 anyway.
She loves "Charlie's Angels," which she and her friends sometimes act out when they watch it after school, as well as other situation comedies that my wife and I think are terrible for adults, let alone kids.
Recently we tried to put limits on the number of hours she watches. Unfortunately she raised such a fuss that we still let her watch 2 1/2 hours in the afternoon (my wife and I both work) and 2 more hours in the evening.
This doesn't count the cartoons she watches from the moment she wakes up until she leaves for school. In addition, we sometimes let her eat dinner in front of the TV set.
Our son, who is 3, watches most of the shows his sister watches and also watches soap operas with the baby sitter.
His favorite shows are the action ones like "Dukes of Hazzard" and "CHiPs."
We have tried to get both kids to watch educational shows like "Sesame Street," but if they do our daughter insists that they not "count" toward her TV-watching limits.
Sometimes we feel that television is running--and ruining--our lives. Do children outgrow their obsession with it? If not, is there a way to put limits on it? Do most families have as much trouble as we do?
A. Let's hope not, because you have a lot of trouble. And it's just the beginning. When children can have as much television as they want now they'll think they can have whatever they want when they're older. Today's problems, poorly handled, grow into tomorrow's despair.
It's too little discipline--not too much television--that's hurting your children. It not only can give them false values, but it takes away those precious moments when you share confidences, building the rapport you'll need to talk with your children when they're teen-agers.
Television is the focus of acrimony in many households, which is a pity because it can be good. It is the bond of our time. The pageants, the space shots, the political conventions, the science programs open new horizons to us all. Television is also the perfect springboard for those heavy conversations parents want to have with their children--from war to sex to nutrition ("Cupcakes for breakfast? They've got to be kidding!").
Parents have much more influence over their children than a bunch of strangers on a screen--but only if they exercise this influence. They have to initiate the conversations, make fun of the dumb commercials and abhor the violence on the news. They also have to guard their children against any show they think is unsuitable and any amount of watching time they think is too much.
And most of the television your children see is unsuitable, both in content and in time. Your situation--although certainly a troublesome one--may not be unusual: According to Changing Channels by Peggy Charren and Martin W. Sandler (Addison-Wesley, $11.95), the average child watches an extraordinary 26 hours a week. Ten hours would be plenty.
Your daughter is old enough to decide what she watches, but only within the framework you set. It can be wide or narrow, but you can't let her bend it to suit her whims or she'll bend her character and frighten herself, too. When a child is allowed to run a household before she's responsible for it she gets afraid of her own power. This makes her push more and more for privileges, however unwise, in the hope of getting some restraints. Limits tell a child that she's loved enough for people to care what she does.
Basically television is a weekend activity. A couple of shows with you--of your choice--is an acceptable treat for your children, and one or even two hours on Saturday morning, of their choice.
During the week, you give them 30 minutes of television while you're fixing dinner--Arsenic Hour must be endured somehow--but there shouldn't be any television after 8 o'clock at this age, or on school nights until the junior or senior year of high school, and then only if the homework is completed.
And there shouldn't be any television at any age during dinner. As surprising as it might seem when the peas roll to the floor, the dinner table is a child's training ground in civilization.
There is too much evidence to show that violence on the screen can lead to rougher, wilder behavior in children. Even the fast pace of "Sesame Street" makes many children more hyper than a slow, easygoing show like "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
You also should drop: the adult sitcoms--they're mindless and too adult; the daily morning cartoons--unless your daughter is a princess in disguise she has a bed to make and lunch to pack; TV after school, for these are the outdoor hours. Even when she's inside playing dress-up with her friends, you want her to do original work and not mimic a show.
And finally, you want to ban soap operas and quite possibly the sitter who thinks they're better for your little boy than a long walk, a ride on his trike, a chance to make soup or stack blocks or nap.
When the TV bug has bitten a family as thoroughly as it has bitten yours, this change would be radical. To drop back to such a schedule abruptly would be grisly and to throw away the set would be admission that you have lost control.
You might try considering the feelings of your television instead.
Tell your children that it is very, very tired and has to take a holiday, and then pack it away to a friend's house for a long vacation. There it stays until your family breaks its TV addiction and discovers the joy of each other. It will take a couple months at least to develop new patterns of spending time, with books and games and summer walks in the dark.
When the set comes home, it will be to new shows, chosen together once a week. There may be begs for extra TV time during the week, but if you give in, it's time to tell your children that the set is getting tired again and needs a day of rest, poor thing.
And if you can't bear to watch less, you need to go together to a family therapist to learn why you need to funnel your feelings through a tube and how to say no to your children.