Friday, March 25, 2011

Ruminations on Input

Woo, three blog entries in the same month. Haven't done that in awhile. Anyhow.

This blog may be a bit more philosophical and consideratory (it's a word now, sod off) than most. Be ye warned. Oh, second warning on re-reading what I've wrote. There's a very good chance I'll offend or insult most people at some point in here. Yes, that really does mean and include you. Be ye twice warned.

So over Spring Break - which sadly, is past - I had a fairly significant mental difficulty. One thing that you'll find about parenting: you make all kinds of promises on the day the kid's born, and prior to, that you later find yourself grappling with in the cold stark realities of living your own life and guiding an entity with a mind of its own.

One of these for me: television. Now, it's no secret to anyone who has ever heard me rail on that I consider television the new "opiate of the masses." (And dork cred points to anyone who knows what the old "opiate of the masses" is and who said it.) People turn it on, turn off their brain, stare like drooling zombies at whatever is forced down their throats by a scandal-hungry, drama-inducing media, and waste their entire lunch period the following day talking about it. Ye gods save me from becoming one of the gibbering masses of morons. I mean, seriously - you people who "like turning off your brain" every night - what the hell is wrong with you? Does this not tell you something is wrong with your world that you need to change when you don't want to be a part of it? I've never understood any mentality that genuinely seeks to not think or question, but obviously the world's full of them. Poor bastards.

Anyhow. So Lucas, like most kids his age, was introduced to something that stuck and did so in a big way: the movie "Cars." You know the one, Lightning McQueen, Mater-the-Cable-Guy, etc, etc. Fine. And like most toddlers, he likes watching it a lot. He also, like most toddlers, will sit staring, absolutely mesmerized, for a very large portion of the film - coming out only briefly at parts he is less interested in - to disappear again for the rest of the film. This makes for a suddenly tremendously easy-to-control toddler. It also triggers a HUGE, HUUUUGE, possibly HUGEST daddy reflex:

My son will not, repeat not, under any circumstances become a television zombie. He will be better than that. (Elitist? Absolutely. If you're not elitist about your child, you're a fool and aren't fit to raise offspring. Why would you NOT seek to make your child the best person who could ever walk the earth? Your job as a parent is to better the human race and raise the best human being you can. If you don't view your child as, in some fashion, potentially the best human being EVER, go cut off your organs. I'm not kidding. Elitism is nothing to be ashamed of when it drives motivation.)

...but here's Lucas, and he's pretty clearly in zombie mode. You can wave a hand in front of his face. Nada. Hell, half the time he doesn't even follow your fingers or blink. For a kid who spends most of his time watching every detail of the day and bouncing off every wall, it's deeply disturbing to see such a dramatic, radical shift in his behavior. Think about your favorite puppy suddenly stopping everything else it did to stare at a wall for an hour. It's downright creepy. People have no problem with this?

Well. One person whose opinion I respect - Amy - clearly does not have a problem with this; she puts the movie on, after all. It would be easy for me to scowl at her, holler about parental-evasion-of-duty and so on, but rather than immediately climb even higher on my egotistical-better-than-thou pedestal, I decided to give the matter some more serious consideration.

What is it I don't like about television, that drives me so intensely?

1. It causes one to sit, largely inert, for long periods of time, with no interaction with the outside world.
2. The stories passed through the television are, for the most part, utter garbage. Highly predictable laugh-track rubbish that we've all seen in other forms a dozen times before, or, far worse, "realism" television in which largely imbalanced people with bizarre personality quirks are thrown together for a gladiator-spectacle, vicarious-vampiric, visual feast. We either watch stupid, tired story tropes that haven't changed in the last hundred years, or we watch other people's suffering, and take sick joy in the fact that it's not our own, and that we can gossip about their stupidity. Because of course, we're better than that. Once in awhile, for true enjoyment, we watch overpaid, overglorified, over-chemical-ed men hurl around small objects and strut about in the mind-boggling confidence that their skill with this small object makes them a pinnacle of humanity, despite the fact that most can't pay their own bills, take care of their own children, or live a sane, stable, LEGAL life.
3. It takes up significant quantities of time in an uninterruptable fashion - you watch when they want you to watch, so shut up and take your garbage with a smile.

Well, fine, that set of reasons to hate television works great for me. I'm also aware, though, that most of society finds the above set of reasons inapplicable to them (excuse-seeking idiots) or unimportant (priority-blind morons.) So at what point do I balance my own desire to raise Lucas above, with the fact that he will have to interact with the television-drugged masses? Or do I accept that I'm saddling him, before he's made a choice himself, with the advantages and disadvantages and social challenges of my deliberately chosen heavily-anti-television lifestyle? (Before you claim I'm overdramatizing here, consider how many societal inputs come through that thing that affect your daily life - now imagine if you got NONE of them.)

There's also a good chance that any such dramatic cutoff in Lucas's life would bring me into direct conflict with my wife and my child's daycare, both of whom use television both to entertain and to assist in controlling the kiddo. The notion of conflict with my wife always makes me think, in advance, of what would occur (Plan your attack, fellows! Never go in against a woman unprepared, they think quicker on their feet - estrogen does that, I suspect) and so the question legitimately springs forth: What would you rather Lucas do?

And the answer, of course, springs forth from my head: read books! Play games!

Being not a complete fool (in theory), though, I held my own suggestions up to my own critical lens.

"Insert inane rambling about sitting lifeless for periods of time. "
Well, I certainly can't claim that books lack the ability to make one lose touch with the world around you. I had a friend in college who could lose an entire weekend with a good book. I've seen people lose track of hours, and I once stood on my chair in my classroom and waved my arms around while students were reading a good book - and no one noticed. So it would seem that getting "sucked in" can certainly happen in a book.

Video games score a little better here, though. You do have to interact with them, and thus you're still doing more than just staring blankly forward. In fact, video games actually require a pretty intensive amount of brain power most of the time - at least the ones I play. I don't have any great desire to introduce Lucas to mindless shooting games like "Call of Mercenary Duty Medal of Pacific Black Ocean Op XIV...with Halos." Many games these days are played online, and require very large amounts of interaction, cooperation, and teamwork. Heck, online games offer such a variety of weirdo personalities that if you want to be successful, you have to learn diplomacy and how to work with people that really need to be smacked. In television, they just smack each other; points to video games for life skills that matter.

"Insert obnoxious ranting about rubbish stories that are totally predictable."
This, obviously, is where books tend to do a bit better - good ones, anyhow. The variety of tales to be had in between two hard covers can boggle the mind; far more so than television can offer, because books don't require anywhere near as large an audience to be successful. If you don't need to make as many people happy to make a buck, you can write the weird. (A lot of book readers like the weird anyhow.)

Video games tend to fall badly short here, though there's a trend of change in that. In terms of storyline, video games seem to be taking their cue from the television world and even the best story-telling games (Bioware's games being the obvious leader here) still follow predictable tracks.

By the by, anyone who throws out "violence in video games" as an objection to their inclusion with a child's possible input diet needs to take a real good, hard look at what they're watching in the evenings and then shut it. Reality TV may not - generally - have a lot of shootings, but the amount of backstabbing and maneuvering going on there would make any digitized hero blush.

Conclude with arm-waving ragepoast about uninterrupted blocks of time being required.
Books obviously rock out pretty hard here. While we may not wish to put down a book, it's always doable. Video games are a wash; some are pausible, others, particularly those that require interaction with others, frequently are not. It's also worth noting that with the rise of TiVo, Netflix, etc, that television is becoming more pausible as well.

I dunno. My case against television isn't as sound as I would like it to be. All three are equally as addictive. All three have their good points and bad ones. I think the reason that children prefer games over the other two, if I were so bold as to guess (and let's face it, I am), is because of the interactivity. The child gets to control the character on the screen. Television tends to get the next nod because it requires less mental work to get the input you're after, as opposed to a book requiring one's imagination - the most work at all. Thus only children with the best imaginations tend to prefer that medium, since it - for them - requires not so much work. (And that's why some kids who won't read WILL read if it's a certain kind of book - they get to enjoy the "mental picture" without much effort, since it's easier for them to imagine.)

So where does that leave me? I still strongly dislike television - it requires no interaction, no mental work for the imagination, and I still find it deeply creepy to see my normally ultra-active child staring into space for even twenty or thirty minutes at a time. I'm willing to admit, though, that he is - at least for now - too young to really get into books (at least without sitting on a lap and watching the pages), and too young to play most video games that he'd get anything out of.

I guess ultimately, the takeaway is the old parenting advice: know what your child is watching/reading/doing. If what they're watching has a decent message, I guess some TV is okay. If there is a $divinebeing$ (that's quasi-programmer-code for "insert the name of a divine being here" for those who may not know) watching, Lucas will grow over time to recognize that 99% of television is the same tired story being retread with different faces on it and he'll reject it. I'll have to hope that I can offer up things that will be more engaging for him in time; good books, thought-provoking games. And, alas, I guess I'll have to endure hearing Chick Hicks holler "Kuh-chigga, kuh-chigga" a few hundred more times. There are worse movies with worse concluding morals (or is it morales? I can never remember..) than "Sometimes it's better not to win and show respect than win at all costs."

...but you still won't see me putting the movie on when Amy's not home. I'm stubborn, and him watching TV means not playing with me. I'd rather Lucas sit on my knee while I demonstrate the best series of strategies to bring down an orc any day.

MT out.


jeepgirl79 said...

I agree with your rantings about tv; however, I will say that it is nice to sometimes be able to disengage yourself from being a parent for a small while, if only to catch up with your spouse's day and make some dinner. If they watch tv while that's going on and get a mental break from their day, so be it.

I do think you've left off a major part of being a kid, one I think, at this age, is more important than tv watching, reading, or video games (although I put reading up there as a huge priority above almost everything, but that's just me): playing outside. Exploring, getting fresh air. Yesterday from the time I picked my little one up until we ate dinner at 7:30 (later than normal, but it was so nice outside), we were outside playing. First at the park, where she watched the ducks and pretended to fish, and then in the backyard while she ran around and chased the dog. There is nothing that can replace activity and fresh air. :)

Medieval Teacher said...

Oh, I quite agree, and Lucas loves being outside and in the fresh air. Unfortunately, that's not always an option for us though. We love taking him to the park, but I'm referring to all the times when being a domestic partner, human-being-not-just-parent, housekeeper, and other varying duties get in the way.

In an ideal world we all grab an outside toy and go romp around with the kid in a park filled with numbers and letters and words on every surface; but alas, this world is not ours. :)

jeepgirl79 said...

fair enough. and i have seen cars more times than i care to admit. what is it about that movie? don't tell amy, but there's a sequel coming out this summer! i think there's something comforting for toddlers about seeing the same thing over and over again. we also read the same stories over and over again, and she still comes up with questions for them, asking why something is the way it is or why it happened that way. i do, however, probably have the most inquisitive child ever to walk the earth. maybe someday you'll be her teacher. i hope. :)

Amy said...

In my defense, I don't use it as a babysitter which is how it sounds here. When I'm in the kitchen making dinner and grease might pop out, I'd rather know that Lucas is safe on the couch watching Cars and not trying to pull on pot handles (which he's tall enough to do when he reaches up.)

I like TV and I watch things that make me laugh or give me a piece of commonality with others. Its not like he sits in front of the boob tube all day long. We play a lot--we draw with sidewalk chalk, we read books together, we chase Lily outside. I don't have a problem with a little movie viewing, especially because he likes it so much and it does have a good message. He's picked up new vocabulary and can identify characters by name which tells me he's learning something from it.

We don't have cable so its not like he's watching some of those mind-numbingly-annoying shows (I won't name names because some parents probably don't mind them). I'll admit, I don't mind the break sometimes, especially if I'm trying to do grad school work on a Saturday morning while you are taking your nap so that I can get caught up. :)

The Murphys said...

Nice to see that someone else hates tv as much as I do. We got rid of our cable and bunny ears 7 years ago and the only time I've ever missed it is when the Olympics are on. That being said we do have a dvd player that we use to watch movies which I think are a bit better. Mainly because we don't ever have to watch commercials which fill kids heads with more rubbish than any television show ever will. Also, we get to choose exactly what we're watching and when which is nice. I have to say if you put a Looney Tunes movie on for my two year old son he zombifies pretty quickly which is bizarre to watch, I agree. I've gone back and forth with it but in the end I have to say I agree with Amy that it's nice to have him sit still long enough for me to make dinner. Under normal circumstances he's a little whirlwind of activity who needs to be monitored constantly. Knowing that he's safe just sitting there and he's happy enough is enough for me to justify him watching. Although I have to admit that it helps that his favorite is Wile E. Coyote and the roadrunner, it's a bit more palatable for me : ) Anywho, Hope you find some common ground here, it can certainly be tricky to compromise on something you feel so strongly about. -Amber