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Column: Kids can live without TV

S.E. Livingston

My children blame Michelle Obama for changing their evening TV watching, but it isn't actually her fault.

Last year, I wanted to limit media exposure for my children. As I tossed the idea around, my kids opined loudly that I was approaching dementia. Then I read an interview with Michelle Obama that said her girls have rigorous rules regarding the amount of time they can spend on the computer and watching TV. The first lady's interview encouraged me that I wasn't the only one setting time limits on electronic media mind dipping.

I began to experiment with different types of charts, media rewards, restrictions and consequences. For some twisted reason, I enjoy domestic legislating for the moral high horse. The problem with it, though, is that somebody needs to enforce all the rules, and that wears me out.

We know the truth; there isn't one study out there telling us that more time spent watching TV or playing video games results in a higher quality of life. We know that children are becoming obese because of too much time watching a screen. We know that families are falling apart because they are not eating dinner together. We know that people are being adversely affected by substituting media relationships for skin-and-blood relationships. It's just that it's very hard to enforce limits for our children, and for ourselves.

The conflict was taken out of my hands this summer when we moved into a house with no access to cable, or TV at all, for that matter. We didn't even have a radio. Because we were building the house, we had plenty of work to do to keep us busy. Our days were spent doing manual labor and our evenings in a stunned slump. We had no kitchen and no furniture. At the end of the day all we wanted to do was sit down, and the only place we could sit was on lawn chairs in the garage. So we would pick up take-out dinner, set it up on a 2x4 and relax in the garage, talking and laughing while we watched dusk settle.

We spent our days working together and the evenings hashing over the day's events. It wasn't all pleasant. It wasn't all warm and fuzzy, but it was solid bonding without any sitcoms to show us how to be even more dysfunctional. I knew life was going in the right direction when Annie asked, "Mom, are we going to sit around in the garage tonight and laugh together?"

We had one of the happiest summers ever. Even the teenagers grudgingly agree. On the initial level, they didn't spend much time doing what average American children do. But on a more practical level they learned how to put in wood flooring, to wire sockets, to use a paint sprayer, and to install doorknobs. What they learned from doing has translated into a visible level of confidence and competence. More time on Facebook could never accomplish that.

Realistically, I didn't think we could continue to live that way. Once the Olympics premiered we got hooked into the system. That was good for bonding too; international bonding, maybe. But our positive experience with no media gave me the courage to cancel my cable this fall. The kids didn't put up as much of a resistance as I thought they might.

Now we spend a longer time eating dinner. The kids are outside playing with the dogs until bedtime. We have time to pay bills, take a walk or just sit on the porch. We sit and talk to the kids about stuff we did as kids or what happened at work today. Homework is getting done without me standing in the family room yelling, "Did you get all your homework done?" (OK, I still do that; it's that bit of the enforcer I still embrace.) Now we can have our own jokes instead of trying to explain to our 8-year-old the sexual innuendos constantly barraged at us from the screen.

If I had experimented with a summer of non-media, I would have become the family enemy. It was only after a positive bonding experience that we could see that we could survive and thrive without as much media feed. I can't just take my children out of their culture without first showing them that there is something more out there.

My kids don't want to be the Obama kids. Sasha and Malia may have a swimming pool and bowling alley in their house, but instead of watching TV in the evenings, they have to go to formal dinners always wearing cleaned and pressed clothes.

But at least now my kids would rather be climbing trees or practicing shooting their bows than plopping in front of the Wii. There is some wisdom coming out of the White House.

Monthly Budgeteer columnist S.E. Livingston is a wife, mother and teacher who writes for family and education newsletters in northern Minnesota (and lives in Duluth). E-mail her at selivingston68@yahoo.com.

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