If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?

This is another one of those hard questions. It’s like asking me about my regrets. I don’t like to think about my regrets because there’s nothing I can do about my regrets. Regrets make me feel guilty and/or unhappy, and I try to avoid unpleasant emotions whenever possible. Because that is the sort of weakling I am.

I can’t imagine how I should have been raised differently than I was. My parents did all right. They were about the right amount of strict vs. permissive. I think the circumstances under which they were working were fine, too. (I mean, there was indoor plumbing and everything.) I guess I am curious, though, about how I would have turned out if I’d been raised without television.

Actually, our parents tried (briefly) to raise us without television. I mean, my parents had a television, as most folks did by the 1970s, but at some point they were inspired to take the TV away and see what happened. I think maybe our cousins or some friends were TV-free, and my parents thought, “Hey, good idea,” so they decided to give it a whirl. Unfortunately, instead of getting rid of the TV, they just put it out in the garage. And my siblings and I found it and we would plug it in and watch it out there in the cold, huddled up in our blankets. So my parents decided to just bring the TV back inside.

I do have memories of watching TV out in the garage, but I didn’t know until I was much older that this was my parents’ experiment with the TV-free lifestyle. I would mock them for their efforts–if you were serious, why didn’t you just get rid of the TV?–but considering my own experiments with trying to direct my children’s free will, that would be ridiculous. So this is no slight against my parents, and I did turn out non-psychotic, if I do say so myself. But I do wonder occasionally if my desires and aspirations–not to mention my attention span–would have been different had I grown up without TV at all.

It’s not that I watched TV constantly as a kid. I had two siblings very close to my age, so we played together a lot, and unlike a lot of kids, I also enjoyed being by myself. But I did watch quite a bit of television, and the television was almost always on. We didn’t even have cable most of the time I was growing up. We had it for about a year, maybe, when I was 10, but we dropped it when my father lost his job, and we never had it again. We still watched a crapload of TV. I don’t know what would have happened if we’d had the internet in those days. Nothing good, surely.

When my husband and I got married, we lived in an area where we couldn’t get TV reception; you couldn’t watch any TV unless you had cable, and we couldn’t afford cable, so we didn’t watch TV. We had a TV, and a VCR as well, so we could watch movies, which we did most weekends. When Princess Zurg was a toddler, I let her watch Richard Scarry videos and Fantasia. I don’t think we had anything else that was suitable. But by the time Mister Bubby came along, we had a pretty good variety of children’s videos. Back in those days I was very optimistic about limiting the children’s TV time. I started off with a half-hour, but that proved to be too exhausting for me, so I bumped it up to a whole hour. Ninety minutes or two hours, tops, if I was having a hard day. I actually did pretty well most of the time. But it was a daily struggle. Not because the kids demanded TV, but because they demanded me. TV was my respite babysitter.

I would often wonder what caregivers did before there was television, and of course I know what they did–they put the children in play pens and let them cry a lot. I mean, before there was television, housewives had a lot of work to do; they couldn’t be taking all day to bond with their kids and provide them with stimulating activities and also supervise them. I suppose if I had grown up on a farm in another century or something, my character would have been a lot better and I in turn would have done a much better job raising my kids, but it’s too late for that, I guess.

The big problem with television is that it makes people addicted to visual stimulation. So while you’re plunking your kid down in front of the TV because you can’t handle entertaining them all day, you’re just encouraging their habit of being entertained and their need to be entertained. It’s really a horrible, horrible thing, television. If only it weren’t so darn entertaining.

Our family never has had cable, so we’ve never had a constant stream of television programming coming into our house, the way I did when I was growing up. This has given us a little more control over what our kids watch, and it does mean that they watch a little less television than their peers do, but as far as total screen time goes, they still have way too much. In my day (cue Grumpy Old Man voice) we didn’t have video games or the internet, so we just watched TV. Unless there was nothing good on, in which case we did something else. My kids, on the other hand, have way too many choices. If they want to watch a show, they’ve got Netflix and Amazon Instant Video offering hundreds of selections. There’s always something good on, or something good can always be turned on.

But Girlfriend’s the only one who really enjoys watching TV shows. The boys prefer video games and PZ prefers the internet. PZ is on the internet so much, I can hardly use it myself. On the one hand, it’s a problem. On the other hand, it’s one of the few social outlets she has, so who am I to begrudge her? Indeed, the internet is one of the few social outlets I have, so should understand. People often talk about how online life has become a substitute for real life, but what if your real life was non-existent before? I mean, I remember the days before the internet. They were a drag. I don’t blame my mother for watching soap operas. At least that was only two hours a day. (Two and a half hours, I guess, before The Doctors was canceled.)

I’ve gotten a little off track. I meant to talk about how my life would have been different without TV, but I guess I’m afraid to face that alternate universe. Too fraught with regret! That, or years of watching television as a kid and being on the internet as an adult has made it impossible for me to stick to the subject without getting distracted. I guess we’ll never know.

What would you change about the way you were raised?

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