Television: The Focus Killer

Kids watching TV

By Revi Mula

Mom, Wife, Designer, Opinionated Blogger, and Maxi Mind client.

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I was one of those pregnant women.  You know, the one who spent nine months reading all the books and magazines and become a preacher.

“I am not letting my kids watch television at all for the first year.”

“Those fast-moving videos are not good for kids. I am not letting my kids watch. It will give them ADD.”

“Television is not a babysitter.”

I had twins. I was 36 years old and had a boy and a girl on the same day.  Now let’s think about this for a second.  I am a designer.  I run my own business. My husband works long hours.  We are very busy.  We get little, if any, downtime.  Add two babies into the mix, and life becomes a little chaotic.  You get it. I bet I just described you.

When they were about six months old, we put on Sesame Street.  A great, slow-paced, educational television show.  And then we added a little Leap Frog as time went on.  We were so proud.  By junior kindergarten, our children could read quite a bit.  Their teacher was sending home senior kindergarten homework!  We heard them recite the Leap Frog alphabet song.  They understood numbers and basic addition.  And we took credit for all of it.

Tapping ourselves on our respective backs, we had ourselves convinced that television was not the devil.  It was a tool, that used properly, would help us teach our children.  We laughed at our slightly younger selves.  What were we thinking? No TV? Crazy!

But then came that Saturday.  The one where it’s cold and raining.  The day when the children no longer want to watch pre-recorded re-runs of Sesame Street and the idea of the Leap Frog song being played one-more-time makes you wish for hearing loss.  That day.  The very first day we let them watch Dora.  It was only for 22 minutes.  I swear.

It broke the seal.  We had 22 minutes of peace and quiet.  22 golden minutes of freedom.  Do you have any idea how much a parent can accomplish in 22 minutes?  Best of all, it was free.  A free 22 minute-at-a-time babysitter.

Then they watched some science show.  And then Full House.  And then something else. Suddenly it was 20 minutes after school every day.  And an hour on Saturday, another hour on Sunday.  The family movie night added 2 hours, and sometimes, when we had a lot to do, it was a couple more hours.  When they learned how to turn the television on themselves, it meant they would let us sleep in on the weekends.  So, another hour, maybe two.  By the time they were six, they were watching somewhere between 5 and 10 hours a week.  That doesn’t seem like much, does it? The average person in Canada watches 27.2 hours of television a week according to a CBCnews article

Therefore, my kids are average.

What we didn’t realize almost 2 years ago, was the change in them.  They became irritable when the television was turned off.  Irritable to the point of arguments erupting in our otherwise peaceful home.  Then they became disrespectful.  My daughter started mimicking the characters on her shows. Imagine your littler girl; all attitude, head cocked, finger’s snapping, rude talk.  My head felt like it would explode.

My son’s teachers began complaining about his inability to focus, about his difficulty completing tasks.  He was zoning out on the carpet every day as they presented their lessons.  He was getting into trouble.  A lot.

The trouble got worse.  At home, he was overly emotional, didn’t want to do homework, couldn’t sit still. We chalked it up to his being so smart that he was bored.  Then we blamed the teachers.  Then we figured he was a 7-year-old boy, and boys will be boys. Right?

Wrong.

I watched a TED talk recently about ADHD and the children of this generation.  It was enlightening.  The most telling part of the talk, was when Sir Ken Robinson, an author, educator and creativity expert, explained that our children are constantly barraged with fast-paced television, video games, etc.  And then we expect them to sit on a carpet and watch a teacher. BORING! And slow. Quiet. Zero stimuli.  How can we expect that of our children? The schools haven’t changed.  But media has.  And our exposure to it has all but exploded. 

When we were children, we watched Mr. Rogers, Little House on the Prairie and other slow paced, seriously respectful shows.  What are our children watching now? Shows with kids that have no apparent adult supervision.  Plot lines where children are disrespectful to adults, do whatever they want and face almost no consequences for their actions.  This is what television teaches our children.  And we allow it, and then wonder why these kids are so entitled and difficult.

It took waking up on a Sunday morning and trying to get both kids off their respective computers, and their addiction to Netflix to make me realize the truth.  The begging “please turn it off” was getting to me.  It was taking too long for the computer to get shut down.  They were ignoring me.  When they finally did shut their computers off, they were total…not so sure I can write the word here…but it’s a bad anatomical word used to describe someone who is making you mad.

Don’t judge me.  I like to swear.  And since I can’t do that in front of my kids, and freaking out over their behavior denotes bad parenting, I had to come up with a solution.  At that very moment, the solution was: NO MORE TV. None. NADA. Nothing. It’s shut down baby.  It was the scariest decision I had made since their birth.  I was literally getting rid of the one thing that kept them immobile for extended periods of time so I could do my chores or work without worry or interruption. But we did it.

I look back at that smug pre-mother I was, and I wish I would have listened to her.  She was right.

That Sunday morning changed our lives.  I had spent the better part of the months prior crying myself to sleep at night.  Tired of the disrespect and the fighting, the teacher’s phone calls and the constant whining (the kids, not the teachers).  Unable to fall asleep, night after night, with thoughts ravaging my mind, that we had done something wrong, that we had failed as parents. 

Don’t get me wrong.  My children are amazing.  They are generally respectful kids, smart and fun.  People compliment us all the time on how well behaved our children are.  Inquisitive and artistic, they keep us laughing and bring us so much joy.  But the television time and its ramifications were ruining the good times.

The moment the television turned off, like magic, they turned a huge corner.  The respectful children we loved came back.  Within hours, they were playing games, learning, reading, exploring the garden.  They were doing all the things that we did as children.  They were “normal”.  My son’s teacher called four days later asking what we had done.  I am sure she was under the impression that we had turned to medication.  He hasn’t even been diagnosed with anything.  When I explained that we had just shut off the television, the phone fell silent.

They went to sleep that Sunday night with no arguments.  They just went to sleep.

The truth is, many of us are having kids later in life.  We don’t have the patience that our parents did. We are running around from activities to tutors to classes, trying to have perfect children. Competing with our friends, families we meet at school, relatives.  We want our children to learn it all. We want them to be successful and just like, if not better, than all the other kids.  We helicopter parent, we don’t let our kids fall down, lose or cry.  We use the television as a teacher, babysitter, lesson giver and friend. It’s creating a generation of kids with a lack of focus, lack of energy, obesity, entitled, bad attitudes.  It’s our fault.  And no amount of medication in the world can cure that.

It has been several months since we shut the television off.  We now allow one hour of TV time on weekends and watch movies of our choosing with the kids once a week as well.  It’s a compromise.  We give a little, but we took a lot.  The key is, by taking, we also gifted.  We gifted our children with childhood.  And we gifted ourselves with children that sleep, respect us, don’t argue as often and have become smarter and more creative.  Children that can focus. That’s huge.

We aren’t perfect.  We don’t want to be. We are happy. Happier than we have been in years.  I thank my lucky stars that on one Sunday morning, I got angry enough to fire the television babysitter.

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Revi Mula 

Revi Mula is an award-winning designer and director of Monaco Interiors, a full-service Residential and Commercial Interior Design Company in the GTA.