Balancing Media and Family in Maryland

A few weeks ago I received a letter from a reader of this column. Here is a portion of that correspondence:

“I understand that your intentions are in the right place, and for that I commend you all. Maybe instead of calling out television shows for being “vulgar” and “disturbing”, you all could help parents explain to their children morals and good will. You know, instead of trying to ruin everyone else’s fun because some PTA fanatic is too busy to really spend time with their children and complains at the drop of a hat. Watching all the 7th Heaven shows in the world isn’t going to help the bond of children and their parents.”

Signed… “Confused in Maryland”

Although I disagree with the use of the words “instead of” and think they would be better changed to “in addition to,” I feel this reader makes an interesting point, and raises a topic I feel is time to revisit.

Like everything in this world, no matter how worthwhile a television program or movie may be, there can always be too much of a good thing.

The other night, the final game of the hockey season was broadcast here in Canada. The coveted Stanley Cup was up for grabs, and this hockey-happy country is glued to their televisions to see who will take home the trophy. (NBC also covered the game in the US, but far more Canadians than Americans were interested in the cross-border battle between Edmonton, Alberta and Raleigh, North Carolina.)

In the last third of the game my phone rang. The teenaged son of some close friends was on the other end. My first response before he could get a word out was, “Why aren’t you watching the game?”

“My Dad has disconnected the TV and Internet for a week,” was the solemn response. “Can I come over there?”

I told him if it was okay with his parents, he was welcome. A few minutes later he, his sister, and father arrive. When I questioned his father as to why they were unable to watch at home, this dad told me something I appreciated:

“I looked around my house the other day and everyone was glued to a screen. The computer, the televisions. Finally, I said, ‘Enough!’ and decided to unplug for a week. I wanted to keep that promise, so we came over here to watch the last few minutes of the game.”

I know it sounds a little hypocritical that you can watch the big game over at your friends, and not at home, but what I respected about this father was his willingness to keep the commitment to give their family a break from media in their home. Notice that it wasn’t due to anyone watching something bad, or going to inappropriate Internet sites. It was simply a measure taken to give everyone a chance to break away.

I’m sure most readers of this site are primarily concerned with the negative and distasteful content of many media sources. But please also recognize how intrusive all media is. Even if your daughter is listening to the peaceful melodies of Jim Brickman on her iPod, her earbuds are still separating herself from the family.

While I’d claim to be a media expert, parenting is a whole different subject. However, my experience raising four children, and having many friends who are also in the midst of raising a family, has helped me see a few things that work well in creating a good balance between media and family. In no particular order, here are a few tips to consider:

• Try your best to eat one meal today each day as a family. This may require some sacrifice for certain family members. Perhaps getting up earlier, or changing dinnertime to accommodate those who arrive later. Don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t happen everyday, but at least set the goal. Keep the TV off during this time. Even music can hamper some good family conversation, so keep the volume low or turn it off, too. Finally, be prepared for silence if you haven’t made eating together a habit. If you persist, conversation will come more naturally after a few days.

• Find one night a week when your family can spend an hour together. Use this time to plan the upcoming week, recognize individual successes, and work through mutual problems. Then play a simple game together and enjoy a dessert. Again, keep the TV and music off.

• Encourage family members to share their music with the rest of the family. Again, this may mean a little sacrifice on everyone’s part. In our family, we sometimes share music during dinner, which allows us to each explore different styles. (My kids threatened mutiny when I put on Dean Martin’s That’s Amore!)

• Sharing television is more difficult, but not impossible. Try and agree on shows the entire family likes to watch, and then have at least one parent view with the kids. I highly recommend pre-recording TV shows on your VCR, TiVo or DVD recorder. This allows you to pause the program and deal with questions or issues your children may have.

• Schedule a “Family Movie Night” and allow your children to invite friends. Select a movie or small selection of movies ahead of time, so everyone is in agreement. This is a great way to introduce your family to movies they may not be aware of.

Hopefully, these points will help you to balance good media choices with important family relationships, and will leave you a little less “confused in Maryland.”

More details about the movies mentioned in this post…