I grew up in a time when there was no TV and if it were possible, that's the way I would like Ayaan's childhood to be. Because in my humble opinion, every minute that Ayaan spends in front of the television is a precious minute of his childhood wasted. But like it not, the child will be a product of his times and I would hardly want him to be an anachronistic specimen of a bygone era. Whether I like it or not, the TV will have a place in his growing up years. But for as long as possible, I would like to minimise his TV watching and also be very particular about what I let him watch.
The first time I gave into the TV temptation was when he was about 6 months old. In those horrible days before I discovered Dr. Ferber, mornings would start with him waking up in an absolutely foul mood and bawling in a completely nerve-wracking fashion through his diaper change, accompanied by violent twisting which made the actual task of getting him changed and cleaned without smearing nearby surfaces with poop quite a challenge. So we started putting Noddy on for a single 15-minute episode first thing in the morning. It was a habit that once we got into was hard to break because even when the foul morning moods were behind us, they were replaced by tantrums at the very thought of his parents not giving into his demands – not a very auspicious daily start. Plus I read somewhere that 15-minutes of TV in a day was acceptable.
We did finally put an end to the morning TV routine when he was around 15 months old. Then TV became mostly a weekly affair so that I could get him to sit in one place while I cut his nails. Or if he was not well, we switched it on if his temperature needed to be taken or if we needed to get some much-needed food into his sick, little body.
Then he got the never-ending cough and cold that was finally diagnosed as enlarged adenoids and we were told to give him steam every night at bedtime. As you can imagine, getting a hyperactive two-and-a-half-year old to sit in one place and inhale steam in a peaceful manner is a task well in the realm of impossible things. So the TV was called into service again.
The DVD player actually. Because night-time content on the cartoon channels is completely unsuitable for a young child in the eyes of a mother who is no hurry to introduce her child to the joys of the Power Rangers. And don't even get me started on Tom & Jerry - which I believe is pretty darned violent, too fast-paced for young children and also filled with lots of puns and references that only well-informed teenagers are likely to get. The few times I put it on for Ayaan, I got the feeling that he was just mindlessly fascinated by the fast-moving images. The other problem with TV programming was the ads, which seem to almost glorify obnoxious, bratty behaviour and naked consumerism. So DVDs it was.
Of all the series available on DVD, I liked Noddy because of their simple plots and relatively slower pace of story-telling. Plus Ayaan already had quite the collection of Noddy books at the time and also slept with a Noddy doll. So I picked up a bunch of Noddy DVDs and played a 15-minute episode every night during steam inhalation. After a while, I somehow managed to convince him that books were more fun and though it was a lot harder to juggle a book and the steam device, we survived and went through almost six months of virtually no TV.
But that, like all good things, came to an end. A time came when he started demanding the darned cartoons. And I didn't want to say a blanket no since there is no surer way to get a child to pick up a habit than to declare it a forbidden fruit. So now we have reached a compromise - he is allowed half an hour of TV on school holidays (essentially twice a week). And he has been surprisingly mature about our deal and rarely asks for cartoons on a school day and is easily convinced otherwise when he does. But he is sure to demand his pound of flesh on a holiday.
We have, also expanded our viewing menu, thanks to the launch of BBC's kids channel CBeebies. They don't have a particularly extensive programming line-up and the channel is on air only till 6 in the evening but since Ayaan usually wants to watch in the mornings, the early evening end is not a concern for us.
The content really hits the sweet spot of programming that is acceptable to me and enjoyable for Ayaan. To start with the context is chosen/ designed with the under-6 age group in mind. An adult watching their programming would be bored out of their wits but I can see why it works for kids. Besides, I really don’t think we should judge children's TV by whether we find it interesting. The slower pace keeps the kids engaged and involved and repetition is a good thing at this age and facilitates learning.
Ayaan favourites include shows like Teletubbies and Fimbles, which have nice, gentle themes and age-appropriate concepts narrated slowly with loads of repetition. I find that Ayaan actually learns from them. For example, last month some time, they showed two boys getting their haircuts on Teletubbies, coincidentally on the day we were taking him for a haircut. Now Ayaan typically bawls his head off during a haircut and has to be physically restrained while the deed is done, but we kept telling him about the boys in the show and we had no screams and tears for a change. Of course, he also remembered that the boys got a lollipop each after their haircuts and so demanded one of his own...
So like I said, content that ticks the box in terms of appropriate viewing for a child Ayaan’s age and yet is presented in a way that engages him and teaches him - I can live with an hour a week of that. Of course, he is still not exposed to a lot of the stuff that many of his classmates and contemporaries are watching but I will wait till he finds out about them and asks for them before opening that door. So, as of now. the poor deprived child thinks Spiderman is a spider. Seriously! So whenever he sees one building a web in some corner of the park, he points and calls it a Spiderman. And he is blissfully oblivious to the existence of characters like Ben 10, Power Rangers, Perman and Pokemon. And I'm happy to keep it that way for now.
The other thing I am obsessive about is not letting him watch TV on his own or with the maids. To me, it’s like any other fun, interactive thing that we do together. The few times I have left him alone in front of the TV, I can see that he becomes a passive watcher. Whereas while I am watching with him, he jumps around in excitement when a familiar character comes on screen, points out stuff to me and expects me to cheer for him when he gets some answer right. I am lucky to have help at home with the cooking and cleaning, so I don’t see any reason to let the TV babysit Ayaan while I get along with other stuff…
The funny thing is that I used to be quite a TV addict myself. On an average weekday, I would spend atleast two hours in front of the idiot box. But now I don't watch TV at all. It was making me feel like a hypocrite when I spent the day believing that TV-time was the worst thing ever for Ayaan and then switched it on the minute he went to bed. I also found better stuff to do with my time. Blogging for one, and I am also reading a lot more.