Dear American Academy of Pediatrics,
I am writing to express some concerns I have about your recommendations for young children’s television viewing. Though I know you mean well, and have a reputation to keep, I can’t help but wonder whether you all live together in a haloed ivory tower on a hill somewhere in Neverland, or whether you are actually one man behind a curtain, churning out mandates impossible for any right-minded parent to follow.
Please forgive my forwardness. But in sharing my story, I wish to deepen your awareness of the guilt your counsel causes in mothers who are simply trying to foster their kids’ real-world skills, opportunities to dream, and social relevance.
Oh, those early days of mommy-and-me time, the first seven months of my daughter Maddie’s life when maternity leave allowed me to bond with her, passed leisurely in the four rooms of our second-floor apartment in Everett. My baby girl and I shared long lunches of chicken bits and applesauce in the sun-washed kitchen and played with squeaky books and vibrating pull-toys for hours. On the lovely days, we strolled the trails of Mystic Valley park, inhaling the fresh brackish scent of the river and mimicking the whimsical paths of monarch butterflies. While I cooked dinner, I settled Maddie on the linoleum floor with aluminum bowls and wooden spoons so that she could express her musical self. Any headache was worth the benefit of exploratory orchestration.
Maddie did not nap unless I drove her up and down Route 128 over the potholes carefully carved by Mack trucks, so she actually received more stimulation in a 24-hour span than the average infant. I felt good. Real good. I was a competent mother!
Then, Maddie learned to walk. No – she grew motors for legs that propelled her from place to place, and sometimes to nowhere at all, between chairs and around tables and corners, under the grasping hands of adults who needed to contain her. I lost weight from the exercise of the chase. Going to parties guaranteed that no conversation that my husband or I began with fellow adults lasted longer than three minutes because we needed to follow our daughter, peel her little fingers off of glass votives and soot-dusted fireplace tools and in some cases block her from balancing on the edges of inground pools. Maddie exhausted us. “She’s so smart,” people would say. “That’s why she’s into everything.”
This clue brought to light the possibility that perhaps Andrew’s and my constant interpersonal play with Maddie over the previous year had overstimulated her to the point of hyperactivity! We panicked. How to rewind time and reverse the effects of ultra-attentive parenting? In our hearts, we knew. It was time for the intervention of the glowing box. I know, I know, Academy—I can imagine that you are shaking your collective head and clucking your collective tongue in dismay. But sometimes the strain of being perfect parents weighs so heavily on our shoulders that we must consider even the most unthinkable of strategies to maintain that perfection.
We integrated minutes of television watching into Maddie’s schedule and stood back to watch the magic. Without fail, the moment that her ears perked up to the sound of the electricity snapping softly through the screen, Maddie halted in her tracks and turned to the calling of the supposedly brain-deadening machine that would become her best friend. Andrew and I discovered that the more we increased her t.v. viewing time, the more opportunity we had to finish our sentences and go to the bathroom without interruption. Noggin, now called Nick Jr., provided twenty-three-minute blocks of educational programming with no commercials. Twenty-three minutes. A lifetime. The freedom to breathe; to check e-mail. To fold a half a basket of clean clothes or wash a small but offensive pile of dishes in the sink. Andrew and I even rekindled our romance with stolen kisses and hand-holding. And Maddie learned to stay still—useful knowledge, Academy, don’t you think, considering her future filled with essay tests and flu shots?
The pros to this newfound relationship between Maddie and the Sony mounted rapidly. When we strapped Maddie into her booster seat in front of the t.v. in the living room, she stayed put long enough to ingest her entire dinner, and thus, benefited from balanced nutrition. Handy Manny’s singing tools inspired her to get on up and shake her booty, which would have been a lot larger if she weren’t dancing away calories. The segment “Cool Tricks” on Yo Gabba Gabba taught her that she, too, could be a contortionist or armpit musician, if she pursued her dreams heartily enough. Andrew and I rejoiced. We understood the import of Nick Jr.’s tagline: “Nick Jr.: It’s like preschool on t.v.” Of course! All of the arts, math, language, and social-skill curricula our child needed, wrapped up into one compact, vibrant, entertaining package!
When Maddie’s little brother Drew came along, we skipped the fooling around. I asked Andrew to turn on the television before he left to retrieve me and the new baby at the hospital so that one of the first greetings that Drew could receive in his new home was the voice of Mickey Mouse and his Clubhouse. I have to tell you, Academy, though Drew was sleeping in his car seat when Andrew carried him into the living room, I swear I saw his eyelids flutter, just once, almost imperceptibly, toward the flickering lights…the presence that would evolve into the nanny I never needed to hire. Drew was an entirely different child from Maddie. I testify that because we exposed him to television from the very first week of his life—the greatest gift to a child, after breastmilk, of course—he napped longer, cuddled closer (what’s more cozy than snuggling in front of your favorite show?), and spoke earlier than other boys his age.
So you say, Academy, that too much television can disturb the maturation of children’s executive functioning, and that direct interaction with parents can foster it. Don’t be absurd. We still spend plenty of time changing their diapers and wiping their runny mouths. Occasionally, we take them out of the house to hit the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru.
So you say, Academy, that free, unstructured play encourages self-entertainment and boosts problem-solving, motor, and reasoning expertise. Do you understand that the first time a neighborhood peer says to your daughter, “Have you seen the new show about teenage zombies?” and your kid has no idea what this person is talking about, and furthermore, makes the mistake of responding, “Oh, no—my parents don’t let me watch t.v.; they prefer for me to self-entertain in order to sharpen my problem-solving skills,” you are pushing her into a lifetime of ostracism? Would her “problem-solving skills” get these peers to consider playing with her again after such a poor first impression? Would her “motor skills” guarantee her anything but speed as she ran away from taunting t.v.-watchers in the playground? Would her “reasoning skills” make her cool the way that freestyle rapping like Twist on the Fresh Beat Band would make her cool? I think not, Academy.
So you say, Academy, that “young children learn best from—and need—interaction with humans, not screens.” Would you rather your child learn the dangers of violence by watching the footage of shootings in downtown Boston on said screens, or by participating in those shootings in real life, with real humans, and real guns? I think the answer to that one is simple.
And finally, Academy, I must take issue with the title of one of the essays on the AAP website. As an English teacher, I gasped at its inanity: “Some Children’s TV Shows Are Bad for Their Brains.” Wow. Way to go with that dazzlingly specific descriptive wording. I mean, “bad” is just the perfect adjective for what you mean. Where, and how, did you learn how to write so captivatingly? Thank goodness none of you suffered from the soporific effects of media overload!
I hope, Academy, that my letter has persuaded you to regard the trials of parenthood through a fresh lens, and to consider modifying your standards to leave room for a little realism. After all, if it were not for the “fast-paced cartoons” that you claim to be so detrimental to a child’s processing facilities and attention span, then my daughter would still be spinning in circles herself…and not taking one serene moment to stop and smell the digital roses.
Thank you for your time.
Elizabeth J. Mastrangelo