T.V. Or Not T.V. – That Is The Question

I love television! You love television too. C’mon, admit it, even if you think you spend too much time watching T.V., you love it. Television is an incredible invention and tool. It informs, entertains, passes the time, and creates loads of water cooler topics for us all to chat about while we aren’t watching T.V. Now, with the advent of first, cable programming, then satellite television, there are a seemingly endless supply of shows we can watch. Too many, in fact, for a single person to watch all of, so along came Picture-in-Picture, TiVo and DVRs, followed quickly by DVDs of television shows, webcasts, and iPod downloads. We watch comedies, drama, sports, documentaries, reality shows, then shows about reality shows, and awful “celebrity news” programs about the people on the shows about reality shows. Let me just sum this paragraph up by simply stating the following: TMZ? OMG!

I have also loved television for as long as I remember. I have very fond and vivid memories of watching “Sesame Street”, “Electric Company”, and “Zoom” on PBS back when I was four or five years old living on the north side of Chicago. I remember the intro music to the nightly news shows my dad watched religiously (and still does). I can still sing word-for-word the jingles for Empire Carpets, Aronson Furniture, and Townhouse T.V. and Appliances. I remember all those Saturday morning cartoons and watching sitcom after sitcom like “Welcome Back Kotter”, “Barney Miller”, and “Alice” after school every day. In recent years I was truly addicted to several shows including “Lost”, “Survivor”, “The Amazing Race”, and “CSI” (yes, the Vegas one – do the others even deserve the “CSI” name?). Finally, of course, I don’t let a Sunday go by without watching 6+ hours of NFL football, though I do try to get out of the house and be social for those.

Wow, sounds like I must have a rotted brain, obese body, high blood pressure, and a propensity for violent behavior, right? Nope. Aside from being a little softer around the middle, and perhaps a little less sharp than my interestingly television-free college years, I am a pretty healthy, happy, and good natured person with a good head on his shoulders, thank you. Does this mean that too much T.V. is in no way detrimental to human development? No way!

Many studies have been done that effectively demonstrate that excessive television viewing in early childhood leads to a higher risk of all the nastiness I listed above. Just to reinforce, that was obesity, high blood pressure, delayed or reduced capacity to learn reading and writing skills, and aggressive or violent behavior and mannerisms. I guess the key question is what constitutes “too much”? It appears as though the general consensus is that any television is worse than no television, but let’s be honest about the reality of a child growing up in America and never watching any television. From what I have read, it sounds like the scientific suggestion is that 4 hours or more daily is excessive, and progressively less than that is progressively better. So, now you know what to do with your children, just cut back that television time, right? Wrong.

Like almost everything else in life, that is simplifying the issue way too much. Let’s assume that children are going to watch television. In my case, the primary child watching television is my two and a half year old son, Xavier. Xavier likes a handful of television programs, and probably watches too much television. It is frustrating for both my wife and I as we would like to curtail his viewing habits more than we have, but between my money-making efforts and her caring for seven month old Hayden in addition to Xavier, television is a convenient distraction, and allows us to get the necessities done. You might think that makes us bad parents, and you have a right to your opinion, but there is more to it than that.

Here are some of the ways that we try to make the time he spends watching television effective, and hopefully less damaging to his development:

  • Avoid programming that includes commercials. Fortunately, we get the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, and Noggin to complement our PBS channel. I know that Disney and PBS are commercial free, and I believe Noggin is as well. Commercials suck! They are well-produced and have a very definite objective to sell products and/or services to us. The benefit that they entertain us only makes their messages more powerful, and is in no way their primary objective. Children, toddlers in particular, can’t discern between commercials and regular programming, and can often immediately want the things they see on commercials. They can do the same with things they see on television programs, but generally the programs aren’t specifically trying to sell them something, so the impact is perhaps lessened.
  • Choose programming that encourages the viewers to be interactive, physically active, and thinking. Perhaps “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” isn’t the greatest, but throughout that show, the characters ask questions directly to the “camera” and even pause so the child can respond. Mickey and his pals will also encourage the child to get up off his or her butt and march, dance, skip, and stretch. Other favorites of ours that at least try to be educational include “Word World” and “Sid the Science Kid”. I am not claiming that these shows will turn our young boy into a super-genius (his genes will do that), but they are relatively entertaining even for adults which helps us interact as well and ask him questions about what he watched, what he thought of it, and heap praise on him when he demonstrates having learned something during the show.
  • Get him actively playing and exploring outside the home for several hours each day, or inside if and outdoor excursion is either unmanageable or unaffordable. We utilize a local playground, the nearby train stations, and our very walkable urban neighborhood. Xavier has had the opportunity to explore some of the greatest museums our country has to offer, including the outstanding Children’s Museum on Navy Pier. FYI, if you live in Chicago, you can go to any local library and check out free passes to most of the city’s museums, pending their availability, of course.
  • Read to him every night before bed, and randomly throughout the day. During reading, it is important to keep the child engaged by asking questions about the story, what he thinks might happen next, what he would do in that situation, and other questions along those lines. We need to make more time to read to him, and encourage him to “read” alone as well.

With all that said, there are some weak points we need to correct, but struggle to balance. I have mentioned often in the past that Xavier loves trains. It is no surprise he would, they are big powerful machines that are ever present in our neighborhood as we live only blocks away from the two major commuter train stations in Chicago (Union Station and Ogilvie Transportation Center), and steps from the Green/Pink CTA elevated line (the “El”). Along with that love of trains comes a love for train videos and shows. Xavier will watch everything from “Thomas the Tank Engine”, to a DVD series appropriately title “I Love Toy Trains”, and a surprisingly gargantuan assortment of train videos available for viewing on YouTube.

While the train videos seem innocent, they have a few drawbacks that are causing us to become more strict about his time spent viewing them. First, while not commercials, they are selling us something…toy trains, imagine that! I have to admit that I have at times gotten swept into the collectible nature of the Thomas the Tank Engine characters, of which there are many more than you might imagine. We use the wooden variety (they also are available in die cast and a plastic motorized version), which cost anywhere from $10-$30 retail per character. The various buildings and accouterments are even more wallet-thinning ringing in for prices extending well into the $100+ range. Now that he has discovered actual “O” and “HO” scale toy trains I can only imagine how high the prices of his wish lists will climb.

These shows and videos can also be quite violent. Not in the shooting way that cop shows and war movies are, nor in the reality defying catastrophic injury manner of such cartoons as “Bugs Bunny” or “Tom and Jerry” are, but rather in the frequency and seriousness of the train derailments and other disasters that saturate the Thomas series. Even in the “I Love Toy Trains” series which features video of actual toy train layouts in various shops and basements, the “funny” moments involve trains crashing and derailing. I have no doubt in my mind that Xavier’s tendency to involve crashing in all aspects of his play come directly from our decision to introduce him to the “Thomas the Tank Engine” video series. Recently, I have found myself catching him in the midst of reenacting scenes from the videos, stopping him from completing the scene, and explaining that trains crashing is actually very far from funny, and that people get very hurt when train crashes happen (regardless of how incredibly powerful they are to watch).

So, I’m not so much looking for advice as much as sharing our experience with television, and wondering if others would be willing to share their challenges with this battle (and by battle, I men with the ubiquitousness of television more than the battle with the child wanting to watch it). This is something that is very difficult to avoid due to the demands on our time, and can’t be even close to unique to us.

I’d also love to know from the parents out there if and by how much having children has curtailed their own television watching habits. I have significantly reduced mine, and now will not even watch a single episode of a new show knowing my own propensity to becoming “hooked”. I still watch “Heroes”, will not miss “Lost”, and try to keep up with “The Amazing Race”. I still watch a lot of football on Sunday and most Monday Nights. I have lost touch with “How I Met Your Mother”, “Survivor”, and “The Big Bang Theory”. The only other show in the rotation is “The Biggest Loser” which, at two hours per episode is both way too long and easy to cut away from sporadically to get things done. Those people on that show are both inspirational and indicative of the epidemic of obesity in America, and it is something I like to keep up with.

Thank you, and Goodnight.

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The Halloween That Was

So, as we leave the three-day period known by the Catholics at Hallowmas, I can’t help but reflect a bit on one of the most fun, but also one of the most meaningless of all the holidays we celebrate today. Additionally, now that my son is beginning to understand some of the more entertaining elements of the celebration, i.e. getting candy, I wanted to understand at what point the candy element became part of the holiday. It struck me, like so many elements of the other major holidays, as just more American consumerism overwhelming the true meaning of a widely celebrated holiday. Finally, as I attempt to eat healthier and take better care of mine and my family’s diets, I wanted to see if there was some way I could start a movement to eliminate some of the candy overload we are all forced to participate in every year on October 31.

So, the consensus is that the modern celebration of Halloween originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhein (pronounced Sow-in). See, the ancient Celts lived in what is now Ireland, Britain, and parts of Northern France. What many people do not realize due to the climate moderating currents in the Northern Atlantic Ocean is that the United Kingdom sits as far north as cities like Calgary, Edmonton, Moscow, and Stockholm. The winters there, while not as cold as those continental cities in Canada and Russia, still hover near freezing, and the days in the winter get very short, and correspondingly very long in the summer. Imagine a winter there without the aid of electricity, heat, accessible food, modern plumbing, and pre-wrapped bite size chocolate candy…brr, gives me the chills just thinking about it.

Samhein for the Celts marked the end of the summer as they had completed harvesting their crops and were in the process of slaughtering their livestock for their winter stores. The Celts also lived in a time and place that was still unfamiliar with Christianity, Islam, and probably even Judaism. Their gods were those who controlled the elements around them, and their belief in an afterlife was of a spiritual world of the dead which existed separate from their world of the living. During Samhein, the Celts believed that the boundaries between the realms of the living and the dead became “ill-defined” allowing co-mingling with dead spirits both harmless and harmful. The Celts donned disguises during this festival often depicting the evil spirits that might do them harm. Sensibly, they believed that if they looked like an evil spirit themselves, perhaps the real evil spirits would leave them alone. Finally, in preparation for the long cold winter, the Celtic Druids would build massive bonfires upon which the Celts would burn crops and livestock as sacrificial offerings to the gods…so much for logic, eh?

The Romans finally arrived in the lands of the Celts around 40 A.D., bringing with them a couple of late-fall festivals called Feralia and Pomona that became combined with Samhein. The Roman festival of Pomona specifically honored the Roman goddess of fruit and trees, and its symbol was an apple. This symbol likely led to the tradition of bobbing for apples in later years. Later, the Catholic Church created the holidays of All Saints Day on November 1st and All Souls Day on November 2nd in order to bring a semblance of Christianity to the celebration known collectively as Hallowmas.

Not until the mid-1800s did the traditions of dressing up and going door to door asking for food or money emerge in America. Gradually, Halloween became more about community and big Halloween parties. Community leaders and schools gradually made an effort to remove the mischief and superstition from the holiday, and by the middle of the 20th century the holiday became secular and aimed primarily at the youth of America. Trick-or-Treating became the custom and flourished as a way for the community to “share” the cost together, and theoretically prevent “tricks” to their household and property by providing treats for the children. Halloween is now estimated to be a $7 billion industry, second commercially only to Christmas.

For a time, children would often receive apples coated in candy, toffee, caramel, and sometimes nuts. These homemade treats, while certainly scrumptious, provided fodder for hysteria as rumors of ne’er-do-well hiding blades and needles in these treats scared most parents into forbidding the eating of such treats in favor of well-sealed confections made by big candy companies. In fact, most unsealed candy and treats are now considered some of the most detestable of treats one can receive on Halloween, and may even subject the treat provider to some “tricks” for their audacity. Convenient circumstances for companies such as Hershey, Mars, Cadbury, and Nestle to swoop in with solutions for every American home.

So, what are the kids today celebrating? Instead of being frightened by spirits of scamps and rascals or stories of mischief and terror, we are more scared of other people surely intending harm. Most trick-or-treat parades appear populated with parents herding munchkins still dressed as vampires and pirates, but also as Teletubbies, Thomas the Tank Engine, and other popular icons of the day. While more sanitized, these aren’t too far off my own memories of Halloweens past.

Most of my candy-hauling took place during the early 1980s and involved loads of Snickers, Milky Way, 3 Musketeers, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, but also way too much Good n’ Plenty, Necco wafers, Double Bubble, and those annoying Peanut Butter nougat chews in the Orange and Black wrappers. I was an unabashedly terrible costume creator, but loved the “thrill of the hunt”, and during my best years went with a handful of friends sans parental supervision. We would stop off at home from time to time to empty our load and head out to a different zone (or occasionally hit some of the “good” houses a second or even third time). By the end of those nights, I had undoubtedly collected a year’s worth or more of candy, and ate a good portion of it immediately after the mandatory sort-and-trade session. I was a big fan of Almond Joy and Mounds which I could score for a song from most of my friends.

Some of my most entertaining Halloween memories, however, were not of trick-or-treating, but rather the all too rare Halloween party involving those Taffy Apples, apple-bobbing, and various games. I wore some pretty cool costumes (mostly homemade) back when it was my mother, rather than me, choosing my disguise, and later admired the handiwork of my more imaginative friends.

I guess now, as a parent, I am hopeful that we can find a home in a place where those old-school parties of the past will take place, and my kids can have the same great memories of this holiday beyond just the brands of candy and fears of the dark strangers of the world to interfere. And here is a thought for all parents next year, how about being one of those “bad” houses and give away something other than candy for a change? How about shiny quarters, or dollar coins if you are able? Perhaps Clif bars if you must give a candy-like treat? If you already have made this change, what did you give out? I am just thinking in the spirit of helping our country be a little less obese, perhaps we can help delay the orgy of sweets that typically begins with Halloween and extends right on through New Year’s Day every year.

And please, if you absolutely must give out candy, just don’t, whatever you do, be the house giving out those wretched Black and Orange wrapped Peanut Butter nougat chews. If you do, may the trick be on you!

Happy Halloween that was!

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2 Month Checkup

Yesterday was a big day for the kids. Xavier kicked it off with his first dentist visit ever. He is officially 2 years, 3 months, and 10 days old. His twenty teeth are perfect. He has already learned how to (briskly) brush his bottom left teeth, and tongue. He struggles, but can brush his lower right teeth. The upper teeth are still very much a work in progress. All is good, though, and the dentist was pleasantly surprised at how well behaved Xavier was. Next checkup is in December…we’ll see how he does then.

Following the dentist, we shuffled across the hallway to Hayden’s 2-month checkup at Town & Country Pediatricians. Hayden was seen by Dr. Donahoe for the second time, though, sadly, it was his last day with Town & Country, so she will have a new doctor next visit. Hayden is doing very well. It was her nine week birthday, and she weighed 13 lbs. 9 oz. That is the 90th percentile, my friends…she is a good eater! 2 months is also the BIG shot visit on the vaccination schedule. With Xavier, we admittedly went into the 2-month checkup a bit unprepared for the four shots and an oral vaccine for rotovirus. That was a rough visit, and he definitely suffered side effects for a few days afterward. So now, they have combined vaccine called Pentacel which, in one injection, covers Diptheria/Tetanus/Pertussis, Haemophilus influenzae type b, and Inactivated Poliovirus. We decided to hold off on the Rotavirus and Pneumococcal, opting to visit a month later for those. We had to sign a document saying that the Pneumococcal was offered as part of the official government vaccination schedule, and that they are not liable if she contracts the illness in the meantime.

On the topic of vaccinations, I actually tend towards following the recommendations. After our experience with Xavier, however, and in discussing it with my brother, sister, and others, I agree with my wife that 5 vaccinations in one visit is just simply overdoing it, and four weeks is not a big risk to take. With Xavier, this was one of the two sources of arguments between Kerry and I. My feeling is that while vaccines might appear to be excessive and dangerous (potentially unnecessary), you would feel awfully stupid and guilty if your young baby contracted polio or tetanus and died…right? Research on this topic provides little comfort as you have both sides presenting fairly compelling reasons to go either way. At about a year with Xavier, Kerry successfully swayed me to the feeling that so many shots so quickly is just not necessary, especially with our kids being home rather than in daycare, so we are now getting all the recommended vaccines for both children, just on a slower pace.

So, Hayden got a single shot yesterday, and shockingly, she barely made a peep. In fact, she was smiling at me not more than 10-15 seconds after the injection. Yes, smiling was her new trick last week, and she is getting good at it in a hurry.

After dealing with some silly billing issues (why can’t all medical billing have a printed due date?) we left the office and shuttled over to toys et cetera to get Xavier his reward for being so good. For those of you in Chicago, toys et cetera http://www.toysetcetera.com/ is a small independent toy store chain with three locations in Chicago and another in Evanston. For us, they offer the most comprehensive line of Thomas the Tank Engine toys that we have found…yes, larger than Toys R Us! Xavier had never specifically asked for a toy before, but last week he told us that he wanted “Duck” and it was a bit of an obsession for a few days. Well, Toys et Cetera didn’t have “Duck”, but fortunately, they had one better; they had an Amtrack engine from a brand that makes trains compatitible with the Thomas trains and tracks. We live blocks from Ogilve Station in the West Loop of Chicago, so Xavier is a bit of a train fanatic. Amtrack train spottings are a daily highlight fo him, so this was a fortunate thing to have happened on to say the least. I will look for “Duck” and hold him for the next rewardable situation.

So, I am proud to say we have two happy and healthy children, and I continue to enjoy feeling a temendous amount of pride in them.

If you care to share, I would love to hear people’s feelings on immunizations, pediatric dentistry, toy stores, or Thomas the Tank Engine…especially if you have personal experience with any of them. I will also be getting in touch with toys et cetera to encourage them to setup an affiliate program, then you can buy your toys right through this here blog!

Be well!

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