Friday, October 29, 2010

Creating zombies

I know some people whose twelve year old son who is very nearly functionally illiterate. I am frequently in a position to hear him read out loud, and it's like listening to a seven-year-old read. It's so painful to listen that I don't ask him to read out loud very much.

The sad thing is, this boy's mother is a highly-respected schoolteacher.

There's nothing wrong with this boy's intelligence. He's a little hyperactive, sure, but no more than any typical active kid. I was raised with three brothers, and active boys don't bother me.

No, as I see it this boy can barely read because there are so few books in the house, but enormous amounts of media.

A huge television is in a prominent location in the living room. There is another television in the parent's bedroom. A third television - drum roll please - is in the bedroom of this boy and his older brother.  They also have every electronic whiz-bang toy on the market - GameBoys and X-boxes and too many other things to list.

Blitzed with so much passive media, what kid in his right mind would choose the more active activity of reading?

Sadly, this is not an uncommon situation. Quite the opposite. Children are so regularly blitzed with television and other media that they do little else during their waking hours. And rather than chastising parents for using the damned idiot box as a babysitter, articles are printed that merely call for increased quality in children's programming. Grrrr.

The horrifying thing about television is it is the single-most preventable barrier to intelligence. Children who grow up without television, or with television severely restricted, are (ahem) forced to DO things. They build forts in the back yard and cities with blocks. They dream. They read. They imagine. They live in a make-believe world that is NOT populated by TV cartoon characters. All of these necessary and critical play habits later translate into intelligence.

But none of this is possible if the poor kid is turned into a zombie by his own parents.

Contrary to the actions of advocacy groups that lobby for higher-quality children's television programming, it's not the quality of programming that's the issue here (quality is a whole different issue!); it's the quantity. While children are watching television, they aren't doing anything else.

They sure as heck aren't reading.They aren't interacting with real people. They aren't learning critical social skills. Instead, they grow up thinking all the world's problems should be solvable within a half hour (the length of a sitcom) because that's all they've ever seen. As they get older, they're also sucked into video games, electronic toys, computers, and other media. And they never read books. They grow up to be virtually illiterate.

I confess I find it almost physically nauseating to see children strung out in front of a television, slack-jawed. It's worse when it involves babies and toddlers.

I remember an incident when our Oldest Daughter was about four months old. I went to a local laundromat to wash some sleeping bags. Older Daughter, of course, was with me, and I laid a blanket across the folding table while the washing machines hummed and we played little games. Another man was in the laundromat as well, and we got to talking. He and his wife also had a baby about the same age, he told me. But - and this was said with a certain amount of pride - his wife liked to put the baby in a wind-up swing in front of the television.

At four months.

I believe parents are doing a horrible disservice to their children by encouraging constant exposure to media. Rather than channeling my friend's son's hyperactivity into sports, they pacified him with television. (To their everlasting credit, they haven't drugged him with Ritalin.)

Many years ago I saw a magazine ad that was so awful it stopped me in my tracks.

The ad featured two children staring, zombie-like, in a darkened room at a television. In bold letters below the children was the word "HELP."

At first I thought, “Good. Someone is trying to break those poor kids loose from the grip of the stupid television.”

Then I read the text of the ad:

“The average American child spends close to four hours a day planted in front of a television. Which is why [name of company] is happy to sponsor the [name of an “educational” television series]. Charming characters present classic, positive stories that help you guide your children through the kinds of lessons you actually want them to learn. Courage. Honesty. Responsibility. After all, what better place to reach your children than right where they already are.”

Does anyone else find this logic sickening?

No expectation that the parents should actually take responsibility for their own children’s moral teachings. God forbid that you should have to interact with the little tykes. Instead, stick ’em in front of the TV and turn their brains to mush so you don’t have to be bothered.

These TV shows are supposed to teach responsibility (and courage and honesty) when the kids’ parents aren’t even willing to have the courage and honesty to take responsibility themselves? Huh?

The single best expression of my aversion to television and children was a poem written by Roald Dahl, author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and other great books. It goes as follows:


The most important thing we've learned,
So far as children are concerned,
Is never, NEVER, NEVER let
Them near your television set --
Or better still, just don't install
The idiotic thing at all.

In almost every house we've been,
We've watched them gaping at the screen.
They loll and slop and lounge about,
And stare until their eyes pop out.
(Last week in someone's place we saw
A dozen eyeballs on the floor.)

They sit and stare and stare and sit
Until they're hypnotised by it,
Until they're absolutely drunk
With all that shocking ghastly junk.

Oh yes, we know it keeps them still,
They don't climb out the window sill,
They never fight or kick or punch,
They leave you free to cook the lunch
And wash the dishes in the sink --
But did you ever stop to think,
To wonder just exactly what
This does to your beloved tot?


'All right!' you'll cry. 'All right!' you'll say,
'But if we take the set away,
What shall we do to entertain
Our darling children? Please explain!'

We'll answer this by asking you,
'What used the darling ones to do?
'How used they keep themselves contented
Before this monster was invented?'
Have you forgotten? Don't you know?
We'll say it very loud and slow:

THEY ... USED ... TO ... READ! They'd READ and READ,
AND READ and READ, and then proceed
To READ some more. Great Scott! Gadzooks!
One half their lives was reading books!

The nursery shelves held books galore!
Books cluttered up the nursery floor!
And in the bedroom, by the bed,
More books were waiting to be read!

Such wondrous, fine, fantastic tales
Of dragons, gypsies, queens, and whales
And treasure isles, and distant shores
Where smugglers rowed with muffled oars,
And pirates wearing purple pants,
And sailing ships and elephants,
And cannibals crouching 'round the pot,
Stirring away at something hot.
(It smells so good, what can it be?
Good gracious, it's Penelope.)

The younger ones had Beatrix Potter
With Mr. Tod, the dirty rotter,
And Squirrel Nutkin, Pigling Bland,
And Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and-
Just How The Camel Got His Hump,
And How the Monkey Lost His Rump,
And Mr. Toad, and bless my soul,
There's Mr. Rat and Mr. Mole-
Oh, books, what books they used to know,
Those children living long ago!

So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.

Then fill the shelves with lots of books,
Ignoring all the dirty looks,
The screams and yells, the bites and kicks,
And children hitting you with sticks-

Fear not, because we promise you
That, in about a week or two
Of having nothing else to do,
They'll now begin to feel the need
Of having something to read.

And once they start -- oh boy, oh boy!
You watch the slowly growing joy
That fills their hearts. They'll grow so keen
They'll wonder what they'd ever seen
In that ridiculous machine,
That nauseating, foul, unclean,
Repulsive television screen!

And later, each and every kid
Will love you more for what you did.


  1. I'd never seen that poem in its entirety before - I love it! As soon as the kids finish memorizing the poem they are on now (we do 1-2 each month, depending on difficulty), I'm sticking that one on the schedule. Thank you!

    We have one tv in this house. It is in the basement where there is no reception. The Princess picks one video to watch on MWF, and the Pirate picks on TThSa. Other than that, it gets used to play an occasional (less than daily) Wii game. This is down from each child picking one show every day, and unlimited Wii. By next summer, I expect we will turn on the ration box and have everyone down to 5 hours/week of video and Wii total. And my house will be a mess because when they aren't watching tv or reading, they are building forts and pretending to be the last Airbenders... and I will be smiling about it.


  2. Gee, I have a sudden urge to turn off the laptop and go read something. Later.

    Anonymous Patriot

  3. I love this website and check it everyday, sometimes more than once, and hold you and your opinion in high regard. However, I must strongly disagree with your assertion that access to television and video games/electronics have anything to do with literacy. My step-son could use a computer mouse before he could speak full sentences and was a solid gamer before first grade. It was challenging to teach him to read instead of just playing video games, so his father and I had him playing text-heavy video games like Final Fantasy, and it worked very, very well. He is now nearly 14 years old, reads voraciously on a college level, and is just as much a gamer as he was when he was young. I firmly believe video games helped motivate him to read more than he would have, and also helped teach him problem solving skills he wouldn't have experienced otherwise. The video game Rock Band helped him to fall in love with music, and playing music, and motivated him to learn an instrument in school, where he is now 2nd chair in band. This would not have happened without that video game. He started having a little weight issue, so we got him some exercise video games, and guess what? He lost the extra weight and since exercising is fun for him now, he does it regularly. These media technologies can be a very good thing, as long as they are treated as tools and not baby-sitters. Mindless parenting is ultimately the blame for illiteracy in that boy, not the video games. An active, involved parent will have a healthy balanced child, whether there are video games or not.

  4. We were so poor when the first was tiny...who isnt....but she learned FAST that if we were out and about and she asked for a book, I would never say "no."

    We have TV's - none in children's rooms and we got a Wii for the first time this past Christmas as the children's big present. Its family game time on it and it really is a blast for all of us to use together.

    But mostly, I just have scheduled reading time in the afternoons and they read after they are in bed and amazing enough, they personally extend their reading times and usually have a book with them when they head to the car.

    Like with candy, if we dont make it a big deal and something "forbidden" the kids seem to choose a better option and I dont have to be the "bad guy". We just leave the TV off and have books everywhere as well as fruit on the counter to take at will and the candy in the pantry on a taller shelf so it is kind of a hassle to get ;) Besides, who wouldnt rather be outside on a farm than inside? Not my boys!

  5. A few months before I was born, my dad met a stranger who was new to our small Tennessee town.

    From the beginning, Dad was fascinated with this enchanting newcomer, and soon invited him to live with our family. The stranger was quickly accepted and was around to welcome me into the world a few months later.

    As I grew up I never questioned his place in our family. Mom taught me to love the Word of God. Dad taught me to obey it. But the stranger was our storyteller. He could weave the most fascinating tales. Adventures, mysteries and comedies were daily conversations. He could hold our whole family spellbound for hours each evening. He was like a friend to the whole family. He took Dad, Bill and me to our first major league baseball game. He was always encouraging us to see the movies and he even made arrangements to introduce us to several movie stars.

    The stranger was an incessant talker. Dad didn't seem to mind, but sometimes Mom would quietly get up - while the rest of us were enthralled with one of his stories of faraway places - and go to her room read her Bible and pray. I wonder now if she ever prayed that the stranger would leave. You see, my dad ruled our household with certain moral convictions. But this stranger never felt an obligation to honor them. Profanity, for example, was not allowed in our house - not from us, from our friends, or adults. Our longtime visitor, however, used occasional four-letter words that burned my ears and made Dad squirm. To my knowledge the stranger was never confronted. My dad was a teetotaler who didn't permit alcohol in his home - not even for cooking. But the stranger felt he needed exposure and enlightened us to other ways of life. He offered us beer and other alcoholic beverages often. He made cigarettes look tasty, cigars manly, and pipes distinguished. He talked freely (too much too freely) about sex. His comments were sometimes blatant, sometimes suggestive, and generally embarrassing. I know now that my early concepts of the man/woman relationship were influenced by the stranger.

    As I look back, I believe it was the grace of God that the stranger did not influence us more. Time after time he opposed the values of my parents. Yet he was seldom rebuked and never asked to leave. More than thirty years have passed since the stranger moved in with the young family on Morningside Drive. But if I were to walk into my parents' den today, you would still see him sitting over in a corner, waiting for someone to listen to him talk and watch him draw his pictures. His name? We always called him TV.

    (Author unknown)

  6. and this child has a mother who is a schoolteacher...? obviously there is a real problem here and if there is not..there will be!

  7. Sorry Mamma Bear. That is one wierd story. Do you know what? I have no trouble believing it because I have been through hell trying to help an out of control liar. This problem came to me out of the blue. I hope that Providence was involved because if not then I wasted several years of hell trying to help this clown. It was difficult trying to teach a manchild to get over his neuroses and grow up. Bottom line after a huge investment of time, he is married and doing fine in OK.

  8. " My step-son could use a computer mouse before he could speak full sentences and was a solid gamer before first grade. It was challenging to teach him to read instead of just playing video games, so his father and I had him playing text-heavy video games like Final Fantasy, and it worked very, very well. "

    LOL We did the exact same thing! We couldn't get our son interesting in learning to read so we let him play the text-heavy Chrono Cross video game. His father was at his side most of the time making sure he read everything outloud and wasn't skipping things. The next thing I knew the kid was in his bed trying to read the game guide to help him play even better. :)

    But in each of these cases, it comes down to a level of parental involvement and imposed discipline to prevent them from becoming video game junkies.

    I don't let my kids watch a lot of television or play video games (one tv, no cable) but they still have serious problems finding themselves something to do. I've kicked them outside and watched in amazement/horror as they SAT by the door for more than an hour, just waiting to come back in. It's one problem that I never thought I'd have as a parent.

  9. Some sweeping generalisations there Patrice. The twelve year-old might suffer from dyslexia, in which case television would have been a main source of entertainment and information. We had no television when I was young but I was a voracious reader and because of that constantly nagged by my mother that I didn't get enough exercise. Nowadays I observe that youngsters ignore television in favour of laptops and computer games which involve lots of reading. Most children grow up healthy in spite of our interference, not because of it.

  10. Um, are chores now extinct in this society? When kids do chores, they usually don't have time to play games or watch too much TV. Chores might be the solution to so many problems.

  11. Amen, "anonymous" chores are a GREAT time filler. We have had no tv for over 5 years and no cable for almost 2 years. Our daughters, now 15 and 16 watched very little tv even when we did have it. We have no game boys, xboxes or any of those other time wasters. They both have learning disabilities, which was another good reason for them to NOT watch tv. They can now both read well and spend most of their "little bit" of free time reading. They have lots of chores, which they love and even ask to do more or just find something that needs to be done and does it. They have never had a hard time finding something to do before they were able to read. They have great imaginations and play well with each other and with others. Television is one of the worst inventions of our time, after that comes all those fantasy games where people love to live, so they don't have to face reality. I am thankful for children who love to read and entertain themselves. We also have at least one family game night a week.

    Thanks for another great article, Patrice. Keep up the great work.

  12. We have a television and it is on at least once a day. My oldest child learned to read at age 8, my second learned to read at 7, my 3rd child at 6 and my 4th child at 5. My 5th child is 5 years old and is learning to read right now. My 6th is 3yrs old and knows most of her alphabet and can sight read several words for the first McGuffey's reader. They each play video games (Little Big Planet and Animal Crossing are huge to our children). My 20 year old who was the one to read at 8 years reads at least one book a week but sometimes two. My second child reads on average 3 books a week. We are talking about History books with more than 100 pages, not baby books. I make a big deal about reading. I have probably 500 to 600 books. I would have more if we had room in our home. We have a motto in our home. It is "personal responsibility". We are each responsible for self and if you want to be stupid then that means you lose the ability to govern yourself. There is time for play and a time for work and sometimes you can do both at the same time when you read!

    Ouida Gabriel
    P.S. Patrice, I think my daughter would love to converse with your oldest daughter. They seem like they think the same way about several things.

  13. "I've kicked them outside and watched in amazement/horror as they SAT by the door for more than an hour, just waiting to come back in"

    Time to make them pick up the rake, broom, whatever and start cleaning the yard. I have done that when one of my children tried the "sit by the door" routine. When I see attitude (which is what sitting by the door really is) then I remedy it. It also remedies you having to do the raking or sweeping of the patio/yard.

    Ouida Gabriel