When parents don't buy into mainstream culture, what happens to the kids?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  October 9, 2009 06:00 AM

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Dear Barbara:

Like all parents, my husband and I try to do what is right for our child and guide her according to the principles that we strive to live by. Often though, this means going against the mainstream. A couple of examples are we don't let our daughter (she just turned 2) watch TV at all, we don't drink soda/eat candy or junk in our house (less the occasional BBQ gathering and such where we bend a little), we don't buy commercially-related toys (don't get me wrong, there's a Sesame Street doll in our house, but we did not purchase it), and we seem to be in the minority about how/when/whether to vaccinate (i.e. we've decided to forgo flu vaccines). We try to make informed decisions that work for us and we are comfortable with them. But what I am now beginning to struggle more with is how to talk with other parents who have made different choices. I honestly do not care whether Sally's mom lets her eat Doritos all day in front of the television--maybe that works for them and it's none of my business. Yet, when someone asks us when we're going to get our flu shots or asks my daughter to identify a commercial character on a sticker that I know she does not know, I am at a loss as to how to respond. I don't want to sound condescending, yet it seems that no matter what response I give, it seems to bristle people. For example, as to the last question, I would usually just mattter of factly say "She doesn't know who that is" and leave it at that and change the subject. Then I'll be asked "why?" to which I respond "she doesn't watch TV". Maybe I'm being overly sensitive, but I feel like they are taking my answers as some sort of judgement on them. That is not my intent. What I worry about is that over time, my daughter (who is otherwise just like any other two year old) is going to be ostracized by her peers and be at a loss to understand or explain why we do things differently (or worse, say something that sounds judgemental). Advice?

From: Sleepymama, South Shore

Hi Sleeepy Mama,

First of all, you're gonna have to develop thicker skin.

A person who asks "Why?" is not necessarily passing judgment -- she may be genuinely interested. But your answer, "She doesn't watch TV," sounds as if have a chip on your shoulder and are daring the person to challenge you. "She" doesn't watch TV because you have placed a value on not watching TV. Say that instead: "In our family, we don't watch TV." And then when that person asks why -- not as a challenge but because he or she just might be interested in hearing your reasons. There's fodder here, here and here. And here's some for the issue of commercialization of young children.

At this age, children are not going to be penalized or ostracized by their peers. I recommend you start now to share your values with your child by saying, simply, "In our family, we ...." as a preface to whatever you suspect has the potential to be a source of difference later on. That way, you are grounding her in your family values.She may not understand now what that means, but it will have some meaning for her in just a few years. Certainly by age 4, children understand that there are differences in the world, including that families are different.

They understand this not as a value judgment but as a statement of fact in the same way that they understand that one child is tall and another is short. The younger your child is when you start to share the idea that there are differences and differences are OK, the more able she will be to tolerate intolerance of differences when she runs into them.

I'm not suggesting she will be inoculated against the value judgment of peers; that would be foolish thinking on my part. But I do believe it will help. Here's a true story, told to me by a grandmother at the end of a talk I had given on the impact of media on children:

The woman's daughter was a single mom who did not own a TV because she believed that viewing adversely affected children's imagination. Her son, then 12, had never complained or expressed unhappiness to his mother about not being able to watch what all his friends watched. But the grandmother, who spent a lot of time with him, knew that "South Park" was very popular among his friends and intuited that he was, indeed, out of it for not being able to even talk about the show. For his birthday, she gave him a South Park t-shirt. When he opened the box, he began to cry. He told her, "This is the best present I've ever had."

At first, the mother was angry. But she quickly realized that this t-shirt was social currency for her son. He wasn't asking to watch the show; he accepted his family's values. But he wanted desperately to belong to his peer group. This simple, inexpensive t-shirt was his ticket in.

I guess I offer that as a cautionary tale: Children do need to be aware and feel part of the culture in which their peers partake. It is their currency. I'm not suggesting that's true for a 2-year-old. But 4 or 5? Probably. And, as this story conveys, there are ways to do it without violating your heartfelt values.

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26 comments so far...
  1. That is a great story about the grandmother and the T-shirt. It is great to try to raise your children in a home without sweets and TV, but as they got older and realize that they are very different from their peers it will make it a lot harder for them to fit in. And when the child turns 7 or 8 and realizes that they can watch TV and eat candy at a friend's house, that's where they'll want to spend most of their free time. And their friends will be in no hurry to spend time at your house.

    Posted by Meg C. October 9, 09 09:36 AM
  1. This sort of thing hits close to home for me. We don't own a TV. We do watch DVDs using the computer sometimes, but we don't have a TV or cable. We also do not own a video game system, although our kids occasionally play simulator type games on the computer. If I had a dime for every time someone told me how warped and ostracized my kids were going to be because they were (gasp) different from their peers, I could retire.

    You know what? My kids (ages 9 and 7) are different. But they are not pariahs. They have friends, and their friends come over to our house, and they like it. I'm the mom who will let them have a lego battle ranging over 3 rooms. I'll let them do a messy experiment involving mud in the back yard and I don't freak out if they get a footprint on the kitchen floor. I'll let them build some enormous structure out of scrapwood or cardboard in the basement and not fret about 'neatness' - it can get cleaned up later. Sure, my kids like going over to their friend who has the game cube. But that friend enjoys coming over here as well. None of the kids who come over even notice the lack of TV - it never comes up in conversation.

    Our family eats vegetarian. My kids are adopted and of a different race than their parents. We like history, cub scouting, and robots rather than sports. We'd rather chill in front of a black and white Mickey Rooney film on a rainy Sunday afternoon than watch SpongeBob. We're different - and we're proud of it. Rather than obsessing over 'fitting in', how about teaching some tolerance?

    I try to make sure my kids have some common ground with their friends. They like Star Wars, Bakugan, and trying to injure themselves on their bikes like all the other boys. But you don't have to be a xerox copy of every other kid to 'fit in'.

    Posted by BMS October 9, 09 10:08 AM
  1. I respect family decisions not to have TV, or not to allow certain foods, and I would hope that friends' families would respect that and not try to undermine it.

    I'm not sure I agree, though, about answering questions with "In our family..." To me, this sounds much more judgmental than a simple "she doesn't watch television." There is an implied, "X may be good enough for your little urchins, but..."

    If "she doesn't watch television" doesn't satisfy the questioner, there are many options for follow-up -- "she simply doesn't seem interested," "she really prefers playing with blocks," "we haven't found programming that suits our values," "I'm concerned about its effect on attention and creativity," "Our TV broke and no one noticed, so why replace it," and so on.

    Posted by Barack Like Me October 9, 09 10:51 AM
  1. As a kid, I wasn't permitted to watch a lot of shows that my friends were allowed to watch. I always felt very self-conscious when they would talk about this show or that one, because I seemed to be the only one without a clue. I'll NEVER forget the day in music class when the teacher played snippets of various TV theme songs and we were supposed to yell them out when we knew them. I didn't know a single one, and felt awful. I swore I'd never make my kids as isolated as I was from pop culture.

    Having said that, there are a lot of things my kids don't get to see at home, because we don't have cable. They see the shows at friends' houses, and when we travel. There are a very few things that are popular with some of their peers that I don't approve of, and I just tell them that in our family, that's not something for kids of their age. Most of the popular characters are available in books - even if you don't want to purchase them, why not borrow them from the library? You can give her exposure to characters that you approve of (I have to say, Dora the Explorer is pretty great) in a way that is more meaningful than watching a show.

    Posted by akmom October 9, 09 11:28 AM
  1. I agree with Barack - prefacing statements by "In our family, we don't..." sounds way more judgmental and value-comparing than stating the simple fact that your daughter doesn't watch television. To the mom who wrote in: clearly, you are self-conscious about these choices, and that's what people are picking up on. Who cares what they think? Your daughter is 2 - there is not a lot of peer pressure going on now, so if you are freaking out now, you have a long road ahead of you. Be confident that you are making the right choices for your family, and your daughter will be fine.

    Posted by DeepBreath October 9, 09 11:52 AM
  1. Thank you for including the anecdote about the T shirt. I identify so deeply with that child, having been raised by parents who forbid access to all of the normal pop culture things. It's important to acknowledge that these arbitrary parental choices can have profoundly negative, isolating effect on their children. Once you're the socially isolated child, it's a very difficult barrier to overcome. Thank goodness that grandmother had some common sense and empathy, and the writer of this article understood the importance of recognizing that these "protective" mechanisms can be damaging un unexpected ways.

    Posted by Boston1 October 9, 09 01:20 PM
  1. Bravo to you, sleepymama! Given how many negative things come out of mainstream culture (obesity from junk food, lack of creativity from too much TV, and autism from vaccines laced with neurotoxins), you are a beacon of hope for other parents.

    Posted by scott October 9, 09 01:35 PM
  1. I spent years worrying about this sort of thing, so I feel your pain. Now I homeschool my kids and if I thought not having a TV was bad...Anyway, unless someone asks you directly to name the commercial character on the sticker, you don't have to chime in about whether or not your daughter knows the character. My children are quirky, yes. They know more about Buster Keaton than Hannah Montana, and if they were in school they'd probably be laughed at. But who knows? They are also confident and have genuine interests they don't feel the need to defend or hide. True, I am keeping them out of the mainstream and maybe "reality", but if I listened to all the ways people think I am ruining their lives I would probably believe they'd be better off if I gave them up for adoption. Once I got my own ego out of the way and recognized that others' attacks/judgemental comments were coming out of their own egos, I could live in peace.

    Posted by kewm October 9, 09 01:40 PM
  1. mom is waaaaaay too self conscious about this. i agree - get a thicker skin. good grief. maybe someone is just asking to hear your opinion on your choice, not to judge it.
    and to think your child will be a social outcast in the toddler years it just silly.
    i also agree not to say 'in our family...' that sounds too judgemental.
    I guess i'm a firm believer in 'everything in moderation'. there are some shows that are and can be beneficial to children.

    Posted by kiki October 9, 09 01:45 PM
  1. Barbara, I think you are right on about this. Although I agree whole heartedly with the reasons that cause many parents to forego mass media and pop culture, I also think that too often parents underestimate the value and importance of the "social currency" that Barbara refers to here.

    One great example of this is BMS, who claimed that "But you don't have to be a xerox copy of every other kid to 'fit in'". In theory, BMS, this is true. You're talking about self-confidence and individuality, two very valuable characteristics for kids and adults alike. But if a child's earliest recollection of social interaction is one of loneliness, estrangement, and the sense that he/she doesn't belong in her peer group, then it will be a life-long challenge for that child to ever reach the sense of confidence that we hope for in our kids.

    Ultimately, I believe that parents need to work hard at maintaining a balance between healthy exposure and societal acclimation. We can adopt our own healthy lifestyles in an unhealthy world, but at the end of the day, its a world we still have to live in. We would be wise to teach our children to adapt well to it.


    Posted by Sarah B October 9, 09 02:34 PM
  1. But see, my kids are not lonely and estranged. That's my point. My kids have a peer group. They even have other friends who (gasp) don't have cable either! Or whose parents are even more restrictive than me when it comes to DVDs. Somehow, they have managed to build friendships based on interests other than TV characters. When other kids have asked "Why don't you have a TV?" my kids just shrug - it's no big deal. You might as well ask them "Why don't you have a pet elephant?" We just don't.

    Posted by BMS October 9, 09 03:00 PM
  1. The story about the T-shirt is hysterical - I'll bet if that grandmother actually sat down and watched South Park herself she would be horrified that ANY 12 year old would be watching that show. (www.ew.com/ew/gallery/0,,20302134_20309662,00.html) We are a family that limits TV watching and junk food and we do not have game systems of any kind but there are lots of things I find myself more permissible about than other parents. What I've learned is that there will always be families that are more lenient and more strict than yours about these types of things. My kids complain about not being able to watch more TV like some friends but they also had a friend whose mom wouldn't let him come to a sleepover party because she didn't approve of the movie we were going to watch. With a two year old you are doing all the right things. If people are questioning your decisions I have a feeling that the way you present yourself could be coming off as abrasive or judgmental.

    Posted by Cordelia October 9, 09 03:07 PM
  1. Just wanted to add - it's one of those things that if the adult makes a big deal of it, the kids will. They will either get a 'we're better than you' superiority thing going, or they will get a 'something must be wrong with me if mom is so worried about it' vibe. Be matter of fact: "We do it this way because it works for us. Other people do it differently, and that's ok too."

    My kids are confident, engaging, and secure, because my husband and I don't obsess over "Ohmygod. Do they have enough friends? Are they popular? Are they being shunned? Are they happy enough?" and so on. If they express a problem, we deal with the problem, but we don't go borrowing trouble. So far, there have been no problems that we have seen related to our lack of engagement in the media culture. When our kids have been curious ("Who is spiderman anyway?" when they were 4) we found a website, satisfied their curiosity, and moved on. They now understood what their friends were playing, and decided they still didn't care, and wanted to play rocket on the playground instead. And eventually, a bunch of the other kids got tired of always playing spiderman and joined them.

    Posted by BMS October 9, 09 03:07 PM
  1. I would just like to add that this sort of thing happens to even we tv-watching families. So I don't get why it's a big deal. My kids watch TV, but they don't know about Star Wars, they don't know about Spider Man, they don't know the Sponge Bob song, they don't know about...the list could go on and on (and on and on).

    Maybe we are more of a middle ground - we have tv and cable and we do let them watch on the weekends (and my toddler does watch Sesame Street while I'm in the shower and blow drying my hair - I know there are other ways around this, but it's my choice and I'm okay with it). But we limit their screen time to well under the recommended amount and we are very choosy about their shows. It's funny how I never hear anyone say anything about PBS' "Word World" or "Arthur," (and we read more Arthur than we watch him). There is no way to keep up with it all, with every new cultural fad at every age for your kids. I've never felt ostracized or even questioned for what we choose (and choose not) to watch and expose them to. We make good choices for us, and that's all that matters.

    Posted by RH October 9, 09 03:59 PM
  1. Okay, sleepymama, if you sound judgmental, it's because you are judgmental and trying not to be that way. But honestly, I think you know you're right--junk food and TV shouldn't be offered to young children. Period. This is where the conflict lies. Parents who do offer these things to their kids know what you know, that this stuff isn't good for them, but have decided to do it anyway. And there's not a parent on earth, including you, who hasn't made some choice like that. No one does what is right or good for themselves and their families 24/7. So maybe the next time you're in an awkward situation, rather than trying to explain your choices without sounding judgmental, just say something like, "Yeah, I know keeping them away from TV is a losing battle. Wish us luck!"

    This lets the other person know that you think she's an intelligent person, not a deliquent parent, and that you are acknowledging that she has chosen different battles

    Posted by Ashley October 9, 09 04:27 PM
  1. This reminds me of one slow afternoon when I was a medical fellow at an Ivy institution. A group of 6 young doctors, residents and fellows, were reminiscing about how much TV we watched as kids. It ranged from one woman who never had a TV in her house growing up to a very outstanding physician who averaged 4hrs/day! Most of us watched only a moderate amount of TV (approx 1 hr/day) as kids. We all turned out to be fine people.
    So make sure your kids learn, finish their homework, and show up on time. Then, relax and enjoy them.

    Posted by serenescene October 9, 09 08:46 PM
  1. My 16 month old has absolutely zero interest in TV. We didn't let our older one watch until almost 3 - but he has always been very interested - he also loves listening to CD stories, books (could sit for hours and listen even as a toddler), etc., so I think he likes the story factor.

    Either way, the GRANDPARENTS (my parents), insist on letting my 5 year old son watch and play many shooting type shows (clone wars, hulk, etc) and have always let him watch TV when he is there. I'm pretty sure my 16 month old girl will get hooked on some princess-type hannah-montana cartoon during her next visit. I won't even begin with the McDonald's visits (we don't go there). Somehow, I don't think the candy is that bad. Anyone else have similar issues....? They also do alot of one on one things with the kids - cooking, imaginary play, bike-riding, hiking, swimming - so I think the relationship is excellent and wouldn't want to go the route of not seeing them anymore....Anyway, my point is that it is not that big of a deal that a 2 year old is not watching TV!

    Posted by jemifa October 9, 09 10:06 PM
  1. Hey, I'm the one getting pariah'd by one particular family for not letting my daughter chew gum. The grown-ups told me my daughter would be a pariah for that. Turns out - not! (I'm also trying to lose weight, and the mom is trying to push the joys of Twinkies on me, which I hated even when I was svelte.)

    But mine is a 'tween - social pressures abound. Don't worry about your toddler, but do remember there will be some peer pressure as she grows up. Mine had a friend with very limited screen time - 1 hour/day, and that included both TV and Internet. The girl is healthy and wholesome.

    IMHO, you do sound judgmental, but that could be just the way some e-posts come across. Quite possibly you're very gentle with the other parents. Just make sure there are other things that will let your daughter feel comfortable with her peer groups as she grows up.

    Heck, I'm taking a foreign language nobody uses anymore, and acquaintances and strangers are always telling me how sorry they feel for me. As a mid-life woman, I have a thin skin about it. Not sure why, though. For all I know it could be the key to keep dementia at bay ;)

    The fact is, people are judgmental; you just need to balance that with allowing your daughter to fit in socially, and your own family values. In the town in which I grew up, no TV was a positive amongst other families. In the city where I currently reside, it's a negative. Go figure. I like stories, and so does my child. TV can be a wonderful vehicle for theatre, and a place to learn about the natural world, which is what mine and I watch - I like cultural shows like Mad Me, she likes Animal Planet.

    Posted by reindeergirl October 10, 09 09:13 AM
  1. No matter how hard you try, your kid is going to pick up the culture. You can't avoid it. My four year old can identify cartoon characters, products, foods and so on that have never been in our home or that we even talk about. For example, she was able to name all the Disney princesses without ever seeing a Disney movie. She asked for a Nintendo DS out of the blue, she didn't even know what it was -- she just knew other kids had one.

    It sounds like you need to relax. Control things where you can (for example, in your home), and be there to answer your child's questions when they come out. You might want to even (gasp) consider exposing your kid to mainstream media and talking/educating them. Television, video games, snack foods, and soda aren't inherently good or evil -- they just ARE. If your kid watches an episode of Thomas three times a week, it doesn't make you a bad parent or mean that the kid's brain is going to mush. Ditto if they have some potato chips occasionally or have a soda.

    Maybe we should be teaching our kids moderation and control instead of just denying things? In my experience, outright denial leads right to a binge when the denial is lifted.

    People need to relax.

    Posted by K October 10, 09 07:30 PM
  1. K, I find your post a little odd -- it seems to have the tone of, "I let my kid have small amounts of TV/candy/video games, and therefore if you don't you are uptight." I'm hoping that's not how you meant it! I guess it is the "relax" comment.
    Parenting is about choices -- choosing the rules for the family. It is a deliberate choice to let your child watch TV, or to limit or not limit the types and numbers of shows. The choices families make reflect their needs and values. So while for you there is nothing wrong with the things you list, in moderation, in other families it simply may not fit in with the family. It is not about denial or control or inability to relax, but about values and, frankly, our own unique family routines.

    For example, we have a TV but we do not watch TV shows. We watch movies together on weekends. Why? I'm not a fan of what's out there, in general, and also, we have a small place. If one person watches a thing, we all have to watch a thing, and it intrudes on what everyone is doing. Rarely do we want the TV to take over the family time like that. So we don't watch. We do other things together. Rearranging our whole family routine just for the sake of exposing my kids to something on TV would be bizarre to me. My kids really don't care. I am not trying to shield them from pop culture: I am simply trying have our family time be enjoyable for us. And it works -- even with one boy now a teen, and the other a tween. They really don't care, because, again, it is not about denial and control but simply about what works for us.

    Posted by jlen October 10, 09 10:18 PM
  1. I believe your choices for your family are just that...your choices. Having said that, I think hard steadfast rules can be as stressful as some of the junk that is on TV. Having raised a boy now 18 and a girl now 20, I look to what I did with them that worked, for our now adopted 3 yr old. I keep coming back to choices. These kids do have to live in this world and be able to make healthy decisions. Communication is key. You teach them how to read, play soccer, swim, speak a second language, ride a bike, play an instrument, so teaching them how to make good food choices, dress appropriately, watch TV, use the computer, make good friends and respect those around them should be easy.
    My 20 year old daughter hummed the tune to Little Mermaid when she was 2 years old and she fell in love with music. She has been playing the piano for 15 years and taught piano at a local music store while in high school for 3 years to all ages 5-35 yrs old. Now at college, she is a global studies major and when coming home for a break, kisses me in the kitchen and goes to the piano...I love it. I don't fully credit Ariel for the inspiration, but it didn' hurt.
    My 18 year old son has Asperger's Syndrome. He loves all forms of media. A bit of a challenge getting him away from the TV when he was younger, but his challenges in life were bigger than The Rug Rats. TV and the computer acually helped him with social skills at school. It can't be denied. Having said that he is his own advocate for what is appropriate and what wasn't. He was not afraid to tell his friends that South Park...even at 18 years old is not an appropriate show. He commutes to a local college and drives...who knew? His favorite place in the world besides home?...Barnes and Noble. He loves the classical music played while he reads.
    Now the 3 year old, I will say, we watch Dora some days when we are home and he's not in school. One day he picked something up for me and I said "Gracias"...he responded after a thoughtful moment... "de nada." Life's good...let it be.

    Posted by B October 11, 09 01:47 AM
  1. K is exactly right. "1.No matter how hard you try, your kid is going to pick up the culture. You can't avoid it." I taught in a very strict religious day school. The children were forbidden at home from TV and radio. Yet, they all knew Britney Spears and all those people. Some were forbidden from having indoor pets ("don't s*it where you eat"), yet they loved small animals and begged their parents for them.

    I think it's a form of abuse to cut off your children from the popular culture, unless you are in a religious sect. Then again, I guess that applies to me, too, not allowing my child gum and friend Twinkies.

    Posted by reindeergirl October 11, 09 10:01 AM
  1. We don't have a TV or video games. My husband is a gluten-free vegetarian, one of my daughters chooses to eat meat and the other doesn't. My kids don't go to school. When TV, homeschooling, or any other topic like that comes up, I just say, "We don't have a TV" or "We homeschool." If someone questions me, I just say, "It works for our family." While my husband and I made many of these choices based on our personal values, we don't have the attitude that others are wrong for making different choices. Our kids know that different families do things differently, and that diversity is part of what makes life so rich.

    Posted by m.e. October 12, 09 09:09 AM
  1. Parents need to stop worrying about what other people think and just do what is best for their own family.
    The way to respond to parents who are questioning your style:

    "oh, we just dont watch a lot of tv. Why? We are too busy playing with blocks and puzzles at this stage right now."
    "oh, we dont eat too much candy. Why? We have a history of sugar and teeth issues so we are minimizing those future issues."
    "oh, yes I've heard of Janie and Jack clothes. We dont typically buy from there but I love their quality."
    "Your 3 year old loves Slim Jims? How cute! Why dont I give Johnny a piece? Well, he just doesn't eat that yet."
    "Do you want some coolaid for your little peanut?" Oh no thanks, she'll have water, she loves water, but thanks for asking."

    Posted by MomOf1 October 12, 09 09:29 AM
  1. I'm with Barack on this one too. It sounds terribly condescending to say, "in our family, we don't..." and as though it's passing judgment.

    Recently, we attended a local church fair with our (then) 17-month old daughter. She does watch TV, is a total Elmo fangirl and loves Curious George. But that's about the extent of it.

    So, when our landlord's 6-year old granddaughter (unbeknownst to us) decided she wanted to win a prize for our daughter, her mother steered her toward a Dora doll (also unbeknownst to us) as she thought that might really be the only thing our child knew. Well, Dora and Blues Clues and a lot of the other "for toddlers" aren't shows that we let her watch.

    But no one took offense that she didn't know who Dora was. She loved it all the same and we thought it was such a sweet gesture on the part of the 6 year old.

    Most people understand that everyone's family is different.

    Posted by phe October 13, 09 07:43 AM
  1. Um, in your story there, maybe it's a good thing that the mom doesn't watch TV, because if she did then she would know that "South Park" is rated "TV-MA" and is completely inappropriate for a 12-year-old. I'm betting both the grandmother and you, Barbara, didn't know this either.

    Posted by geocool October 13, 09 11:08 AM
 
26 comments so far...
  1. That is a great story about the grandmother and the T-shirt. It is great to try to raise your children in a home without sweets and TV, but as they got older and realize that they are very different from their peers it will make it a lot harder for them to fit in. And when the child turns 7 or 8 and realizes that they can watch TV and eat candy at a friend's house, that's where they'll want to spend most of their free time. And their friends will be in no hurry to spend time at your house.

    Posted by Meg C. October 9, 09 09:36 AM
  1. This sort of thing hits close to home for me. We don't own a TV. We do watch DVDs using the computer sometimes, but we don't have a TV or cable. We also do not own a video game system, although our kids occasionally play simulator type games on the computer. If I had a dime for every time someone told me how warped and ostracized my kids were going to be because they were (gasp) different from their peers, I could retire.

    You know what? My kids (ages 9 and 7) are different. But they are not pariahs. They have friends, and their friends come over to our house, and they like it. I'm the mom who will let them have a lego battle ranging over 3 rooms. I'll let them do a messy experiment involving mud in the back yard and I don't freak out if they get a footprint on the kitchen floor. I'll let them build some enormous structure out of scrapwood or cardboard in the basement and not fret about 'neatness' - it can get cleaned up later. Sure, my kids like going over to their friend who has the game cube. But that friend enjoys coming over here as well. None of the kids who come over even notice the lack of TV - it never comes up in conversation.

    Our family eats vegetarian. My kids are adopted and of a different race than their parents. We like history, cub scouting, and robots rather than sports. We'd rather chill in front of a black and white Mickey Rooney film on a rainy Sunday afternoon than watch SpongeBob. We're different - and we're proud of it. Rather than obsessing over 'fitting in', how about teaching some tolerance?

    I try to make sure my kids have some common ground with their friends. They like Star Wars, Bakugan, and trying to injure themselves on their bikes like all the other boys. But you don't have to be a xerox copy of every other kid to 'fit in'.

    Posted by BMS October 9, 09 10:08 AM
  1. I respect family decisions not to have TV, or not to allow certain foods, and I would hope that friends' families would respect that and not try to undermine it.

    I'm not sure I agree, though, about answering questions with "In our family..." To me, this sounds much more judgmental than a simple "she doesn't watch television." There is an implied, "X may be good enough for your little urchins, but..."

    If "she doesn't watch television" doesn't satisfy the questioner, there are many options for follow-up -- "she simply doesn't seem interested," "she really prefers playing with blocks," "we haven't found programming that suits our values," "I'm concerned about its effect on attention and creativity," "Our TV broke and no one noticed, so why replace it," and so on.

    Posted by Barack Like Me October 9, 09 10:51 AM
  1. As a kid, I wasn't permitted to watch a lot of shows that my friends were allowed to watch. I always felt very self-conscious when they would talk about this show or that one, because I seemed to be the only one without a clue. I'll NEVER forget the day in music class when the teacher played snippets of various TV theme songs and we were supposed to yell them out when we knew them. I didn't know a single one, and felt awful. I swore I'd never make my kids as isolated as I was from pop culture.

    Having said that, there are a lot of things my kids don't get to see at home, because we don't have cable. They see the shows at friends' houses, and when we travel. There are a very few things that are popular with some of their peers that I don't approve of, and I just tell them that in our family, that's not something for kids of their age. Most of the popular characters are available in books - even if you don't want to purchase them, why not borrow them from the library? You can give her exposure to characters that you approve of (I have to say, Dora the Explorer is pretty great) in a way that is more meaningful than watching a show.

    Posted by akmom October 9, 09 11:28 AM
  1. I agree with Barack - prefacing statements by "In our family, we don't..." sounds way more judgmental and value-comparing than stating the simple fact that your daughter doesn't watch television. To the mom who wrote in: clearly, you are self-conscious about these choices, and that's what people are picking up on. Who cares what they think? Your daughter is 2 - there is not a lot of peer pressure going on now, so if you are freaking out now, you have a long road ahead of you. Be confident that you are making the right choices for your family, and your daughter will be fine.

    Posted by DeepBreath October 9, 09 11:52 AM
  1. Thank you for including the anecdote about the T shirt. I identify so deeply with that child, having been raised by parents who forbid access to all of the normal pop culture things. It's important to acknowledge that these arbitrary parental choices can have profoundly negative, isolating effect on their children. Once you're the socially isolated child, it's a very difficult barrier to overcome. Thank goodness that grandmother had some common sense and empathy, and the writer of this article understood the importance of recognizing that these "protective" mechanisms can be damaging un unexpected ways.

    Posted by Boston1 October 9, 09 01:20 PM
  1. Bravo to you, sleepymama! Given how many negative things come out of mainstream culture (obesity from junk food, lack of creativity from too much TV, and autism from vaccines laced with neurotoxins), you are a beacon of hope for other parents.

    Posted by scott October 9, 09 01:35 PM
  1. I spent years worrying about this sort of thing, so I feel your pain. Now I homeschool my kids and if I thought not having a TV was bad...Anyway, unless someone asks you directly to name the commercial character on the sticker, you don't have to chime in about whether or not your daughter knows the character. My children are quirky, yes. They know more about Buster Keaton than Hannah Montana, and if they were in school they'd probably be laughed at. But who knows? They are also confident and have genuine interests they don't feel the need to defend or hide. True, I am keeping them out of the mainstream and maybe "reality", but if I listened to all the ways people think I am ruining their lives I would probably believe they'd be better off if I gave them up for adoption. Once I got my own ego out of the way and recognized that others' attacks/judgemental comments were coming out of their own egos, I could live in peace.

    Posted by kewm October 9, 09 01:40 PM
  1. mom is waaaaaay too self conscious about this. i agree - get a thicker skin. good grief. maybe someone is just asking to hear your opinion on your choice, not to judge it.
    and to think your child will be a social outcast in the toddler years it just silly.
    i also agree not to say 'in our family...' that sounds too judgemental.
    I guess i'm a firm believer in 'everything in moderation'. there are some shows that are and can be beneficial to children.

    Posted by kiki October 9, 09 01:45 PM
  1. Barbara, I think you are right on about this. Although I agree whole heartedly with the reasons that cause many parents to forego mass media and pop culture, I also think that too often parents underestimate the value and importance of the "social currency" that Barbara refers to here.

    One great example of this is BMS, who claimed that "But you don't have to be a xerox copy of every other kid to 'fit in'". In theory, BMS, this is true. You're talking about self-confidence and individuality, two very valuable characteristics for kids and adults alike. But if a child's earliest recollection of social interaction is one of loneliness, estrangement, and the sense that he/she doesn't belong in her peer group, then it will be a life-long challenge for that child to ever reach the sense of confidence that we hope for in our kids.

    Ultimately, I believe that parents need to work hard at maintaining a balance between healthy exposure and societal acclimation. We can adopt our own healthy lifestyles in an unhealthy world, but at the end of the day, its a world we still have to live in. We would be wise to teach our children to adapt well to it.


    Posted by Sarah B October 9, 09 02:34 PM
  1. But see, my kids are not lonely and estranged. That's my point. My kids have a peer group. They even have other friends who (gasp) don't have cable either! Or whose parents are even more restrictive than me when it comes to DVDs. Somehow, they have managed to build friendships based on interests other than TV characters. When other kids have asked "Why don't you have a TV?" my kids just shrug - it's no big deal. You might as well ask them "Why don't you have a pet elephant?" We just don't.

    Posted by BMS October 9, 09 03:00 PM
  1. The story about the T-shirt is hysterical - I'll bet if that grandmother actually sat down and watched South Park herself she would be horrified that ANY 12 year old would be watching that show. (www.ew.com/ew/gallery/0,,20302134_20309662,00.html) We are a family that limits TV watching and junk food and we do not have game systems of any kind but there are lots of things I find myself more permissible about than other parents. What I've learned is that there will always be families that are more lenient and more strict than yours about these types of things. My kids complain about not being able to watch more TV like some friends but they also had a friend whose mom wouldn't let him come to a sleepover party because she didn't approve of the movie we were going to watch. With a two year old you are doing all the right things. If people are questioning your decisions I have a feeling that the way you present yourself could be coming off as abrasive or judgmental.

    Posted by Cordelia October 9, 09 03:07 PM
  1. Just wanted to add - it's one of those things that if the adult makes a big deal of it, the kids will. They will either get a 'we're better than you' superiority thing going, or they will get a 'something must be wrong with me if mom is so worried about it' vibe. Be matter of fact: "We do it this way because it works for us. Other people do it differently, and that's ok too."

    My kids are confident, engaging, and secure, because my husband and I don't obsess over "Ohmygod. Do they have enough friends? Are they popular? Are they being shunned? Are they happy enough?" and so on. If they express a problem, we deal with the problem, but we don't go borrowing trouble. So far, there have been no problems that we have seen related to our lack of engagement in the media culture. When our kids have been curious ("Who is spiderman anyway?" when they were 4) we found a website, satisfied their curiosity, and moved on. They now understood what their friends were playing, and decided they still didn't care, and wanted to play rocket on the playground instead. And eventually, a bunch of the other kids got tired of always playing spiderman and joined them.

    Posted by BMS October 9, 09 03:07 PM
  1. I would just like to add that this sort of thing happens to even we tv-watching families. So I don't get why it's a big deal. My kids watch TV, but they don't know about Star Wars, they don't know about Spider Man, they don't know the Sponge Bob song, they don't know about...the list could go on and on (and on and on).

    Maybe we are more of a middle ground - we have tv and cable and we do let them watch on the weekends (and my toddler does watch Sesame Street while I'm in the shower and blow drying my hair - I know there are other ways around this, but it's my choice and I'm okay with it). But we limit their screen time to well under the recommended amount and we are very choosy about their shows. It's funny how I never hear anyone say anything about PBS' "Word World" or "Arthur," (and we read more Arthur than we watch him). There is no way to keep up with it all, with every new cultural fad at every age for your kids. I've never felt ostracized or even questioned for what we choose (and choose not) to watch and expose them to. We make good choices for us, and that's all that matters.

    Posted by RH October 9, 09 03:59 PM
  1. Okay, sleepymama, if you sound judgmental, it's because you are judgmental and trying not to be that way. But honestly, I think you know you're right--junk food and TV shouldn't be offered to young children. Period. This is where the conflict lies. Parents who do offer these things to their kids know what you know, that this stuff isn't good for them, but have decided to do it anyway. And there's not a parent on earth, including you, who hasn't made some choice like that. No one does what is right or good for themselves and their families 24/7. So maybe the next time you're in an awkward situation, rather than trying to explain your choices without sounding judgmental, just say something like, "Yeah, I know keeping them away from TV is a losing battle. Wish us luck!"

    This lets the other person know that you think she's an intelligent person, not a deliquent parent, and that you are acknowledging that she has chosen different battles

    Posted by Ashley October 9, 09 04:27 PM
  1. This reminds me of one slow afternoon when I was a medical fellow at an Ivy institution. A group of 6 young doctors, residents and fellows, were reminiscing about how much TV we watched as kids. It ranged from one woman who never had a TV in her house growing up to a very outstanding physician who averaged 4hrs/day! Most of us watched only a moderate amount of TV (approx 1 hr/day) as kids. We all turned out to be fine people.
    So make sure your kids learn, finish their homework, and show up on time. Then, relax and enjoy them.

    Posted by serenescene October 9, 09 08:46 PM
  1. My 16 month old has absolutely zero interest in TV. We didn't let our older one watch until almost 3 - but he has always been very interested - he also loves listening to CD stories, books (could sit for hours and listen even as a toddler), etc., so I think he likes the story factor.

    Either way, the GRANDPARENTS (my parents), insist on letting my 5 year old son watch and play many shooting type shows (clone wars, hulk, etc) and have always let him watch TV when he is there. I'm pretty sure my 16 month old girl will get hooked on some princess-type hannah-montana cartoon during her next visit. I won't even begin with the McDonald's visits (we don't go there). Somehow, I don't think the candy is that bad. Anyone else have similar issues....? They also do alot of one on one things with the kids - cooking, imaginary play, bike-riding, hiking, swimming - so I think the relationship is excellent and wouldn't want to go the route of not seeing them anymore....Anyway, my point is that it is not that big of a deal that a 2 year old is not watching TV!

    Posted by jemifa October 9, 09 10:06 PM
  1. Hey, I'm the one getting pariah'd by one particular family for not letting my daughter chew gum. The grown-ups told me my daughter would be a pariah for that. Turns out - not! (I'm also trying to lose weight, and the mom is trying to push the joys of Twinkies on me, which I hated even when I was svelte.)

    But mine is a 'tween - social pressures abound. Don't worry about your toddler, but do remember there will be some peer pressure as she grows up. Mine had a friend with very limited screen time - 1 hour/day, and that included both TV and Internet. The girl is healthy and wholesome.

    IMHO, you do sound judgmental, but that could be just the way some e-posts come across. Quite possibly you're very gentle with the other parents. Just make sure there are other things that will let your daughter feel comfortable with her peer groups as she grows up.

    Heck, I'm taking a foreign language nobody uses anymore, and acquaintances and strangers are always telling me how sorry they feel for me. As a mid-life woman, I have a thin skin about it. Not sure why, though. For all I know it could be the key to keep dementia at bay ;)

    The fact is, people are judgmental; you just need to balance that with allowing your daughter to fit in socially, and your own family values. In the town in which I grew up, no TV was a positive amongst other families. In the city where I currently reside, it's a negative. Go figure. I like stories, and so does my child. TV can be a wonderful vehicle for theatre, and a place to learn about the natural world, which is what mine and I watch - I like cultural shows like Mad Me, she likes Animal Planet.

    Posted by reindeergirl October 10, 09 09:13 AM
  1. No matter how hard you try, your kid is going to pick up the culture. You can't avoid it. My four year old can identify cartoon characters, products, foods and so on that have never been in our home or that we even talk about. For example, she was able to name all the Disney princesses without ever seeing a Disney movie. She asked for a Nintendo DS out of the blue, she didn't even know what it was -- she just knew other kids had one.

    It sounds like you need to relax. Control things where you can (for example, in your home), and be there to answer your child's questions when they come out. You might want to even (gasp) consider exposing your kid to mainstream media and talking/educating them. Television, video games, snack foods, and soda aren't inherently good or evil -- they just ARE. If your kid watches an episode of Thomas three times a week, it doesn't make you a bad parent or mean that the kid's brain is going to mush. Ditto if they have some potato chips occasionally or have a soda.

    Maybe we should be teaching our kids moderation and control instead of just denying things? In my experience, outright denial leads right to a binge when the denial is lifted.

    People need to relax.

    Posted by K October 10, 09 07:30 PM
  1. K, I find your post a little odd -- it seems to have the tone of, "I let my kid have small amounts of TV/candy/video games, and therefore if you don't you are uptight." I'm hoping that's not how you meant it! I guess it is the "relax" comment.
    Parenting is about choices -- choosing the rules for the family. It is a deliberate choice to let your child watch TV, or to limit or not limit the types and numbers of shows. The choices families make reflect their needs and values. So while for you there is nothing wrong with the things you list, in moderation, in other families it simply may not fit in with the family. It is not about denial or control or inability to relax, but about values and, frankly, our own unique family routines.

    For example, we have a TV but we do not watch TV shows. We watch movies together on weekends. Why? I'm not a fan of what's out there, in general, and also, we have a small place. If one person watches a thing, we all have to watch a thing, and it intrudes on what everyone is doing. Rarely do we want the TV to take over the family time like that. So we don't watch. We do other things together. Rearranging our whole family routine just for the sake of exposing my kids to something on TV would be bizarre to me. My kids really don't care. I am not trying to shield them from pop culture: I am simply trying have our family time be enjoyable for us. And it works -- even with one boy now a teen, and the other a tween. They really don't care, because, again, it is not about denial and control but simply about what works for us.

    Posted by jlen October 10, 09 10:18 PM
  1. I believe your choices for your family are just that...your choices. Having said that, I think hard steadfast rules can be as stressful as some of the junk that is on TV. Having raised a boy now 18 and a girl now 20, I look to what I did with them that worked, for our now adopted 3 yr old. I keep coming back to choices. These kids do have to live in this world and be able to make healthy decisions. Communication is key. You teach them how to read, play soccer, swim, speak a second language, ride a bike, play an instrument, so teaching them how to make good food choices, dress appropriately, watch TV, use the computer, make good friends and respect those around them should be easy.
    My 20 year old daughter hummed the tune to Little Mermaid when she was 2 years old and she fell in love with music. She has been playing the piano for 15 years and taught piano at a local music store while in high school for 3 years to all ages 5-35 yrs old. Now at college, she is a global studies major and when coming home for a break, kisses me in the kitchen and goes to the piano...I love it. I don't fully credit Ariel for the inspiration, but it didn' hurt.
    My 18 year old son has Asperger's Syndrome. He loves all forms of media. A bit of a challenge getting him away from the TV when he was younger, but his challenges in life were bigger than The Rug Rats. TV and the computer acually helped him with social skills at school. It can't be denied. Having said that he is his own advocate for what is appropriate and what wasn't. He was not afraid to tell his friends that South Park...even at 18 years old is not an appropriate show. He commutes to a local college and drives...who knew? His favorite place in the world besides home?...Barnes and Noble. He loves the classical music played while he reads.
    Now the 3 year old, I will say, we watch Dora some days when we are home and he's not in school. One day he picked something up for me and I said "Gracias"...he responded after a thoughtful moment... "de nada." Life's good...let it be.

    Posted by B October 11, 09 01:47 AM
  1. K is exactly right. "1.No matter how hard you try, your kid is going to pick up the culture. You can't avoid it." I taught in a very strict religious day school. The children were forbidden at home from TV and radio. Yet, they all knew Britney Spears and all those people. Some were forbidden from having indoor pets ("don't s*it where you eat"), yet they loved small animals and begged their parents for them.

    I think it's a form of abuse to cut off your children from the popular culture, unless you are in a religious sect. Then again, I guess that applies to me, too, not allowing my child gum and friend Twinkies.

    Posted by reindeergirl October 11, 09 10:01 AM
  1. We don't have a TV or video games. My husband is a gluten-free vegetarian, one of my daughters chooses to eat meat and the other doesn't. My kids don't go to school. When TV, homeschooling, or any other topic like that comes up, I just say, "We don't have a TV" or "We homeschool." If someone questions me, I just say, "It works for our family." While my husband and I made many of these choices based on our personal values, we don't have the attitude that others are wrong for making different choices. Our kids know that different families do things differently, and that diversity is part of what makes life so rich.

    Posted by m.e. October 12, 09 09:09 AM
  1. Parents need to stop worrying about what other people think and just do what is best for their own family.
    The way to respond to parents who are questioning your style:

    "oh, we just dont watch a lot of tv. Why? We are too busy playing with blocks and puzzles at this stage right now."
    "oh, we dont eat too much candy. Why? We have a history of sugar and teeth issues so we are minimizing those future issues."
    "oh, yes I've heard of Janie and Jack clothes. We dont typically buy from there but I love their quality."
    "Your 3 year old loves Slim Jims? How cute! Why dont I give Johnny a piece? Well, he just doesn't eat that yet."
    "Do you want some coolaid for your little peanut?" Oh no thanks, she'll have water, she loves water, but thanks for asking."

    Posted by MomOf1 October 12, 09 09:29 AM
  1. I'm with Barack on this one too. It sounds terribly condescending to say, "in our family, we don't..." and as though it's passing judgment.

    Recently, we attended a local church fair with our (then) 17-month old daughter. She does watch TV, is a total Elmo fangirl and loves Curious George. But that's about the extent of it.

    So, when our landlord's 6-year old granddaughter (unbeknownst to us) decided she wanted to win a prize for our daughter, her mother steered her toward a Dora doll (also unbeknownst to us) as she thought that might really be the only thing our child knew. Well, Dora and Blues Clues and a lot of the other "for toddlers" aren't shows that we let her watch.

    But no one took offense that she didn't know who Dora was. She loved it all the same and we thought it was such a sweet gesture on the part of the 6 year old.

    Most people understand that everyone's family is different.

    Posted by phe October 13, 09 07:43 AM
  1. Um, in your story there, maybe it's a good thing that the mom doesn't watch TV, because if she did then she would know that "South Park" is rated "TV-MA" and is completely inappropriate for a 12-year-old. I'm betting both the grandmother and you, Barbara, didn't know this either.

    Posted by geocool October 13, 09 11:08 AM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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