Trying not to raise the next TV generation

By Jane Flanagan

My five-year-old son, Rusty, wants to be The Hulk for Halloween. Last year he wanted to be John Philip Sousa, the bandleader.

Some shift.

He saw a movie over the summer and now, along with boys everywhere, wants to be the big green monster. Thanks to mega merchandizing, costumes will be in ample supply, too.

The Sousa idea evolved out of a passion he and his Dad shared. Bob’s long been a fan of the early 20th century marching music and had a hunch Rusty would be, too. Soon, the two of them were high stepping around the apartment banging wooden spoons on pots to “Stars and Stripes Forever.” As Halloween approached, they found a picture of him in full marine-band dress to copy.

But Rusty was four then and not yet going to movies.

This year it’s “The Hulk.”

All this has me thinking. I have a complicated relationship with the screen – TV especially. I grew up on it and still find it soothing to plop down in front at night.

Likewise, there’s nothing like it to occupy my son and give me some time.

“How about ‘Bob the Builder,’ ” I suggest on school mornings to give myself an uninterrupted half hour to hop in the shower and start breakfast.

TV is so seductive it can mesmerize a child. I know.

As a member of the first television generation, my cultural role models were Lucy Ricardo, Samantha Stevens and Jeannie. I never read a book in the evenings. Family togetherness was reduced to watching the tube together. I remember when family finances were sufficient to afford a set in several rooms. I was happy that I could choose my program, but sad. Now we wouldn’t even share this.

Last weekend, Rusty and I visited my brother and his wife on Long Island who are looking after three young boys. It poured rain on Saturday and we were desperate: “A movie,” we thought. We scanned the listings for anything remotely appropriate, almost agreeing to see something about a boy, his dog and aliens.

Fortunately, we didn’t. Because, while the boys attempted to occupy themselves indoors, my brother prepared for that night’s bedtime reading. He scanned pictures of a Hans Christian Andersen story onto the computer.

When bedtime arrived, the four of them lined up in the darkened room in front of the computer screen. But instead of a video, it was Jeff’s voice they heard. I shined a flashlight as he read aloud and clicked the computer mouse changing pictures. The boys were captivated.

Later, they were even more entranced as we all cuddled together on the couch to read. Two boys snuggled with me, two with him. I sensed them savoring the feel of our arms and laps. The normally rambunctious crew was mesmerized.

The next night I took a turn reading. It was Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl.” I loved reading aloud, but was disappointed that it prevented me from studying the pictures, too. They were beautiful, vivid illustrations of Victorian England. In every one, the Match girl was in some kind of trouble. This would have enthralled me as a child, looking at these pictures and listening to a grownup read in the dark. Instead of Jeannie, my head would have been filled with the brave little Match girl.

Recently I had lunch with a friend and mentor who is 81.

“I’m a member of the last self-entertaining generation,” he said. Bill was frustrated after an unsuccessful attempt to enlist volunteer talent in the seaside Connecticut town where his family spends summers. He wrote a musical for the community’s theater which had thrived for generations. This year he was looking for younger residents – people my age – to perform. Everyone said they couldn’t possibly: “no talent.”

“It used to be that most every family had someone who played the piano, or sang,” he said. “Then came TV.”


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