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My son has done nothing but watch TV this summer (and I don’t care)

remote controlAs I type, my thirteen-year-old son Isaac is guffawing over an episode of The Office in the living room.

It’s now 3:45 PM. He’s been sitting there since 11 AM.

And here’s where I admit a big parenting sin: this is pretty much his daily routine these days. Since summer break started three weeks ago, my son has done nothing but watch TV. 

Okay, so maybe “nothing” is a bit of an exaggeration. Isaac rides his bike to and from an hour-long tennis lesson four mornings a week. He occasionally goes to a friend’s house, he comes to the dinner table, does his chores and takes his little siblings to the park every other day or so.

But the rest of the time – we’re talking 6 or 7 or 8 hours a day, here – the kid’s got Netflix queued up on the tube.

At the beginning of the summer he was on an Arrested Development kick, and watched every episode – old and new – several times over. Now it’s The Office he’s absorbingfrom the beginning, repeating favorite episodes several times in a row, soaking up the jokes and committing gags and quotes to memory.

I guess you could call it lazy parenting, but I haven’t put a lot of effort into stopping him.

Maybe it’s because I can relate. The summer I turned 11, like the summers before it after my parents divorced, I went to spend six weeks with my dad.

My dad’s house was always a place of little supervision in those days, and plus, he had HBO. I remember watching the same movies over and over - Splash being one of my more age-inappropriate favorites – plus hours of You Can’t Do That On Television. Still, most years I’d find plenty of time for the park, the beach, my bike.

But that summer was a little different. My dad was no longer married to the woman who had chauffeured me to the beach and day camps during previous summers, and I’d lost a stepbrother to play with, too. Dad was now living in an apartment complex with no other kids my age. He was at work all day, and my older brother and I hung around his apartment, occasionally playing in the complex pool…but mostly, watching TV.

Plus, I was eleven years old, and things were changing. I was about to start Junior High and suddenly more interested in music than riding my bike. I’d even grown a tentative interest in boys after years of being “just one of the guys.”

So in that summer of 1988, I became obsessed with MTV. I’d watch from morning until my dad got home from work, capping off my daily television gorge with the Top 10 at 5, or whatever the evening roundup was called in 1988.

rod stewart

Rod Stewart’s “Lost In  You” was a favorite (who knew that being a stripper could be so romantic?). I spent much of the day hoping the VJ’s might play George Michael’s sexy-if-creepy “Father Figure” (but knowing it was far more likely they’d play the only-tolerable “Monkey On Your Back”) and waiting breathlessly for INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart” to make one of its dozen-times-a-day showings.

I’d watch that video, dreamily indulging my fledgling crush on a neighbor boy, who’d always been my buddy but who suddenly, in a pre-adolescent wash of hormones, seemed like the sort of boy I might like to have as “more than a friend.”

Looking back, I’m sure there are other things I could have been doing with those six weeks each summer. More productive things, certainly. Perhaps things that would have helped to nurture a talent or a skill. I could certainly have taken in more fresh air and it probably wouldn’t have hurt to read a few quality YA novels.

But I don’t regret my childhood summerly obsession with TV. Many times, the random bits of cultural knowledge in my head have helped me connect with other people. I can mark passages in my life, my growth, my awareness, by the videos I held dearest. And if nothing else, I can always amuse myself (and occasionally, others) by still being able to sing every single word to Poison’s “Fallen Angel.”

The fact is, cultural references can be an important currency, and we can learn a lot about the world we live in from what we see on TV and in the movies. Going by Isaac’s choices in programming, I can tell he’s sharpening his sense of humor and comedic timing, which are both important to him – more important, right now, than tennis or riding his bike or even getting together with friends to play XBox.

And I can understand that. In fact, I can really relate to it.

Last fall I interviewed author Gretchen Rubin for an episode of The Kitchen Hour podcast,  and was struck by something she said. She admitted being torn about the idea that we should limit screen time for our kids, because her sister, a television writer, had admitted wishing she’d watched more TV as a child.

That stuck with me. How much of our cultural suspicion of screens and programming will seem outdated in a few decades, or a century? Remember all those classic novels, where 18th- and 19th- century parents fretted because their children read too many books?

As for myself, I’m trying to keep from raining on Isaac’s TV-watching parade. In life there is a time for balance and well-rounded-ness, but I believe there is also a time for obsession, even the sort that might leave you a little pasty and disheveled at the end. Certainly if there is any time in life that a person can really indulge one a television obsession without long-lasting negative affects, it’s in the summer of his 13th year.

At some point I might decide enough is enough, and pull the plug. But for now? Knowing he can act out each Bluth family member’s chicken impression with eerie accuracy is enough for me to let Isaac’s TV binge ride a little while longer.

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