I can’t say this with any certainty, but the problem most likely started with my generation.
Like many kids our age, we were children of divorce, my brother, sister and I. Our mom worked full-time in order to provide us with the essentials: food, clothing, shelter and cable television.
We were latchkey kids, which sounds like something out of Dickens but really wasn’t horrible at all. We’d get home from school and while destroying the house she’d worked so hard to clean the night before, we’d turn on the TV and tune out everything else. For hours. (Then we’d scramble like mad to clean up when we’d hear her tires roll into the stone driveway.)
As far back as I can remember, we had cable. So we’d get home and we’d flip, and we’d flip, and we’d flip. This was in the late-1980s, so there weren’t hundreds of channels — back then it topped out at channel 32 (MTV, as I still recall). We watched thousands of hours of TV, three hours at a time. It was “Saved by the Bell” on PBS, then “Saved by the Bell” on TNT. We’d generally follow that up with an hour of Nickelodeon’s “Double Dare” and “You Can’t Do That On Television.” After that came the classics: reruns of “The Monkees” and “Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp.” (If you’re not familiar with “Lancelot Link,” hurry on over to YouTube. Talking chimp detectives? Yes, please.)
And if nearly three hours a day after school wasn’t enough to turn us into TV zombies, think about the days we wasted during summer. It was a steady diet of game shows in the morning — “Press Your Luck” was always a favorite — and movies they showed over and over on HBO. It’s been probably 25 years, but I can still heavily quote the pre-“NCIS” Mark Harmon gem “Summer School” and the Richard Pryor masterpiece “The Toy.”
This isn’t to say that we didn’t occasionally interrupt our TV viewing by going outside, because we did, and often. We had the best Wiffle Ball games in town.
But it makes me wonder if us wasting away our afternoons on the couch drove mom to the brink of insanity. I wonder if hearing the “Saved By the Bell” theme song made her want to throw the TV out of the window.
Because today, at my house, with my kids, we’ve reached that point.
And here’s the thing: We’re blessed with kids who love playing outside, riding their bikes, using their imagination; kids who don’t play Xbox or have PSPs or iPhones; kids who don’t text or tweet or have their heads buried in headphones. But they are their father’s children. They do enjoy their TV.
That being said, not only do we not have cable, our TV still has a tube inside of it! But we do have Netflix, which I’m fairly sure was invented by Satan himself to ensure at least one of the seven deadly sins — sloth — was getting its proper due.
The “Jessie” theme song automatically puts me in a bad mood. Ditto the theme songs of the other shows my kids have binge-watched: “Wizards of Waverly Place,” “Pair of Kings,” “Good Luck Charlie,” and anything with Zack or Cody.
Granted, he had a fever for 10 straight days this summer, but it only took Grant — the 9-year-old, the sickly one at the time — two of those days to polish off a 44-episode series. (A quick math check tells me that is slightly more than 16 hours worth of television. IN TWO DAYS.)
My beautiful, devout wife and I will catch them watching episodes of shows we’re certain they’ve seen four or five times. How do we know this? Because even in passing we’ve nearly memorized their mind-numbing shows!
And, yes, we have nobody to blame but ourselves. We have allowed them to get into this habitual TV watching. But our patience with the binge-watching finally reached its limit this week. We pulled the plug. Television is no longer a right in our house; it is now a privilege.
If Grant does his homework without complaining, he gets half an hour of TV. If Olivia keeps her room clean and picks up the 47 pairs of shoes and 15 towels she has on her floor, she gets to watch TV. (By the way, Olivia, I just came up with that idea while writing this, so that’s going to be a thing now. Making the rules is great!) If they go to bed without getting up and driving Erin and I insane during our only quiet moments together, they might lose what they previously earned, because in our world the parents giveth and the parents taketh away.
So our house has been much quieter this week. They’ve been forced to play together and to read more. Last night they were bored enough that they cleaned the kitchen and did the dishes without us having to ask. As a family, we’ve taken the time to start reading through the New Testament, one chapter at a time. We’re praying more; we’re talking more; we’re yelling over the TV less.
How long this parental ban lasts is anybody’s guess, but we’re loving it right now. It certainly frees up the TV for me, because each season of “Saved by the Bell” is streaming on Netflix. Plus, Notre Dame's first football game is Saturday and the NFL kicks off next week.
Just kidding. (About "Saved by the Bell." I'm still totally watching football — in moderation.)
Scott Warden is the associate editor of OSV Newsweekly. Follow him on Twitter @Scott_OSV.
For more of Scott's Confessions of a Catholic Dad, click here.