The other day, I was watching an episode of Columbo that featured Ray Milland. And my six-year-old son Simon said, “I know a Ray! Ray Collins!” Which startled me. Because “I know a Ray” implied, to me, that there was some kid at school named Ray. But what he meant was that he was familiar with someone named Ray, in this case the guy who played Lieutenant Tragg on Perry Mason. (I may watch a lot of mid-century detectives?) He was familiar enough with Perry Mason to know Ray Collins by name, and I’m not sure I reliably did until quite recently, when I started looking into the history of the show.
Obviously, my kids watch their own stuff a lot; I have a whole column about it. Some of it’s good; some of it is really, really not. But Simon and his two-year-old sister Irene do also watch a lot of stuff because I have it on, and in fact Simon doesn’t quite believe me when I tell him that, at his age, I didn’t get to choose what we’d watch on weekdays, because my mom made all the choices. (Three hours of news, Entertainment Tonight, and M*A*S*H reruns, and then it was my bedtime.) And since they’ve been born, I’ve been contemplating what I could and couldn’t watch in their presence.
Oh, it was easy when they were babies—Simon saw Raging Bull when he was four months old because, come on, what’s a four-month-old going to get out of Raging Bull? He didn’t talk at all for well over a year after that point, so it’s not as though he was going to repeat what he heard, and he slept through most of it anyway. But as they got older, I was starting to have to think about what we watched. I’m in many ways less concerned with it than I might be, because Simon has shown himself capable of just ignoring grown-up stuff that doesn’t interest him, but Irene is a mimic, and she’s being pretty gleeful about using grown-up words these days.
You will see that I ignore most recommendations about screen time, and yeah, I do. But they almost never watch stuff alone, for one thing—their dad or I are usually with them, and there’s usually some kind of interacting going on as we watch. Yesterday, Irene and I spent some cheerful time together watching Sesame Street and demonstrating to each other what sound “H” makes. One of the reasons for my column is that I do spend as much time as that watching their shows, and I am aware of what happens on them.
But the converse is true. They are aware of what happens in what I’m watching, which is why I’m careful about what I watch around them. Maybe seeing that many murders isn’t good for them, but at least the murders they’re watching tend to be ones that are acceptable for broadcast TV between the ’50s and the ’80s. Which also means the language is. I’m less concerned about certain aspects of sexuality—nudity has never been shamed in our household, just labeled “private,” and we had to institute a policy a while back that you have to have clothes on when we have company—but honestly, Simon tends to find that stuff boring. He’s not all that interested in the murders, either.
It’s a bit of a dilemma. I’d rather the kids watch stuff that’s appropriate for them, but I don’t always want to watch it. And I have to make sure what I watch isn’t completely inappropriate for them, because they spend a lot of time with me. And I have issues with silence that mean, in part, that our TV is on pretty much all day long. But at least with Irene turning three next month, they’re at an age where they’ll play together instead of watching TV, which is better for all of us.