HOW MODERN PARENTS SURVIVED BEFORE TELEVISION
From The Plug-In Drug, Television, Computers and Family Life
by Marie Winn
Copyright © Marie Winn 2002
The Penguin Group, 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014 USA
HOW MODERN PARENTS SURVIVED BEFORE TELEVISION
[...] In this child-centered era with its increased burdens of child care, necessity occasionally impelled parents to resort to certain parent-centered strategies that bought them some respite from child care. Though some of these went against the modern grain, yet they proved to be of value to children themselves by counterbalancing some of the excesses of a permissive upbringing.
Parents were firmer before the television era, not because they believed this was a better way to raise kids, but simply because firmness was a necessity for parents' survival. The child-rearing style so prevalent today, characterized by questions parents steadily ask their small children, such as "Do you want to have your dinner now?" or "Do you want to go shopping with Daddy?" was unthinkable in that era. Parents couldn't afford to ask such questions and have their children say "No, I don't want to " (as they are likely to do). Four-year-old Nancy had to go shopping with Daddy, so Mom could nurse the baby or help Buddy with his homework, and she was simply told that's what was about to happen in a nice firm voice. Not knowing that she had a say in such affairs, the small child was more likely to comply than kids are today.
Observing with an eagle eye
Before television, training children to play alone for periods of time was a vital part of parenthood. Once again this was not because parents thought this was particularly good for the child's development, but because they desperately needed those chunks of time for their own purposes. Yet accomplishing this goal without resorting to the punitive ways of the past was never a simple matter.
Observing children with an eagle eye to obtain a subtle picture of their changing development was the pathway to success in getting children to entertain themselves successfully and reliably. A mother (the usual caretaker of small children in pre-television days) might take pains to discover, for instance, if her three-year-old daughter was capable of learning to cut with a pair of blunter scissors. If this activity amused the child, it would be worth the mother<s while to work on it a bit, to help the child to learn how to cut properly, to provide a supply of colored papers or old magazines, a jar of paste perhaps, because once the skill was acquired her reward would be a self-entertaining child. For similar reasons the mother might provide buttons or beans for sorting, or dough for molding, or blocks for building, spurred not entirely by devotion to her child's happiness, but also by a certain amount of healthy self-interest.
Capturing her child's nascent interests and utilizing them to serve her own needs was once an important element for success as a mother. But as it happens, the intimate knowledge of her child gained through sharp observation of developmental progress also led the mother to a more satisfying relationship with her child, with greater opportunity for shared pleasures as well as a reduced likelihood of misunderstandings and inadvertently inflicted suffering.
From the child's point of view, the period of solitary play, augmented by the mother's efforts to get things started, led to the development of important skills and to actual, tangible accomplishments—constructions, drawings, sculptures, collages, and the like. These skills and accomplishments, in turn, gave the child a sense of competence, and thereby helped to counteract those feelings of helplessness and dependence that dominate early childhood.
Indeed, the heightened attentiveness to children's needs and interests that parents once displayed affected the entire family in a beneficial way. Parents became experts on their children, and the information inevitably enabled them to raise their children more humanly and more effectively.
The availability of television as a child-rearing tool has reduced parents' immediate need to know their children well. Though affection or a sense of duty still inspires them to observe their children and communicate with them in a variety of ways, parents are no longer compelled to make great efforts to discover their children's special interests.
The most dependable survival aid for parents of the past was the nap. Not too long ago children took naps regularly during their early childhood, often until they began school. It wasn't necessarily that they needed to nap, nor that they wanted to nap: quite simply, they had to nap. The nap was as inevitable and accepted a part of life as any of many things that children don't particularly want to do but simply have to do in the course of their childhood.
Babies needed their hours of sleep, and parents needed those hours of peace. They saved up their telephone calls, their letter writing, reading, or sustained thinking for that interval of the day when an eye or an ear didn't have to be cocked in the direction of a small child.
Them came the inevitable moment during the second or third year when the child no longer fell asleep automatically at nap time. This was a crucial transition point for parents of the past. Though the child may have stopped physically needing the nap, and had begun to fuss and resist it, the parents hadn't stopped needing it—far fro it. As children grew older and needed more attention and care, parents needed that daily hiatus more than ever.
This is why parents of the past persevered in their efforts to retina the nap in spite of the child's initial resistance. Through firmness based on certain desperation as well as a strong sense that the period of quiet rest was still good for the child, parents succeeded in gradually turning the sleep nap into a quiet-play nap, during which time children were required to remain in their room, playing or listening to music or dreaming or puttering about quietly. In this way, once upon a time, parents kept the nap as a regular part of their daily routine until school brought them the opportunity of a new daily break.
The fairy tale time is over. Babies still spend the greatest part of their day sleeping, and children during the first two years continue to sleep for certain intervals during the day. But today's parents do not "work" to keep the nap as their kids outgrow the need to sleep. Instead, with relief in sight second only to the relief they feel when their child as asleep at night, parents encourage their young children to watch television for reliable periods of time. Perhaps some of children's deep affection for television in their later years is rooted in their earliest experiences with the medium when their parents, seeing television as a survival aid, made special and seductive efforts to "plug them in."