Kill your television. Or at least that irritating duck.
This morning Charlie lost his mind.
Now, I know I'm not supposed to let my three-year-old watch Wonder Pets until his eyeballs fall out of his head and roll around on the family room rug, causing them to become so thickly felted with carpet fuzz and cat hair that it's hard to reinsert them later. But on occasion we do it, ophthalmologist's warnings be damned.
I resorted to television much more frequently in the first couple of weeks of Ben's life, when a half-hour of How It's Made or Harold and the Purple Crayon or, yes, even the ideologically sound but supremely saccharine Wonder Pets bought me precious time to complete the early-morning feed before I was expected to supervise toileting; make breakfast; find a specific fragment of grimy foam no bigger than my thumbnail, no less treasured for its size or questionable origins; and make appropriate fawning noises at every conversational pause. ("Mama, it's friendly to answer someone when they're speaking to you," Charlie tells me in a tone of gentle reproof, and I wonder, not for the first time, why I ever thought it was a good idea to teach him manners. Then I politely invite him to shut his trap and eat his BooBerry.)
Anyway, for a while things ran much more smoothly with half an hour of television added to the morning routine. And then two things happened. First, Ben's schedule changed; to get through the first few hours of the day, now we generally don't need the assistance of baby animals wearing hats. And capes, for God's sake, capes. In fact I'll thank them not to interfere, because although I do enjoy a good operetta and even kind of dig the turtle in water shoes, lordy, do I want to choke that baby-talking duckling. Whoops — I mean, sakes alive, wouldn't I just love to sit down with her and offer patient, loving, individually tailored therapy as she works to overcome her speech disorder?
Wait...Checking...No, turns out I did mean choke.
The second thing that happened was that almost imperceptibly, half an hour started to slide into forty minutes, and forty into sixty, until suddenly, thanks to those indefatigable Wonder Pets, we found ourselves knee-high in duck shit. It was seductively easy to occupy Charlie that way, much easier than motivating him to do something less passive or encouraging him to take part in whatever I was trying to accomplish. Easier even than siccing him on his hapless father, and coming from an accomplished delegator like me, that's really saying something. We didn't do it every day, but we did it often enough that I'm afraid it became a habit, something Charlie understood as a regular part of our routine, and worse: something to which he was entitled.
This morning Charlie decided, for whatever reason, that he would like to watch television. And although we told him no, but that perhaps he could do so later in the day, he knows as well as any that a dream deferred is a dream denied, and bellowed his displeasure. Then wept. And wept. All through breakfast he cried. He'd be okay for a few minutes, happily chewing his pancake, but then he'd suddenly remember what treacherous bastards we are and start again, his face crumpling in renewed shock and indignation. "I really want to watch television," he sobbed.
"I know," I told him in a soothing tone. "You're disappointed."
And, hey, you know what? Three-year-olds don't like being patronized any better than the rest of us. If he'd had the words or could muster the tone, he'd have acidly told me, "No, Mama, I'm not disappointed. I am most righteously pissed." Instead he was aggrieved and insistent. "But I really, really, really, really, really want to watch television." And it just got worse from there.
If I didn't know better I'd swear I heard the distant sound of an industrious guinea pig vowing to save the thwarted preschooler, and then three shrill animal voices raised in their signature anthem: "What's gonna work? Teeeeammmwork!"
For no particular reason I would like to remark that "strychnine" has the same number of syllables as "teamwork."
But that is neither here nor there. The point is that there were five reallys and a hitch in Charlie's voice. Our normally cheerful, mostly compliant boy was truly distressed, worked up in a way that gave me pause. That's when I understood the problem with television at this age. It's not what happens when they do watch; it's what happens when they can't.
Don't get me wrong. I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. (Actually, after a day of vomiting and its concomitant laundry, the idea does have a certain — but no. I'm joking, of course. We don't throw out perfectly good bathwater around here. We mix it with powdered formula.) I'm comfortable telling Charlie no, and I can withstand the tears. In fact, I've found that television has its uses as a bargaining chip as well as a babysitter. I was astonished to see how effective it was to yank his television privileges the other day when he'd been rude to me. (Never mind that I hadn't planned to turn it on anyway. It was like telling a kid, "Okay, mister, if that's the way you're going to behave, I'm not going to have your bedroom turned into a gaily colored wall-to-wall bounce house after all. And if you say one more word I'm calling the pegasus-unicorn farm and canceling that birthday pega-uni-colt order your grandmother told me about. Not one…more…word.") But this morning's scene cemented my current suspicion about television: For us, it's generally not worth the contention it invites. It creates a bigger problem than it solves.
This is not to say that I intend to forbid TV entirely; I know I'll continue to find it useful on occasion. Truth be known, I also get a kick out of the uneasy look that steals over a stranger's face when Charlie helpfully explains how hot dogs are made, thanks to instructional television. (I can't say I really blame them. I don't like hearing about meat batter, either.) But I'm newly committed to being more judicious about when to turn it on, and to being consistent, and — here is the tough part — to being a little less lazy myself. Because if we don't, I foresee only more tiresome scenes. And if that happens, especially first thing in the morning,
the duckling's gonna get it we'll have to have a firm but loving conversation about acceptable behavior. And I'm pretty sure everybody hates that goddamn duck nobody wants that.