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The television and stereo with their accessories — even home theaters — physically dominate our rooms at home almost as much as they dominate our children’s lives. Their sounds can overwhelm conversation. Children frequently are passively sitting there — often munching unhealthy snacks. Add to that the sounds of video and computer games, in which children are not passive, but interacting with the screen. To what degree is this a picture of your family and home?

There are several ways that we can influence what video and stereo are doing to our families and our youngsters. Synergistic Parenting advocates our taking initiative to influence the effects of video and music. We can involve our children in making decisions, so they become stakeholders in what our families do about video, music, and computer games.

If children talk sassy and talk back to parents as happens on sitcoms and other TV programs, challenge their tone of voice and behavior by calling it "TV-talk" or "sitcom-talk" and make clear that it is not appropriate in interactions in your family. This can help you develop in your children a critical attitude that questions the content of TV programs.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children younger than two do not watch TV or videos! See this link for further information from physicians who specialize in children's health.

TV can lead to interacting
First, we can purposefully use television to start interacting with our children about the content of programs. We must keep an eye on what programs our children are watching, and the games they play. Then we must learn whether the television is just background noise or something that absorbs our child’s attention. Actually, it will probably be both at different times. Try to be sensitive to how your children are watching. If it is background noise, they may glance at it sporadically, responding to some word or sound, while they do other things. Other times they will be absorbed by the scenes and sounds on the tube.

When they are absorbed by television programs, we need to be aware of the content of the programs. We need to respect their privacy, and give them their space. But we can work with them so that they welcome us to come into their space, and do not resent our looking at the tube with them. If we start when they are young, this is easier. If we start after they are adolescents, we do best to talk with each one and negotiate agreements about their sharing their space with us. Begin with careful I-messages that show your care and concern, be frank with your concerns, and listen thoughtfully to theirs.

Once we have some idea of what they are watching, let’s use that information for some conversation after programs end. For example, a young teen was watching a program with unusual intensity. Her father noticed, so he sat beside her to watch. After the program ended, they talked about the program, which quickly developed into serious and personal conversation. We as parents need to watch for programs that can lead to significant conversation. Useful programs for our interacting with our youngsters may be on any subject that fascinates your child. Then we do well to open the way for conversation, using communication skills of Synergistic Parenting.

We may also interact about commercials by playing "DECODE commercials". We can help them to be skeptical and questioning of commercials. Younger children often see no difference between programs and commercials.

The violence and sex in programs may trouble you, but it is hard to avoid. Much of the violence and sex is not necessary; compare films of decades ago where you knew it happened, but it was either not shown or not vivid. As you have openings with your kids, communicate and question the effects of that content on the thinking and feelings of your youngsters. Take the time to listen to your teen's feelings, and probe to what extent they are taken in by treatment of women as things, for example.

"Take seven"
Another concern I have with television is that programs and commercials present such a smoothly practiced view of interactions, while we naturally are spontaneous. Does what we see stifle spontaneous interaction in the family?

Select videos
More useful for our interacting with our youngsters are videos that we select to watch when they will join us. Many videos can open serious conversation about significant areas of life. Current films in theaters that we watch with a child can stimulate conversation. Stephen Covey tells in a book about reluctantly seeing a movie his daughter wanted them to share, that became a very rewarding time. Here are a very few suggestions of videos to rent; you can add many more from your own favorite films. "Casablanca" is about two completely different qualities of love and what they mean set against the horrors of World War II. "Julia" is about the interaction of two women as they mature, then face incredible horrors. "Chariots of Fire" is the interaction of several men and a woman as the men train to run, and their disappointments and triumphs. "All the President’s Men" is two young men overcoming obstacles. "Sand Pebbles" is about harsh life that stifles people and how individuals can be overwhelmed but they also can overcome the horrors. Note that these films are interactions between realistic people! Does that list suggest films you might have seen or heard about, which you want to watch with your children?

Besides commercial films there are many videos to watch with our children or as a family. When your teen is about ready to drive, or a youngster resists seat belts, view the Nova program on auto safety from a few years ago, that begins with a convertible driving very fast on an autobahn that flipped, yet the driver walked away and why. Other Nova programs on El Niño, repairing the Hubble telescope, etc. can be seen many times and not seem like old-stuff. Biography channel videos are rewarding for repeat watchings. I think every home should have their video about Jackie Robinson as well as videos about others whose lives inspire and give directions. There are many other sources for videos we can rent or buy.

Make your own
Now we can use digital cameras and computers to create our own motion pictures with effects, fades, titles, and sound. They can be "burned" onto DVDs to share with others. Families that are interested in this technology and the creativity it offers can find in this a way to enrich family life and working together. The varied skills of different members of families can enhance the experience for the entire family. And doing it as a family may make it more interesting than commercial violence and sex. The resulting DVDs could be gifts for special occasions.

Using computers, unlike watching movies and TV, is interactive. Computers can be very helpful in doing research and writing papers. However, on the internet our children can enter chat rooms where participants use "handles" and may not be what they present themselves to be. The apparent contemporary teen may be a predator adult who is trying to arrange contacts. We parents must be alert without being paranoid. As we involve ourselves in our children’s computer work, securing their willingness, we can be more aware of what they do. Nudity and sexual assault is so widespread on the internet. E-mail invades our homes with porn — some very hard porn — so it is difficult to even know what is there. Once your teen clicks on a link, porn-purveyors have your computer link, and can exploit it. We cannot always hover over them, but we can talk with them about the risks and dangers as well as values of computers and the internet, using all the skills of communication in Synergistic Parenting. A useful web site has advice and quizzes for children. Search with your children for similar sites to bookmark.

There are parental control programs, but hackers and others are constantly finding ways to get around them or to exploit them. No computer program can replace your involvement in your child's computer work in gentle and accepted watching and working with them. Not snooping into what links your teen recently viewed will help, because such snooping violates trust in parents. And that is the basis for working with your teen about the sites he chooses to view, or those that intrude.

"Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty" has been attributed to Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, and used since by many. Perhaps parents could print that pithy quote to put on the bathroom mirror or elsewhere to remind all of two equally essential values: liberty and eternal vigilance, so our children learn and mature in the practice of liberty and responsibility.

Maybe games
There are ways to reduce the effects of television. Edward E. Ford and Steven Englund in their book For the Love of Children give an excellent example. It takes very little to wean young people away from joyless, apathetic televiewing. They may really want to be pulled away. In our family room, they wrote, without removing the television, and causing an insurrection, I installed a pool table and fuss ball game. Very shortly, instead of lying around like lounge lizards staring dumbly at the tube, the kids took up the pool cues and fuss ball rods. Their laughter, conversation, friendly competition, and warmth were contagious. After a few weeks, kids congregated in our house — simply because there was more to do than watch television. By the way, the stereo got a lot of action too, but served as background. (Page 50)

Eliminate the television?
Some families have eliminated televisions from their homes. Have you seen the bumper sticker that says "kill your television" or better "read a book for prime time." If you seriously think about this, please consider some unpleasant realities. Our children want to play with other children, and if we have no televisions, they are likely to watch television with friends, and we have little idea of what they watch and its possible effects. Better to keep the televisions so we know what they watch, while adding games that will tend to lead children to interact.

Where do they feel "at home"?
Perhaps the most important part of our children’s play is where they play. Some parents have said that their major goal as parents is that their home be the place where youngsters congregate. This has a cost, but it has huge benefits. As for the cost, recall what Erma Bombeck said, that I quoted elsewhere. A mess after children are in our home may be a small cost. The benefits are at least two: one is that your children see their home as a welcoming and fun place, and your child may have far warmer feelings about you as parents and about their family. The second benefit is obvious; you are part of what your children are doing. Chances are that children will talk with you about friends and situations, because they feel comfortable in your home and with you as welcoming parents. Whether the play is pool or table tennis or watching television or playing video games, they feel at-home around you. Someone said they wanted their home to be a place where people could write "I love you" in the dust on table tops, because of how they spent their time.

Realistically, what can we do about the music our children listen to? Besides deciding what they will listen to when young, we may do best to listen to the particular music each child likes to play. When our son was a teen, I learned to appreciate songs that were his favorites. Though your teen’s preferred music may sound harsh, better to learn to listen to it and to talk with your teen non-critically about what he likes about it. And perhaps through school band, choir, orchestra, or dance they may come to appreciate a broader range of musical types.

Musical preferences change. A friend reported with shock that her teen told of liking the music of Ringo Starr, then added that the teen had heard Ringo used to be part of "some group." That group was the Beatles — one of my friends's favorites since her early teens! Perhaps your teen will listen with you to the favorites of your younger years and lead to significant conversation. How about the Beetles' "When you're sixty-four?"

Until the advent of records and CDs families sang together. Consider re-capturing home singing. Many song books have popular, religious, and other songs. One copy is enough for two or three family members. Or sing along with CDs. Spirituals and songs of Stephen Foster are part of our national heritage. Folk songs from Pete Seeger and others, popular songs from recent years or right now can join family members in pleasant moments of singing. It does not matter whether you are on key or sound like the latest idol; are you and your family enjoying the experience together, building family solidarity?

Read with your children
Amid all the sound and fury of modern video, reading may be overlooked. Reading to our young children before they can read can become adventure, as we ask children to respond to what we read, and to visualize what we read, "How does that smell?" or "What sound does that make?" or "What do you think will happen next?"

Personalize your reading; for example, when reading substitute your child's name. Add personal links. Instead of the giant saying, "I smell the blood of an Englishman," use the name of your state. As I read stories to our red-haired youngster, I sometimes added red hair to descriptions. He guessed there was no red-hair in the original, but he enjoyed it.

When reading the classic Where the Wild Things Are, when Max says "BE STILL!" and tames the wild things, talk with your child about staring down obstacles.

Consider ways that we can read to each other. The child in elementary school can share reading with parents, helping parents to see how accurately they are reading. And the reading can be interactive as parents ask questions about the reading and discuss it with the child.

Teens in secondary school often are introduced to literature that has been read and appreciated for centuries. This literature can be shared within the family, and you can talk about it and your feelings to make it come alive.

For one example, check out Samuel Taylor Coleridge's long poem Christabel. Poetry is often best read aloud slowly, to ponder images, such as lines 123—134 that reflect beliefs about witches and evil persons, and the lines leading up to

The mastiff old did not awake,
Yet she an angry moan did make!
And what can ail the mastiff bitch?

The old, female mastiff watch dog, though asleep, senses an evil presence — who?

Literature that has lived for centuries can provide family interactions that stimulate imagination better than television or video games.

A critical advantage of reading is the reader must supply the visuals and sounds. The reader's imagination is stimulated and grows as what is read comes vividly alive. Our imaginations can become more interesting than the images and sounds supplied by television and games.

Video and computer games
Television and its hypnotic-like effect may be minor compared to computer and video games. I think we parents must make ourselves aware of the content of the games our children play. In addition to what they play in our home, we need to build relationships with our children, so they will willingly share with us information about games they play at friend’s homes. Some of these games lead children to kill representations of people on the screen, which realistically shower blood and guts. As a social scientist, I cannot say with certainty the effects of these games, but I cannot see any value in games that may make our children more accepting of violence, and to do these "games" for hours.

Play some games with your teen, matching wits, and conversing about your reactions and their's.

Some computer games are role playing games without violence. A game called "Journey to Wild Divine" makes biofeedback interesting and useful to lead players to deeper relaxation.

When Brittheny was shot and killed by a pair of middle school students in Jonesboro, Ark, her mother, Suzanne Wilson said, as reported in the New York Times, "We teach our children, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ and then we let them play hours and hours of the most violent video games. I say let the children go to funerals. Let them see what happens after the shots are fired. Let’s show them the empty bedroom. Let them know that death is final."

As a retired pastor, who has seen more of dying and death that most, I must say that our society has made death too pretty. In the past death was a harsh reality, but today in many parts of our society death is not visible in its horror and finality.

I fear that our movies and TV have made death seem un-deathlike. The actor killed in one episode is active again next week. I don’t suggest gory scenes on TV, but ask you as mature parents to think about how you can work with each of your children to see that they learn the absolute and utter finality and horror of death.

Copyright © 2006 John F. Yeaman