| Musings |

Screen Time   

     Even as we watched, we understood why our mother hated it


rowing up secular in the 1980s, every house (and sometimes every room) boasted a television set. Except ours. My mom, a single mother and the quintessential Jewish Mamma, refused to own a TV because she believed it dulled the brain. Nothing was going to interfere with the success of her precious progeny — both of us geniuses, no doubt.

So my older sister and I read books (a lot of them). We listened to stories on tape. We played Monopoly, Stratego, Uno, and Mancala. We built forts. We wrestled on our mother’s big bed and played tickle torture so many times that by the age of 12, I’d trained myself to remain still and serene even with my sister tickling my toes.

My mother didn’t have much, but she wanted to give us the world. So in lieu of a TV screen, she opened her home and let us invite friends over after school every single afternoon. With one friend, I amassed an enormous collection of pretty buttons and other random objects. I convinced another friend to secretly bring over her Barbie collection — that was another item forbidden by mother.

We went to a public elementary school in the Boston suburbs and when my kindergarten classmates spoke about Sesame Street, I listened attentively, intrigued. Why was Oscar such a grouch and why did he live in a garbage can? And who was this Big Bird character? Years later, in middle school, I finally had the opportunity to watch an episode of Sesame Street while babysitting for a neighbor’s kid. I remember feeling guilty that I was being paid to do something I’d dreamt about for years. My initial excitement quickly dissipated: This is what my classmates had been so enthralled with?

I was 11 when my mother finally caved in and bought a television set. But it did not receive a place of honor in our living room. It was relegated to the hallway closet, where it remained unless it was brought out for us to watch a family movie together, on those rare occasions.

The pressure to be “in the know” about TV shows increased as we reached adolescence, and my sister and I knew we had to take matters into our own hands. With our mother now working out of the house until five, we had two hours after school to squeeze in as many afternoon cartoons as possible. We’d race home, fling the closet door wide open, and plop ourselves in front of the screen. I was tasked with maneuvering the antennas to get better reception.

One day, my mother arrived home early. We heard the garage door open and bolted out of the hallway, barely remembering to throw the plug back into the closet to hide any evidence of our illicit behavior. But still, my mother was on to us. She marched right into the closet and felt the heat emanating from the top of the TV. After that, my determined mother bought a mini lock, which she hooked through the holes in the plug.

My sister promptly broke open the lock the next afternoon, but in a way that enabled her to relock it later. We also had to determine how long it would take for the TV to stop producing heat. Could we watch for an hour and half without being detected?

As we became teenagers and spent more time with friends, my sister and I were exposed to TV on a regular basis. But our mother’s efforts to protect her progeny weren’t futile. Even as we watched, we understood why our mother hated it. We saw how absorbed we became, how enamored and enraptured by a fake world. We saw how much time it sucked from the vibrant world of living — of playing, reading, writing, learning, talking, sharing, and connecting.

When we became religious in our twenties — both my sister and I — we discovered that frum parents don’t let their children “watch,” and we felt right at home. To this day, my kids consider it a rare treat to watch family videos or a CCHF kids’ film. It’s not that I’m worried about the messaging of frum media or that my kids will see something inappropriate. It’s that my devoted Jewish mother taught me that there are so many more valuable things to do with the time Hashem has given us.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 878)

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