Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Cold Turkey

Jody and I had been out for the evening. Our usual babysitter couldn’t make it, so we hired someone who we didn’t know all that well.

What exactly transpired while we were away we may never know. But when we got home, the babysitter was upset. Apparently, she and twelve- year-old Amir had gotten into disagreement over the TV. He wanted to watch. She said it was bedtime.

Now, some babysitters may be bad. Some may even be true evil stepmothers-in-training. But there’s a basic rule that enables the system to function. And that is: you listen to the babysitter.

My first inclination was to lay down some sort of punishment. I had just finished reading the kids the book Ella Enchanted. Amir would make a fine scullery maid, I thought.

As I walked down to Amir’s room, where I imagined him waiting in bed with dread anticipation, I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do or say.

But I had a nagging feeling that the heavy handed approach stood a strong chance of backfiring. The goal here was to promote a lasting change in both TV and babysitting behavior.

There are eight stairs from the kitchen where I stood to the kids’ floor. Somewhere on step six, I knew what I had to do:

Listen. Just listen.

And somehow I did. I let him talk. Let him tell me what happened. I didn’t judge. And when I did speak, it was in empathetic terms.

Amir was flabbergasted. He had girded himself for the worst. And it hadn’t come.

“Now Amir,” I said at the end. “I want you to give some thought to how we can make this better, how we can make sure this kind of thing never happens again. We’re going to have a family meeting in a few days and we’ll talk about it then.”

Then I kissed him goodnight and left.

Two days later, it was time for our weekly Family Meeting. Jody opened by asking all three kids if they knew the difference between a “right” and a “privilege.” The concept was a little hazy, so I pulled out the Webster’s Elementary Dictionary.

“A right is something to which one has a just claim, such as the right to freedom,” I read aloud. “A privilege is a right or liberty granted as a favor or benefit especially to some and not to others. Now, how do you think we view TV in our house? As a right or a privilege?”

Ten-year-old Merav got it right away. “It’s a right.”

And what should it be?

“A privilege,” she answered with enthusiasm.

Perhaps she didn’t see where this might be going. Amir did, and cringed a bit, but his resistance had already been broken by the conversation those two long nights before.

“So, do you think that maybe our family watches a bit too much television?” Jody asked coquettishly. “That we view it more as a right that can never be taken away?”

This time Amir jumped in. “Yes,” he said, knowing that to not only be the right answer, but true. Now it was Merav’s turn to look around the room uncomfortably.

“And do you think we spend enough time outside? Or playing with all the toys we have in the house?”

Five-year-old Aviv perked up at the mention of toys.

“Do you think maybe our family would function better if we watched less TV?”

Nods all around.

“Does anyone know the expression ‘cold turkey?’” I asked.

You could see their minds picturing uncooked turkey on the kitchen counter.

I had done my research and traced the origin of “cold turkey.” According to the website IdiomSite, the phrase describes the skin's reaction to heroin withdrawal. As an addict stops using the drug, blood is drawn toward the internal organs, thereby leaving the skin to resemble a cold, plucked turkey.

I left out the details of which drug we were talking about. But the metaphor was clear: we as a family had become hopelessly addicted to TV.

“I think the only way we’re going to kick the TV habit is to go cold turkey,” I said. “Not just a reduction from 10 hours this week to 7 hours next week to 3 hours to one. But completely stopping it.”

“Completely?” Merav panicked for a moment.

“We can introduce it back in at some point for special treats. But no more automatic watching whenever you want or whenever you go home. I think we can turn TV from a ‘right’ into a ‘privilege.’ What do you guys think?”

To my amazement, they bought in. Willingly. Apparently they had realized the level of illness our family had descended to.

Since that point, the change has been remarkable. We’ve found toys and games that haven’t been played with in years. Aviv has made riding a scooter his special passion. Amir picked up one of my favorite Sci-Fi novels This Perfect Day by Ira Levin and so far declares it to be the best-written book he’s ever read (although I’m afraid what he really likes are the dirty parts). Merav is out playing even more often with her friends.

We didn’t get rid of the tube and we’re still plugged in to cable. We’ve already sat down as a family on several occasions to watch a movie as a Saturday night family activity. But the habit is well on its way to history. Jody and I might even be able to get out for an evening.

Now I wonder which babysitter we should hire this time…

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