It started civilly enough. I was sitting with my family at Burger King when I decided to break the news. "I'm writing an article," I announced. "It's about a family who goes 'unplugged' for a week."
"Unplugged?" my husband, Larry, asked.
"You know, unplugged from high-tech entertainment. That means no TV, computer games, or Net-surfing. They'll have to rely on their imaginations, conversation, and books for relaxation instead."
My then-12-year-old daughter Kaitlyn looked thoughtful. "That would be interesting, but you'll never find a family who agrees to it. They'd have to be idiots. They'd have to be "
"Us," I said. "The family in the article is going to be us."
"Gee, I'd love to help," Kaitlyn said breezily, "but I'm spending that week at Lynzee's house."
"Kaitlyn, don't be silly," Larry admonished. "We'll learn all sorts of wonderful things about each other." He patted my hand. "It's a fabulous idea, Karen. In fact, let's do it right away. Not next week, but the week after next. I'm behind you, honey."
Kaitlyn flashed her dad a payback smile. "We'll be sure to tell you how it goes."
I blinked. "What are you talking about?"
"Mom, don't you get it? That's the week Dad's in Taiwan on business."
Larry looked sheepish. "Oh, yeah. Must have slipped my mind."
We picked a week when everyone would be home. To prepare for the coming media fast, we glutted ourselves on electronic stimuli, playing computer games for hours and watching reruns of all our favorite TV shows. And when we weren't sitting comatose in front of glowing screens, we were at Wal-Mart buying board games and puzzles, squirreling them away like nuts in anticipation of a winter famine.
As I drifted to sleep the night before The Big Experiment, I pondered the coming week. Perhaps the assignment wasn't fair. After all, every family member had their favorite media addiction: Kaitlyn loved the TV show Seventh Heaven. Four-year-old Kacie drew daily nourishment from Disney videos. And in the previous month, Larry had developed an insatiable need to play a computer game called WarCraft II, often launching the game after dinner and crawling into bed at 4 a.m. having finally defeated all the Zongs.
I, on the other hand, didn't watch much TV or play video games. I emailed friends, but since many of them were business associates (and we agreed we could still use the computer for work and school), I figured I had a loophole. Our media fast might torment my family, but my life would remain largely unchanged.
Boy, was I in for the surprise of my life.
Good-bye Aladdin, Hello Dr. Seuss
At 8 a.m. that Monday, I kissed Larry and Kaitlyn good-bye, then went to wake Kacie. With a full day of writing before me, I planned to take her to the babysitter's before nine. But after a quick touch of Kacie's fevered cheek, I realized my day was taking an unexpected detour.
Unable to take her to the sitteror plant her in front of the TVI soon found myself juggling Dr. Seuss, deadlines, and Dimetap. How I longed to pop in a video for a 90-minute break! Mid-afternoon, Kacie fell asleep. I was thrilled I could finally get some work done, although I wondered if I'd get the Bad Mother of the Year Award for feeling grateful for a fever-induced nap.
An uncomfortable realization dogged my thoughts. I wasn't addicted to the television, but I was more than happy to benefit from my children's addiction. How many hours each day had I been encouraging Kacie to zone out with Aladdin and Anastasia so I could complete some task without interruption? That was a sobering thought!
Open for Negotiation
At dinnertime, my family regrouped. They also tried to reopen negotiations.
"I think if I have to miss Seventh Heaven tonight, you shouldn't get to use the microwave, Mom."
"Cooking isn't entertainment," I quipped back.
"Watching you cook is entertaining, especially when you set things on fire. Are you sure that doesn't count?"
Next, it was Larry's turn. "What if we all watch a video or play a computer game? As long as we're doing it together, it should be allowed."
I smiled. "Nice try."
The wheedling eventually stopped. And that's when things got interesting. For one thing, dinner normally requires an 11-minute preamble as I repeat the following 5 phrases, averaging 3 repetitions per phrase: "Dinner's on the table"; "Turn off the TV right now and come eat"; "Didn't you hear me?"; "No, you can't finish the show"; "TURN OFF THE TV AND COME EAT!"
This time I asked onceand they came. Best yet, they stayedwith no Internet, video games, or TV shows calling their names.
Even Walter, our puppy, got in on the act. Before long, Larry had invented a game in which he slid the gangly puppy repeatedly across the linoleum floor. For some reason, our daughters found this hysterically funny.
Their laughter still bounced off the kitchen walls as I dried the dishes. I'd hoped our media ban would get rid of some of the noise at home. Boy, was I wrong! Our house was noisier than ever. But the sounds were music to my ears.
Getting the Shakes
Larry understood the rules. Kaitlyn understood the rules. Kacie was in a league of her own. By Day Three, she needed a cartoonand boy, did she need it bad.
I said, "Kacie, remember last night when you and Dad had that wrestling match? What would you rather dowrestle with your dad or watch a boring cartoon you've seen a hundred times?"
"And what about this morning? Think of all the puzzles we did. Wasn't that fun? Would you rather play with me or watch TV?"
The kid was scaring me.
Actually, what was scaring me was seeing how deeply the television had infiltrated our lives.
That evening, Larry appeared in the doorway of the den where I sat reading. "I just heard a rumor about the TV," he said, grinning.
I squirmed. "Really? What was it?"
"Kacie told me the reason why she can't watch cartoons is because you told her the TV's broken."
"I never actually said the word 'broken'! My exact words were, 'Look, Kacie, there's no picture!' And there wasn't. I'd turned the TV to Channel 0."
Confession is good for the soul.
It's About Time
In the following days, I was constantly amazed at how much more time we had, as individuals and as a family, unplugged.
How did we fill that time? Games and puzzles came in handy. One of our favorites was Hot Potato, where we tossed a musical stuffed-toy potato around the room. Whoever was holding the potato when it burped was out of the game. (The fact that we found this so entertaining is either a testament to our creative abilities, or proof we need to get out of the house more often!)
But more rewarding was watching my girls interact in creative play. They schemed. They brainstormed. They ransacked my office for scissors, cardboard, markers, and tape. They debated and reconciled, negotiated, bartered, and giggled.
I also noticed it was much easier to wrangle cooperation when I wasn't competing with the Disney Channel or the World Wide Web. I can't say Kaitlyn suddenly begged to set the table or Kacie couldn't wait to pick up her toys, but there was definitely a marked difference in attitude. Best yet, I went a whole week without having to contend with the words, "But I can't! I'm right in the middle of a show!"
We seemed more in sync with each other as well. Perhaps it's easier to pick up on the moods of the people you live with when you're not influenced by the media. After all, attitudes on TV are bigger-than-life: Characters are often smart-alecky to a fault. When my kids watch a lot of TV, is it easier for them to align their attitudes with those of their TV friends than those of their family? Do Larry and I do the same?
Return to Lunacy
As the week drew to a close, everyone chattered happily about being reunited with their favorite media addiction. Larry was eager to re-claim Planet Earth from alien forces, Kaitlyn missed sending electronic greeting cards to her friends, and Kacie was simply relieved to know the TV was going to mysteriously start working again at midnight on Sunday.
At 10:45 p.m. Sunday, Larry and I found ourselves sitting on the living room couch talking about the recent events. We agreed it had been an eventful week. In the past, we'd tried to create "quality family time" by adding things to our already busy schedule. Now we suspected the best way to forge closer family bonds wasn't to program more things into our lives, but to take a few things out.
"I'm not ready to toss out the TV and computer for good, but I wouldn't mind doing this again," I admitted. "In fact, maybe we should do this every couple months, just to reconfirm our priorities."
"I could go for that," Larry agreed. "But couldn't we reconfirm in a weekend? Just not Super Bowl weekend or anything like that!"
"I don't know. We'll have to negotiate that one."
"Speaking of negotiating " Suddenly Larry looked at his watch. "It's almost midnight."
I grabbed his wrist and looked. It was 1 minute to 11p.m. "Yeah, right. If you live in New York City, you mean."
"Midnight in New York! That's good enough for me!" And he sprang for his laptop. The Zongs, after all, had been patient long enough.
Karen Scalf Linamen is the author of numerous books, including Only Nuns Change Habits Overnight.
Check It Out
King Solomon's Take on Chat Rooms and Jerry Springer
It's hardly a surprise. The Bible doesn't address television, video games, or the Internet by name. Yet God's Word gives plenty of guidance:
Garbage in, garbage out. My friend Cherie Spurlock taped to the front of her TV cabinet an index card that reads: "I will set before my eyes no vile thing" (Psalm 101:3). Another good verse is Philippians 4:8: "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirableif anything is excellent or praiseworthythink about such things." Try using either verse as a benchmark when you tune into your favorite shows this week. (But take two aspirin first. It may be a painful experience!)
Thanks for sharing. You can't convince me that King Solomon wasn't writing prophetically about chat rooms and guests on The Jerry Springer Show when he penned, "A fool finds no pleasure in understanding, but delights in airing his own opinions" (Proverbs 18:2).
Birds of a feather. Think about most of the characters on TV. Do the words "wise" and "godly" come to mind? I don't think so. Solomon warns: "He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm" (Proverbs 13:20).
Relaxation or worship? I've always loved the phrase "practicing the presence of the Lord." After all, isn't that what praise and worship are all about? But if that's the case, I might be in trouble because in any given week I spend more time basking in the glow of a computer monitor than I do basking in God's presence. Matthew 6:21 reminds me that "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Is my TV or Web-surfing stealing just my hours, or my heart and soul as well? The Bible tells us not to become image-worshipers. I always figured I was safe as long as there wasn't a golden calf in my living room. Now I'm not so sure!K.S.L.