When I was a child, somewhere around 7 or 8 (early 1970s), our family’s television set broke. It was an old, black and white relic, and my folks—you’d have to know my folks; they don’t worry about stuff like that—just didn’t bother to get another one. This period of “TV famine” (back then, no TV was like no internet is today) gave me a unique perspective compared to many of my peers. For a short time, way before it became a hashtag, I had an “unplugged childhood.” And it changed my life from that point forward.
If you had asked me during that TV drought, I would have groused to you about not being able to see the annual Wizard of Oz special and Saturday morning cartoons, but looking back, I’m glad I had that period of time to myself without televised media for two reasons:
- I was already a reader by that point, and I read a lot of books, even when we had TV. But once TV could never be a distraction for me, I read even more. This period of time just so happened to coincide with a time when I was starting to read longer chapter books, and it set me on a path of voracious book consumption that lasted until I discovered boys and other adolescent distractions. From what I know now about such things, that excess of exposure to print cemented my vocabulary, and my knowledge of grammar, syntax, morphology, and story structure in a way that no excellent teacher (and I had several) could do on his/her own. It was learning by immersion, and it took a hold of my impressionable mind and never let it go.
- When I wasn’t reading, I had to entertain myself in other ways, and the way I often did that was by acting out stories—ones I had read, and some I made up. In that space created by boredom, I developed my imagination and learned to live inside my own head. I truly believe that time period was one of the things that set me on the path to be a writer. It’s no coincidence that I wrote my first book, the unpublished (thank goodness!) masterpiece, Big Blue the Elephant (written and illustrated, mind you) in 1974, right after that time period without TV. For those months? a year? I was probably bored out of my gourd, and that was most likely a good thing ( https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/inviting-monkey-tea/201801/can-i-let-my-child-be-bored )
I don’t remember how long this TV break up lasted. I do know by the summer after I turned 8, a new color set found its way into our house. I know we got TV back around this time because my mother spent the entire summer watching the Watergate hearings ALL. DAY. LONG. My dad set up the rabbit ears, we got 4 stations (the 3 major networks and PBS), and the picture was often terrible.
So, I went back to watching a little TV in the evenings and on Saturday mornings. Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley gave us our news again. Bicentennial minutes started playing on TV. I dropped what I was doing to watch SchoolHouse Rock. I kept on reading but not quite as much. I got to see the Wizard of Oz special.
TV didn’t destroy my childhood, and an absence of TV didn’t save it. But it made me different, and I’m grateful for that unplugged oasis in a sand-filled sea of constant noise and change.
My kids (now in their 20s) never had an unplugged childhood, even temporarily (their dad would have Freaked Out.) I tried to guide and limit their screen time, but that was a lot harder than when I was a kid, and all a parent had to do was not replace a broken set. My kids are kind, wonderful, functional adults.
But somehow, I think they missed out.