Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The era of partial viewings

My son turned two on Saturday.

Before the day was out, he had seen both Up and Toy Story.

Parts of them, anyway.

In his two years of existence, we've had a strict rule not to introduce him to TV. That doesn't mean we'd make sure the TV was off if he were in the room. We just made sure that whatever was on TV didn't interest him. Baseball has been my programming of choice in that regard. It doesn't interest my wife, either -- two birds with one stone.

But we always knew that when he turned two, we would slowly introduce him to the kind of programming where he was the intended demographic. I decided to take that literally by showing him Up on the morning of his second birthday, even though he technically didn't turn two until 9:35 a.m.

Why Up? I have no great love for it. I appreciate it more upon every viewing (this would be my third), but I still consider it to be in the lower half of Pixar's movies. We only own it at all because my sister gave it to me as a Christmas present that year. Loved the idea of trying to get me DVDs she thought I'd like, and though she scored only a minor hit with this one, she scored a major one with Inglourious Basterds.

I considered showing him Inglourious Basterds, thinking he might really get something out of the scene where Eli Roth cracks open that Nazi's head with a baseball bat. But Up was the movie of choice, because my son had taken it off the shelf a couple times and given a long look at Kevin, the colorful bird sought out by Charles F. Muntz come hell or high water. (As I've always said -- just go back to society and show everyone you've invented a collar that translates the thoughts of dogs into speech. Much more impressive than proving the existence of an elusive bird.)

"Duck!" my son proclaimed upon looking at Kevin. In his world, all birds that look even vaguely like a duck, are a duck. (He loves dogs even more than ducks, but the satellite dish around Doug's head may have kept my son from identifying Doug as a canine.)

So I decided to show him the movie with the duck in it for his birthday.

Of course, the duck doesn't come into the movie until 30 minutes in. So I had to ask myself: Do I show him Up from the beginning, or from 30 minutes in?

But the question was really this: Am I showing him Up for him, or for me?

You see, if you know me, and if you read this post way back in 2009, you know that I don't really love watching parts of movies. This wasn't always the case. But when I started keeping track not only of the new movies I watched, but also of the favorites I revisited, everything started to "count." Strict adherence to lists has a way of doing that. Since I didn't want to face the dilemma of whether watching 25 minutes of a movie means that it "counted" as a viewing, I decided to just stop catching bits of movies here and there. I'll either watch all of it or watch none of it.

See, that kind of absolutism is not possible with children. And I ought to resign myself to it sooner rather than later. My friends who have older children have seen parts of some Pixar movies in the multiple dozens of times. I imagine I soon will be that guy, too.

Soon, but not yet.

Terminal completist that I am, I showed him Up from the beginning.

And was amazed at his apparent capacity for absorbing the movie. He sat there, sucking his fingers, staring raptly at the screen, long past the point I dared hope he'd do so. Those first 30 minutes, until Kevin makes his entrance, are pretty adult-oriented, all told. Yeah, you get a little bit of young Carl and young Ellie, but then you get a montage of their life together and old Carl's cantankerous interactions with various city officials. It would be easy for a child of four, let alone two, to lose his focus during that part.

And so I breathed a sigh of relief when Carl unveils the massive bunch of balloons that will carry him to Paradise Falls. I knew this would hold my son's attention for a bit longer, even if it had been flagging to that point. And it did hold his attention, though his attention hadn't seemed to be flagging.

Strangely enough, it was right at about the point that Kevin was ready to appear that he finally stopped being interested in the movie. And maybe he's just my son in that regard. He knew that the movie was on track until that point, and that it kind of starts to meander once Carl and his rotund boy scout stowaway Russell land near Paradise Falls. Maybe he, like me, thought it was a curious choice to shift the action from their wondrous airborne adventures, to their adventures lugging around the house like an overgrown kite, followed around by an annoying bird and an idiot dog. 

He did show limited interested in both Kevin and Doug, but by then, he had other jobs around the living room that needed his attention.

Me, I kept watching as long as I could. I missed big chunks of the third act while preparing his birthday pancake breakfast, but I still felt that it "counted" as a viewing, and recorded it in my lists as such.

When my wife decided to show him Toy Story in the afternoon, I caught little bits, but mostly decided to stay out of it. I watched about 20-25 assorted minutes and decided that this did not "count." (Besides, we just watched Toy Story earlier this year, and I didn't want to have my enjoyment of it ruined by another viewing so soon afterward -- especially since my most recent viewing was the least enthused I had felt about it in any of my half-dozen viewings.)

But if my son's childhood is anything like the childhoods of my friends' kids, I'll soon have my appreciation of plenty of terrific animated movies ruined.

Maybe I'll just strategize to buy him only the crappy ones, so I won't care if I start hating them.


Travis McClain said...

You've hit upon what is surely one of the universal questions of parenting in our society since the advent of home video and cable: do TV & movies exist as a time occupier for children, or can/should they be expected to be attentive viewers?

My own youth is a bit mixed on the topic. I had some shows that were pretty much sacrosanct parts of my afternoons but by and large we didn't watch much TV and even fewer movies when I was young. Whatever I watched had to be approved, firstly, but there was also always the ever present threat that if I wasn't paying sufficient attention, off it went.

I've seen, however, all too frequently many instances where the TV just sort of stays on seemingly all day. Sometimes, no one's even sure why what's on is on, except that no one changed the channel after the last thing someone actively wanted to see concluded.

It's my contention that children aren't incapable of paying attention at all. It's that adults accept it as an intrinsic aspect of children, like that they aren't fluent in Latin and can't do long division, so don't ask 'em. Of course, if a child is subjected to nonstop TV/movies, he/she will tune out. Guess what? So do adults, and I've seen that with increasingly greater frequency than even with children.

It's become common to have a TV or movie playing "for background noise." My wife would insist on having a TV on even while writing a paper for college.

It comes back to the matter of quality versus quantity. You've espoused yourself your own philosophy on the matter, and there's no reason it can't be instilled in your son. Just think how much farther he'll go if it doesn't take him until his early adulthood to decide that he can choose between watching or not watching something, and not settle for "kinda watching."

Small fine print
Obviously, children's powers of comprehension and their fatigue threshold are variable factors that cannot be expected to remain static as an adult's might be. I'm not saying that at age 2, he's capable of sitting passively in front of a TV screen for three and a half hours, processing the historical implications of The Birth of a Nation. He'll need time to develop his own taste, interests, etc. and that's a learning curve all its own.

The very simple matter, though, of consciously choosing to devote one's attention to something is tremendously important and within the grasp of every child. It will serve him in good stead when he reaches school age and can apply the mental discipline learned at home over Up to staving off distractions while his teacher drones on about phyla and species nomenclatures.

Vancetastic said...


Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

I agree that I find a completely silent environment to be somewhat oppressive. In fact, you might say that Americans watch as much TV as we do in part out of a reaction to our fear of silence and the way silence allows us to get too deep inside our own heads. However, since we can't admit this to ourselves, we aren't content to have the TV on as just background noise. So we discover more and more programs to "care" about so that we'll actually be "watching" them when they're on as background noise. I think this is why I prefer the shows that require less of my mental investment, because they allow me to do what I'd actually be doing if I allowed myself to turn the TV off -- messing around on the internet. This is no pretty picture.

As for children in particular, we're pretty conscious of our son becoming dependent on television, which is why we have been careful to control his exposure to it. However, in this day and age, couldn't you argue that if he's going to be addicted to something, it might actually be *preferable* for him to be addicted to TV instead of the internet? At least TV is structured in such a way that it has natural stopping points that give you a chance to break free, whereas the internet is essentially a wormhole from which there is no escape.

Travis McClain said...

There are advantages to the Internet, though. For one thing, it's not 100% passive. Yes, you can zone out and bounce from kitty video to kitty video without doing anything more than clicking, but forums, blogs and social media all promote interaction. Your son would learn more about forming coherent arguments and tolerating differing perspectives from the Internet, for instance.

Of course, the downside to the web is that it's unfiltered. You can be browsing Pinterest for something as innocuous as images of Batgirl and all of a sudden find pictures and comments that many would find uncouth at best and inflammatory at worst. TV can feel hamstrung at times by the various oversight committees, but there's a general sense of how "safe" a network or show will be. You don't worry that your son will be watching a rerun of Tiny Toon Adventures and all of a sudden a caption will flood the screen talking about all the things someone wants to do with Babs Bunny.

Ultimately, though, TV and the web are both unavoidable parts of our society. You technically can do without either, but you forfeit your ability to participate in society on the same level as everyone else. It's not just pop culture and insipid catch phrases; it's the dissemination of prevailing views on social issues.

For instance, look at how differently society discusses LGBTQ matters now than 20 years ago. Because of TV shows and personalities bringing LGBTQ characters into our living rooms on a weekly, even nightly, basis, we've seen a paradigm shift. Statistics show that Americans <35 are demonstrably more tolerant and accepting of LGBTQ equality than our elders, and there's no question that TV has played a key role in this. Conservatives will read this and say, "SEE! THAT'S EXACTLY WHAT WE WERE SAYING!" I, of course, would wonder why they can't let go of their fear and see what the rest of us see: that LGBTQ people are not bogeymen and treating them as such is as outdated as it is reprehensible.

This all probably reads like devil's advocacy and not at all helpful to you as you try to navigate parenthood. My ultimate point is that, for all the accusations that TV and Internet are mind-numbing, soul-diminishing institutions that represent the destruction of society itself, there really are a lot of positive elements. As with anything else in life, context matters most.