Friday, January 14, 2011

Books Versus Television - is it moot?

i have always loved reading. I have also always loved the telly.

When I started school in Oz, many kids were amazed at how much tv I got to watch. I think I got free reign  as a child - as long as I had homework done and it was kiddy friendly tv, I could watch anytime, anything.

I remember having the groundwork of my philosophy of life being laid by concepts I came across in tv documentaries. Despite my current despair about the state of local television, I remember seeing amazing documentaries on local tv when I was a child. I learnt about surgery, the mind / body relationship, how to conserve and economise in the home when using electricity and water, and how germs and drugs kind of worked the same way - you had to keep clean and stay away from danger zones.

I also remember being engrossed in our Encyclopaedia Brittanica, which came in a set of about 24 volumes of alphabetically listed subjects (I think Q and R were in one volume, as well as X, Y and Z). I read every single volume over and over again and would read it from page one to the end. We also had a wonderful children's encyclopaedia which was split into volumes by subject - like home activities (with a scientific slant) and animal, etc. Volume 11 was my fave out of the 15. It was dark blue. There was also a popular psychology set which described things like cognitive psychology, sexual, social psychology, mental illness and ageing and so on.

Somehow as I progressed through school and uni i think I got a little snooty about reading being a higher pursuit than television watching - and today it occurred to me that maybe my attitude is a little, well, closed-minded.

I have been worrying about my kids not being big readers, and thinking there is so much to be said for learning through reading, especially about life experience, vicarious though the process may be. I mean, you do not have to go through a bad experience, say, to understand how bad it could be (for example, the death of a relative), but reading about it, whether fact or fiction, would definitely give you a more compassionate understanding of it, simply because you would have a wider, deeper knowledge of that experience, even if you hadn't experienced it at all.

But there is also much to be said about real life teaching that can come from family and peers. I could definitely teach my kids about how to deal with that currently fictional death of a relative and how they might be affected, or how they could behave around others who might be affected.

I always pooh-poohed the idea of relying on the television, especially in cases when parents leave the tv to babysit their children constantly.

Then I had kids. And I rediscovered my faith in the tv. yes, I have let the tv babysit my kids on occasion (while I have been writing or simply zoning out), and there have been times when it would happen over an extended period. But, being very conscious of the effect on my kids of any outside influence (i.e. not me or hubby), I have always closely monitored their attitudes and react almost immediately when something crops up which I get suspicious of.

This is as any conscientious parent would do. Kids pick up habits and behaviours from people, why wouldn't they pick them up from the tv or also from their books (if they were readers)? So my kids understood from a young age that any questionable behaviour, language or attitudes would be questioned, and they learned that there were certain programmes they could not watch. And now that they are bigger and craftier, they know there are certain programmes they shouldn't tell me they have watched (Grrr).

Today I was watching BBC Knowledge on our new cable tv package, and I suddenly thought, when tv is good, it is so effing brilliant, and I would plonk my kids down to watch hours of great, spine-tingling, toe-curlingly good tv anytime. Especially television done in the great tradition of conscientious, ethical reporting or education, as the british tend to have been. Nowadays some great stuff is coming out of Canada, and if you can look past some of the hype of Amercian tv, some if it is pretty good too ( though i think their film docs are better).

The writing on british and australian children's television is exemplary, and doesn't just fulfil the entertainment goal, but also seems to take into account the personal and social growth of the child watching. For older kids, the shows can get incredibly complex, not only having a single arcs of narrative, but also smaller, inter-related arcs of sub-plot, or concepts, following on the one theme.

Life now is so incredibly different from just 20 years ago. The mobile phone changed everything. The internet changed everything. And just 5 years ago, we still had to go home to check our mail. Now, life is about getting connected.

I can't be unrealistic about my kids and keep pushing them to read. I could stifle their natural curiosity. whereas, right now, if they want to know something, I can easily encourage them to look it up on the net, and if they want to know more, guide them to other resources such as books and magazines and the tv, for more info.

They already will be expected to do proper research in the next few years at school, so, why push so much?

I guess now the real issue is if the whole business of being constantly connected might create future adults who might not really know how to focus deeply on the one thing. Well, I can no longer do that - what mother / professional can nowadays? Unless you want a career in scientific research and analysis, are those skills really necessary?

Perhaps not at work. But I think personal relations might suffer. Ever tried to hold a conversation with someone who won't look up from their phone?  It's annoying, but they usually stop if you punch the table to get their attention :)


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