Powering Down: How Getting Rid of the TV Brought Our Evenings Back and Changed Our Lives

Like any other family in suburbia and beyond, we had a telly. It seemed to be on incessantly. It drove me insane. When we moved to our new house in April I declared that our new house would be a TV-free zone. I thought it would be the end of the world for my teenage daughters. It turned out to be a non-event. No-one really cares. We have been TV free for three months. The end.

OK, so that's the short version. Seriously, I was prepared for battles royal. What happened though, was that the 16yo said, "Meh," and the 11yo sulked for a week, when she remembered. When we moved into our new house, I put the telly in my wardrobe, to be brought out for movie nights. In three months, it has come out exactly once, to watch a movie when The Girl visited. Posy did request to watch the Olympics, and I was happy to oblige, but then she forgot. We have viewed exactly zero hours of Olympic coverage, which is just fine by me, except that it is my job in the classroom to help the children update the medal tally poster every day. So I do a quick internet search in the morning when I get to school.

So, if the children apparently don't care about watching TV, why was it previously on for so many hours every day? Habit, is the only reason I can think of. And that deadly cycle of 'just watching to the end of this program' - and then being physically unable to turn off the flickering pictures. Also, there was quite a psychological barrier to getting rid of the TV. It has turned into the ersatz hearth, the place where the family gathers for its 'togetherness' times. Maybe, at the back of my mind there was an unacknowledged worry - even though I am a dedicated TV hater, what if it really was the only thing that brought my family together? What if our only shared experience really was watching TV together? Maybe without those feel-good family programs we would all slink off to our rooms and bathe in the glow of our internet-connected devices and never speak to each other?

I must admit, the girls do their fair share of keeping our internet provider in business. But our family life has improved enormously without that annoying TV on. First, the house is blissfully quiet. Well, unless the girls have their loud music on, which they generally do when washing the dishes, so no objections there. We have dinner together at the table every night. No whining about wanting to have dinner in front of the telly, which was once a treat, and then turned into somewhat of a habit at our old place, especially in the winter as the living room contained both TV and heater.

Now we have a dining room with a wood stove, and winter dinners include a candle, and our latest innovation, a read-aloud. Whoever finishes dinner first makes Mummy a cup of tea and reads a few pages, and then we take turns reading for the duration of the cuppa. Then we wash the dishes together. Then it is quiet hour where we do homework (girls), paperwork, answering emails etc (me) at the table. This prevents the girls from running off to their screens in their rooms. Actually, it mostly isn't quiet hour at all. Tonight one child was practising her French homework out loud, and the other one had an assignment on forms of government and seems to need to talk out loud in order to write, while I was trying to balance the budget and was yelling at everyone to be quiet until I had added all these receipts up. It was very loud mayhem, and when Posy asked the question, "How would you describe anarchy?", I had an excellent answer.

Maybe once a week or so I am persuaded to play a board game, and other times we all sit around in the warm and just read. Again, the quiet is like a divine gift. There are no voices blaring at me to buy things. No daleks or better home gurus or celebrity chefs. Just the fire crackling. Well, to be completely honest there is often a lot of sibling squabbling going on, or crazed laughter for no clear reason. But they shush eventually. And the girls have become readers. They read before, but not in any kind of sustained fashion. Now they can get through a novel in a few days, because they have time. You can see them losing themselves in another world. Often they just tuck themselves into bed with the dog and a book.

With no TV we also get to bed earlier. Reading in bed, even for a die-hard reader like me, is a very soporific exercise. Quiet, low light, warmth, the requirement for concentration, all conspire to send us off to sleep in no time. Posy has started to sleep better now she doesn't spend her pre-sleeping time in front of a screen.

So, no down side at all to the decision to get rid of the telly. So why did we spend so many years with our evenings ruled by a box of flickering images? Well, here's a reason - if you don't want to examine your life closely, spending a lot of time in front of the telly is a marvellous distraction. Sitting in front of a fire though - all the cosmic questions of life, the universe and everything present themselves. This can be quite uncomfortable, so TV may be preferable if this concerns you. It is also a matter of social conditioning. Watching TV is what everyone does. Or if not actually watching TV, watching your shows on the internet. It is startling to discover how much conversation in the staffroom concerns what was on telly last night. Really? Not only are we going to watch other people having a life instead of making our own lives, we are going to talk about those imaginary lives instead of our own? That seems like not such a sensible use of the heartbreakingly short number of moments we have left to enjoy our amazing planet before we have to leave it..

Here is a little thought to leave you with. In the last few months I have begun experimenting in the tiniest ways with living a slightly different life. Not a very different life. I have chosen a few of the machines that do some of our jobs for us - dry our clothes, wash our dishes, entertain us - and stopped using them. I wanted to find out if I could live comfortably without them. I wanted to make an infinitesimal dent in the obscene mountain of stuff that clogs our modern world. What I have discovered is something far more complex - turning off machines has profound implications for the way we live. We now have to do more forward planning (no dryer), we work together as a family (no dishwasher), we spend significant time together as a family, eating together and sleeping better (no TV).

All of this is good and makes us happier. But that is not supposed to happen. Surely machines make our lives better? Isn't that the story we have been told all our lives? Maybe what has really happened is that we have been socially conditioned to think that we need machines. We work extra long hours and go into debt in order to buy them. We live our lives in such a way that we think the machines are working for us, but in truth, we are changing the perfectly natural and human-centred way that we once lived, and have begun to adapt ourselves, voluntarily, unnoticed, to living in a way that serves the machines..


GretchenJoanna said…
What word describes how I feel about what has happened in your house? Stupendous? Glorious? Thrilling? Any of those will do. Also, nothing to do with my feeling, is Revolutionary. More so than doing without a dishwasher or a dryer - because the TV is on a different scale altogether, like inviting into our living room whoever happens to Be On, even (probably mostly) people we don't like. So taking back our private space and taking back our minds that we subject to whatever... it IS thrilling, and so healthful to soul and body, as you have so aptly described.

I grew up with the TV always on, but in the 50's TV truly was not as mind-bending as today. It was pretty slow, for one thing, and the culture that was allowed to be shown was not so degraded. But once I left home I/we never had TV service until a few years ago when my husband retired and wanted to be able to watch some sports without having to go to the pizza parlor.

Now no one is watching anything, and I just last night asked my children for input about my current situation of paying an unmentionable amount every month for something I thought for awhile I should have for when the children and their families come to visit.

My son wrote, "It's generous of you to think of providing TV for guests. Does history show that they use it?" Bless him, the answer is No! Reading your post reminded me, as have my children, of a previous long era when we were very happy and fulfilled and thriving, probably in good part because we had no TV. And my grandchildren always have their phones... So I am going to ditch the cable service today. Thank you, Jo! May I be the first of many who are emboldened by your discoveries.
Treaders said…
Well done Jo. I'm on my own now at home, and I find that with the good weather when I get home from work around 7 pm I like to be outside pottering. I usually come in when it gets dark and that's when the TV goes on for about an hour. It's given me pause for thought though about getting rid of it. I read for at least two hours a day so that isn't an issue, but I suspect I like the background noise. We'll see. Anna
Jo said…
Gretchen Joanna, I love your phrase, 'taking back our private space and taking back our minds' - that is exactly what it feels like - that my private space has become private again, not intruded upon by voices that I have not invited in..

I am so glad that you now feel comfortable to follow your desire to cancel the TV service. I feel sure your grandchildren will have many precious memories in later life of playing with Grandma and enjoying your garden and books and games and working with you in your TV-free house:)

Anna, reading for two hours a day - bliss:) On the rare occasion that I feel the need for some background noise (I am a complete introvert) I listen to the radio. Here in Australia we have an excellent national broadcasting service that also provides regional radio stations as well. I still haven't worked out why it is that radio is such a superior medium to television, for intelligence and depth of programming.. anyway, I appreciate it. I also listen to podcasts of interviews with interesting people. Nothing better when cleaning the bathroom..
simplelife said…
Would you mind if I came to live with you? I'm great at washing up, love eating at the table, I can light and keep a fire going, I know how to dry washing without a dryer. But oh how I long to be tv free, I love those quiet evenings, the low comforting light, the ability to read without my fingers in my ears and that wonderful sleepiness that comes at a much earlier hour. Sadly unless I ditch the husband I have but a snowballs chance in hell.
I've tried to set myself up for the evenings elsewhere in the house but in winter it's too cold and I feel overcome with guilt that I'm not sitting in the same room as the family even though we have no interaction.
Please adopt me, I'm only down the road a few hours, relocating would be simple.

cheers Kate
Jo said…
Kate, of course, come and live with me! I am thinking of opening a Quiet House for Harassed Mothers. Although maybe I should wait until my noisy children leave home..

Now here is something I have been thinking. Maybe sometimes, as mothers, we are too Nice. Because we were brought up to be Good Girls and always think of others, we try to take up as little space, physical and psychological as possible. Look at you, poor poppet, trying to read with your fingers in your ears or sitting alone in the cold. Would you be concerned if one of your children were doing that to themselves? Of course you would! Do you have daughters? Do you want them to grow up thinking that as women the only way to get what they need is to curl up in the corner and be quiet? Truly, we will be waiting a long time if we are waiting for someone else to notice and give us permission to take what we want.

Now Kate, do you think it is reasonable that as a fully functioning member of your household who no doubt contributes an enormous amount to the well-being of your family, that you should have no space at all to do what you want in your own house?

Here is what I wish I had done many, many years ago. Gather the family together and let them know that the nightly TV regime is something that you take no joy in. Acknowledge that you know they all enjoy it. Let them know that you would like one night a week to be be TV-free so that you can all enjoy activities together as a family. What does yours enjoy? Cards, board games, reading, cooking? Let them know that on the other nights you will occasionally join them to watch TV, but that most nights will find you tucked up in bed with your hot-water bottle and a book. Let them all know that they are welcome to join you there any time for a snuggle and a chat.

If they can't agree to a compromise like that, well, then they really don't deserve you and running away to join the circus might be in order.

As parents, as partners, we have power to change things in our households and our families. Yet we are afraid to take the plunge. And sometimes that can be because we want our family to like us - we don't want to be seen as the fun police. And yet, sometimes, as I found out, what our families really want, and what they think they want are two different things.

I thought my kids wanted to watch TV. Turns out they really wanted to do fun stuff together as a family, and watching TV together was just the easiest way for that to happen. Maybe yours will love a family games night just as much or more. There are very few kids I can think of who wouldn't..

Here is another thing I have learned about myself recently, and I believe it to be true of many women. We use use our families as an excuse not to live our best lives. We can't do this or that, because the family would never stand for it. But it is just an excuse. Just by stating, 'Hey, this is the kind of life I want, and this is how I am going to live it,' we become strong.

So let's do it, Kate. Let's live the life we want, and see what happens...

(of course, the kicker to following this advice is that you might end up as a divorced single mother like I have, but frankly, two years later, I am now gleefully happy and free to follow whatever winding road my heart desires. I would so much rather be where I am now than sitting in front of the telly with a husband who always thought I was a tiny bit crackers)

simplelife said…
Quick reply as I head out the door, Jo have you been in my head? Everything you have so beautifully written is exactly the place I've been heading lately.
Your response has felt like a big caring hug, so thankyou. It's also made me realise, obviously but I'm a bit slow to catch on, or delude by thinking I'm something extra special, that I'm not alone in this. Time to reclaim my power and step into my own corner and back myself, because I deserve it. I must stop being the enabler in this family, always enabling everyone else to have the most comfortable life..
Thanks for sharing your wisdom.
cheers Kate
Jo said…
Dear Kate, so glad you wrote back - I have been berating myself for being insufferably bossy, but believe me, I meant it as a caring hug - and yes you are something extra special, but isn't one of the joys of growing older realising that we are not alone, that we share so much of our experience with so many others? It's good to find that out, because that means we don't have to blaze a new path every day.. All the very best xx

W. B. Jorgenson said…

Wonderful post yet again! I think your children are probably old enough to realize how odd their life is, but it sounds like they enjoy it, which is what's important.

In response to how much conversation is from the TV, I've noticed it as well, and it really concerns me. There are quite a few people I'm literally unable to talk to, since I don't really watch TV much, and what I do is mostly older shows. They find themselves unable to carry out a conversation with me, and me with them, and it's fairly unsettling...

In any case, good for you for giving up the TV! It sounds like it greatly improved your life, and that's what matters.
jj said…
Hi Jo, as with your other commenters, your recent posts have certainly resonated with me too. When the dishwasher that was in this house when we moved here stopped working we returned to hand washing with little angst, the TV had gone to God a few years previous & now our evenings are full with reading, knitting, music & the like, much richer & more relaxing endeavours we find.

btw, we too got The Mandibles novel from our library & co-read it, which led to great meal time conversations. I'm the faster reader in the household, so had to bite my tongue so as not to give away plot lines my partner wasn't yet up to.

Some time ago we made the decision to power down, collapse early etc & have slowly & incrementally been making our way toward LESS as proposed by John Michael Greer, life just gets better with LESS, no doubt at all.

We will soon be moving from the city to a small regional town an hour away, hopefully to a small cottage or similar & establishing a productive garden, really looking forward to the challenge. I really enjoy your blog, you say what so many of us are thinking in such a clear, concise & entertaining way, thank you :)
Jo said…
WB, yes, a greatly improved life on all counts. It is surprising how much I am enjoying living without electronic distraction. Still have the interweb of course. How are you feeling about turning it off at your place? Are you still aiming for Sep 1?

jj, you are clearly old hands at powering down. I am finding LESS is more, sounds like there is a growing segment of the population which agrees..

Did you get to the end of The Mandibles yet? I found the ending a little unsatisfying. And yet, as a whole, the novel is worthwhile as the beginning of a conversation about the until-now absurd idea that our 'civilisation' is in decline..

I love living in my regional city, and parents are in a small regional town about half an hour away where they can walk everywhere and have been adopted by its very welcoming country community. Lots to be said for a small cottage. I can read instead of clean. Well, maybe I should clean..
jj said…
Yes Jo, I agree with re The Mandibles, but certainly good to see the discussion getting out of the fringes...

A book to recommend your Library to get is Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival & Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy by David Fleming, just been released & not dry at all, a very good read & much preferable to cleaning, or maybe as a reward for cleaning ;)
Zena said…
Sometimes at the crazy hours in the evenings I feel part of the reason things escalate in the house is because I have two boys, the t'v on and the cooking and range hood and everything is loud and competiting with each other. Than I turn the range hood off and t.v and calm the boys and the house feels at peace again. There are many times I have wanted to throw the t'v out. Do you think you are having more success because the children are older? I came very late in to a dishwasher addiction. yes I call it that because I don't know if I can give it up now. My aim is to make as much food as possible from scratch and the dishwasher helps immensely with even just clearly our bench top for production of food. I wash dishes in the sink every day too. Anyway this post has much resonance with me. It is a very thoughtful and inspiring lifestyle change and consideration to the environment and more calm in the home.
Fernglade Farm said…
Hi Jo,

Yes, it is insidious isn't it? This was one of the most thoughtful essays that I have read for quite a while. Respect.

Among my circle of friends and acquaintences, there is only one other household that does not have that particular machine on in the background when I/we visit. It is very distracting for me personally, and as you quite rightly point out it does affect all manner of social things and arrangements - including sleep.

I asked the question regarding all of this stuff of JMG and as I thought, the reply indicated that it is a big topic. Really huge.

I never developed the habit in the first place as I was a bit busy from a very young age and had other things to do. The messages that are allowed to enter the living room via those machines are really quite disturbing, but not many people tend to notice that.


Anonymous said…
Hi Jo, it's been ages since I've commented (such a pain to drag the laptop out so I can type properly!) but I've been reading all your posts. Am so pleased that you have made such a lovely home for yourself and your girls so quickly.

I have a husband who is totally addicted to screens - often he has the TV, his laptop, the Ipad AND his phone on all at once and he works from home. I cannot bear this, and after dinner I retreat to the marital bed and read in blissful silence. The kids come in for a cuddle, and I still read to my 13 yo son most nights, or we might have a game of chess, or as a treat, watch an episode of Doctor Who on the ipad.

Fortunately the house is big enough that I can shut the door on noise, but I am hankering after a whisper-quiet rangehood when we renovate our kitchen, our current one is next to useless, and sounds like a fighter plane taking off. I thought I'd love podcasts, but find them frustrating, as no one talks fast enough for me; I'm constantly wishing the speakers to hurry up. I'd prefer to do the housework in silence, or put on a record (usually 70's disco) on our op shop record player.

Would love to get rid of the dishwasher, but my husband won't hear of it. The dryer is in the shed as I never use it, but he does occasionally. And my cunning plan for the microwave is to banish it to a cupboard in the laundry when we get the kitchen done. Out of sight out of mind (though I do love it for heating up wheat packs, not a fan of the hot water bottle).
Loretta xx
W. B. Jorgenson said…
Hi Jo,

Still aiming for the 1st. I'm moving, and not setting it up at my new place. I'll see how long I can last with that decision. I'm planning to never set up home internet after, but I'll have to see how it goes. In any case, it's going to be an interesting experiment.

I'll still have internet, so I'll make sure to let you know how it goes. :)
Alicia said…
I'm loving this powering down series Jo, it's everything that's been on my mind lately. I've never had a dryer or dishwasher, and don't want them. We do have one TV, and a small microwave however, and I fantasize about getting rid of them and all the DVD's and DVD & VCR player we have. We don't have that many DVD's really, and the kids and I cull the ones they've grown out of regularly, and borrow a few from the library. I'd also like to not have to clean the microwave. But I'm not the only one who lives here. I have been turning the TV off a lot more, and trying to avoid the news, because it's just not good for the kids to watch. And really, what can we do about most of the news- do we really need to know it all?

Thanks for the inspiration xx
oh my wow, this sounds like a blissful life. except for the night with the French homework and government homework :-)
Jo said…
jj, thanks for that recommendation. I looked up Fleming's dictionary, but maybe will try this title instead.. it's great to get a positive review:)

Zena, I have a confession - many years ago when my oldest were 4 and 2 and we lived in the bush with no TV reception, I begged my then-husband to go out and buy a video player to give me some peace! So I am hearing you! However, I lived to regret it. I found that limiting TV time was rarely effective, but getting rid of it solved that problem..

I grew up without a TV, so clearly it is possible with small children - better if there are a gang of other small children amongst the neighbours to play with though. We have coralled ourselves into unnatural nuclear families so our children are bored - no wonder we had to invent the TV to amuse them..

I am also hearing you on the dishwasher. Do miss it sometimes. I am getting used to doing dishes as I cook though, so regaining bench space. There is always a solution.

Chris, it drives me a bit crazy to have a conversation with a screen on in the background. I am an introvert and can only concentrate in a quiet space..

Loretta, lovely to hear from you - I still have your gorgeous letter in bedside drawer - never fear, one of these years I will actually reply:)

I have been thinking about the men and screens phenomenon. I have two thoughts - a) apparently extroverts require more stimulus around them to function and b) I wonder if it is a distraction? When I was in complete denial about my marriage breaking down, I couldn't have any silence in my life at all. I had the radio or TV on all the time, so I didn't have to face an unpleasant reality. Now I am not suggesting that this is the case with your husband in any way, but men in general are less likely, in our society, to talk about their emotions or things that upset them, and constant screens are such a boon to living in denial about life's worries..

WB, I'll be interested to see how that goes. I am a bit ambivalent about the internet myself. As you can see, I haven't been online for a few days, because, life. And good library books..

Alicia, yes, I hated cleaning the microwave too! But as you say, we don't live alone, and if we want to live with other people we have to negotiate.

I completely agree with you re the news. I think it is an addiction. What possible difference is it going to make if we don't hear it? I never let the children watch it, because it is so graphic, negative and unnecessary. We discuss current affairs at the dinner table, but don't need to see those images. I never even listen to the news - except once or twice a week when I am in the car. I figure someone will let me know if there is anything vital I really need to know. Honestly, I haven't missed anything.
Jo said…
e, arrgh, the homework. I do a lot of homework:)
W. B. Jorgenson said…

I don't know many people who like the internet. I know quite a few people who are addicted, but few people who really like it...
Anonymous said…
Jo, I read this post when you published it. As for all those who have commented, it really struck me. You're my guru!! I think What Would Jo Do (in manner of those WWJD bangles). Anyway, I turned the tele off that first Friday night, sat in bed and read. It was divine. I haven't been so good all week. (It's a hard habit to break as the thing sits there.) But I did raise with Mr S the possibility of removing the TV from its prime spot when we get renos done. That will be two years away but at least I've planted the seed and and have time to keep working on him.

Jo said…
WB, that is such an interesting viewpoint. I will think on it..

Lucinda, sitting in bed and reading is my favourite and my best.. I also have two cats who come and sit in bed with me and look effortlessly elegant.

So glad you enjoyed your TV-free night. I think breaking up with the telly would be much harder if you aren't a reader.. but if you are, a big stack of library books, a hot water bottle and a cup of tea - and who needs moving pictures on a screen?

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