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..