Growing up was a numbers game. We had six rooms in our little brick row house. Six rooms, three bedrooms, five people, one television. It was a little black and white set with Howdy Doody on it. It sat, a 15-inch screen in a giant mahogany cabinet, in the middle of our living room, with all chairs, sofas and slipcovers facing it.
It was something we all enjoyed, television. It brought us music and laughter and drama and sports. From that little room on Calvert Street, it was our window on the world. Even more important than our one telephone. This was before cell phones. Hey, this was before pushbutton phones.
We loved TV and all that it gave us. I remember the small smile on my father’s face when, after the dregs of a 12-hour workday, he got to be entertained by Berle and Benny and Burns and Allen.
As important as television was to us, it had its place. And its place wasn’t at the dinner table. Dinner was a time to talk. The TV was turned off. We talked about school, about work, about Ike’s golf game, about Richie Ashburn’s batting average. All the important stuff.
“What did you learn in school today,” my father would ask.
“Capitals. We’re learning the capitals of every state. All 48 of them.”
“OK, smart guy, what’s the capital of Kansas?”
“Not bad for a little kid,” he said, dunking a forkful of meatloaf in a pool full of ketchup. He would go on to ask me every state he could think of. All 30 of them. I stumbled a little over South Dakota, but I got them all right.
“You’re a pretty bright boy,” my father said. “I’m going to get you something for studying so hard. How about a new yo-yo?
“A Duncan,” I begged. “Can I get a Duncan Imperial? Please?”
He considered the request as if he were buying a new house. Five minutes later he said, “OK, a Duncan Imperial it is.”
I eventually grew up and had sons of my own. Every one of them knows the state capitals. In my house, we were more liberal about the kids watching TV. We used it as a learning tool. Sesame Street helped them learn how to read. They never missed a segment of Conjunction Junction. But there was never TV at the dinner table. At night, TV was something they earned by finishing their homework correctly. My kids grew up respecting that. It helped make them the bright, successful people they are today.
But now, I worry about their kids, and this whole generation that is growing up with camera cell phones and video iPods and games that look more real than life. I shudder every time I see a little kid in the back seat of an SUV staring at the DVD that’s playing on the tiny screen in front of him. Well, what’s a kid to do when his mom is in the front seat on the cell pone?
Media is everywhere. Missed a show? Not to worry. You can TiVo it. You can download it. You can buy the DVD. So, given that, while there are now 50 states, there are still, at last count, only 24 hours in the day, when does the talking part come in? When do you pull the plug on everything electronic and learn about their wants and needs and fears?
Wouldn’t it be nice if your kid knew how to express himself? Wouldn’t it be great if he knew what was going on the real world? And wouldn’t it be wonderful if he knew that the capital of South Dakota was Pierre? Maybe there’s a yo-yo in it for him. Or a better life.