When I first heard a few years back that Madonna didn’t let her children watch television, I thought she was a pretentious hypocrite. I’ve always been convinced watching telly as a child was a great boost to my education. Who could forget The Story Of Coffee, as portrayed on Blue Peter?
And my entire knowledge of the Tudors comes from Keith Michell’s Seventies portrayal of Henry VIII. . . So when I had my daughter Peggy eight years ago, I was thrilled to let her enjoy the brave new world of 12-hoursa- day, on-tap, quality children’s TV.
Remembering all too well the long, dull, Sixties Sunday afternoons of my childhood, when you were lucky to find a western or a Czechoslovakian ‘animation’ (which I soon found out had nothing to do with Tom and Jerry and everything to do with Communist grimness) to break the tedium, I was delighted for her.
Remote control: Maggie and Peggy, who has significantly improved at school after cutting down on television time
On top of that, she has the miracle of DVDs, which means you can watch the entire Disney canon over one wet weekend, rather than wait years for a scratchy print of 101 Dalmatians to come back to your local fleapit for a school holidays airing. As the only child of older parents (we were in our mid-40s when we had her), I felt Peggy needed telly for company.
The Teletubbies were her virtual siblings. And I needed her to have telly so I could stay sane. . . She’s never been a good sleeper and from the age of one, after several wakings in the night, she’d be up at five and ready for action. It seems I wasn’t the only one. This month, research showed that children in Britain sit in front of a TV or computer screen for four-and-a-half hours a day – with approximately two hours 40 minutes of that watching programmes.
The report by research firm ChildWise showed that screens are increasingly turning into electronic babysitters. I must confess I used to drag a duvet to the playroom, put on a DVD and snatch life-saving, 30-second serial naps, while she happily watched.
Any sleep was better than no sleep and if she was watching programmes the BBC had specially designed for babies, that had to be good, didn’t it? Well, no.
But I didn’t know that until I read two years ago that the Australian government was formally advising that children under two should be banned from watching any television – and from two to five should only watch one hour a day.
By then Peggy was well into her school career.
But while the news from Down Under scared the living daylights out of me, I didn’t make the connection between the fact she wasn’t doing brilliantly academically and my early TV exposure policy.
‘I have to make time to play games with her, when I confess in the past I might have nipped upstairs to mess around on Twitter while she gawked at Take Me Out’
For the first three years, we put her lacklustre school results down to the fact that she is the second youngest child in her year, compounded by an unfortunate Year 2 when she had five different form teachers over the school year.
We had our hopes pinned on Year 3, when she would be seven and have a particularly good teacher whom she adored. But when her report came in at the end of last summer, the results were awful again.
She was in the lowest reading group, her spelling was terrible and she rarely finished work. We were gutted – and mystified. I know every parent thinks their child is marvellous, but Peggy’s definitely not thick. She’s as bright as a button to be around, very funny and has a pretty amazing vocabulary.
The problem was, we realised, that she just can’t settle to anything. It was when my sister gave her a cross-stitch kit in the summer holidays and Peggy lost interest before we even had it properly out of the box that the penny dropped.
She has an attention deficit issue. My baby! Once I realised what the problem was, a lot of things fell into place. All the times she’d had friends over and we’d started some kind of craft project, which they’d happily finished, but she had abandoned in favour of doing cartwheels, playing the piano in three-minutes bursts, or just running round and round the table. It also explained why, to her novelist mother’s great sadness, she had never read a book to the end. I turned to Google and there it all was.
All the evidence about the effect of too much TV on children’s development. A 2004 study by the American Academy of Paediatrics spelled it out. ‘Early television exposure is associated with attention problems at age seven.’ There it was, on my computer screen, from the highest authority. Watching too much telly when she was little had fried my darling girl’s brain.
Then someone gave me the amazing book The Brain That Changes Itself, by Canadian doctor Norman Doidge.
It explores the concept of ‘neuroplasticity’, which suggests the brain is capable of constant change. Dr Doidge gave me hope that I might unfry Peggy’s brain, if I could rein back the TV even now. But how to do it, without it seeming like a punishment?
After asking around other parents, I was surprised to find how many of them already had TV controls in place. One family had given up television entirely. They had a set to watch DVDs on together and that was it. Incidentally, this is also Madonna’s system.
For others, it was only after 5pm or one hour of screen time a day, either telly, video game, or computer. I started cutting back in the Christmas holidays. Over about four weeks, we got her telly watching down to an hour at night, plus the occasional DVD watched together.
I discussed it with her and was surprised how willing she was to give it a try, although it has taken effort and commitment on my part. I have to make time to play games with her, when I confess in the past I might have nipped upstairs to mess around on Twitter while she gawked at Take Me Out. And do you know what? It’s great fun.
We cook together, we play board games, do jigsaws, and the whole family is addicted to a brilliant (Mensaapproved) card game called Rat-a-Tat Cat. In fact it reminds me of that winter in the Seventies of nightly powercuts and the whole family playing cards by the light of a paraffin lamp – a time I remember as one of the happiest of my life. Oh – and she’s reading books. On her own. To the end.
Then there’s really amazing news. She’d been back at school for only a couple of weeks after Christmas when her PE teacher came up to me and said: ‘I don’t know what you’ve done to Peggy, but she’s a different girl. She was fantastic in netball today, no fooling around at all.’ The next day I had the same report from her drama teacher and then, last Friday, the big one: her form teacher literally chased after me in the school corridor.
‘Peggy’s a different girl!’ she exclaimed. ‘She’s getting on with her work so well. I’m going to put her up a reading group. I don’t know what you’ve done, but it’s working.’
And to think all it had taken was the flick of a switch – the off button on our TV!