A couple years ago, when my partner told me she was pregnant, I let loose a joyful laugh. She looked so nervous, but all I could think was, Our little family's going to be so hip. As a 34-year-old newspaper reporter with a degree in philosophy and several stamps in my passport, I thought, It's about time I had a baby I can expose to Dostoyevsky, adventure travel and the dire need for campaign-finance reform.
And this would start from Day 1. There would be no inane TV in our house. We would go for hikes. While other people stayed home, we'd take our baby to art galleries. Children's music is silly. We'd listen to jazz and deconstruct Ani DiFranco lyrics.
My quixotic mind couldn't fully grasp the reality of early fatherhood. My son is a year-and-a-half old now, and he hasn't said one original thing about Foucault. He'll dance pretty much nonstop to Raffi music videos but cares nothing for Ornette Coleman. While being a dad is way harder than I'd ever imagined, I've stayed true to my original principles (unless I'm reclining after work while watching The Daily Show).
"Winnie the Pooh first thing in the morning?" I said on a recent Saturday, walking into a living room covered in plastic blocks and bunny-shaped crackers. The computer monitor buzzed. My son looked pleased.
"You weren't up all night with him," my partner said, trying to milk an hour of semi-sleep on the futon while the rug-rat zoned out to fast-moving animation.
I'd stayed out late with friends, so I shut my mouth and made some coffee. No need to get worked up. We had a family hike planned. That would surely counteract any brain disintegration caused by watching this fat bear and buffoonish tiger bounce around.
I recently read that, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 74 percent of children watch TV before the age of 2, and 43 percent of those tots watch every day. Don't these parents know that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time until a child reaches 24 months? That's no smartphones, tablets, computer monitors—nothing.
You have to take that with a grain of salt, my partner explained. In 2013, a study out of several major universities, called Skype Me!, found that children can learn new words through live-video chat. Like when he talks to the grandparents through the laptop. It's fine because he's interacting.
I get it. The less passive the better. According to the national think tank Zero to Three, while children still learn best from "interaction in the real three-dimensional world," games on iPads teach kids stuff, too. Of course, who knows what they'll be watching on that thing once they start googling?
For the most part, we let our son watch only Daniel Tiger, an educational show on PBS inspired by the characters of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. But according to the literature, we should be watching with him and asking him questions about what he's seeing. That doesn't happen. If I break down and put on Netflix Kids, it's because I don't have the energy to interact with him or I need to get chores done. The idiot box is the option of last resort to preserve my sanity.
Hopefully, a good father-son hike in nearby Switzer Canyon would wash away my screen-time guilt. The grandparents gave us one of those fancy baby backpacks over the holidays, and I was super-excited to try it out.
The boy seemed game, as well, climbing into the apparatus pretty much on his own. I buckled him in, carefully lifted the contraption off the ground and on to my back. Mom was down for some exercise, too. We headed out the door strapped with sunglasses and the best intentions.
A few clouds threatened rain, but I beamed as I walked down the sidewalk. Look at us, suckers. Just imagine how well-rounded and inquisitive our son will be with parents like us. Go ahead and put on that Disney flick. No subliminal messages of conformity seeping into our baby's brain.
It's not like you haven't been warned. As far back as 1961, Newton Minnow, chair of the Federal Communications Commission, preached about the "vast wasteland" that is commercial TV. Later in the decade, Sesame Street would be conceived. While it's still the top-rated kid's show, according to tv.com, less educational shows such as Pokemon and SpongeBob SquarePants aren't far behind.
About halfway to the canyon entrance, the boy wanted desperately to get out of the backpack. The wailing and flailing increased. Was anyone watching? Clearly, they'd know that cartoons and mindless viewing had permanently damaged his attention span. Unsuccessfully, I tried to reason with him.
"No, no, no!" he said, blasting me with irrefutable logic.
Thankfully, after a quick stretch of his baby legs, he agreed to resume the hike in the backpack. Before long, we found the canyon entrance and headed down a lush trail. Birds chirped. Squirrels scuttled. Let the learning recommence.
Once out of the backpack and running around under the canopy, the look on his face was unmistakable. It's pretty much the complete opposite of the screen-time zombie stare. His eyes lit up as he balanced on a log. Mom hid behind a tree and he rushed to find her. Fully engaged learning.
That's when he saw me checking my iPhone. What? It was a work email (or maybe a tweet).
Running towards me, he babbled something about "bah, bah, black sheep." Clearly, he wanted to watch music videos more than play in the bounty of nature. Somewhat reluctantly, I put the screen away, and we got back to the 3-D world.
He looked so happy running back and forth, climbing on a pile of woodchips, sniffing some flowers, staring up at a hawk gliding through the air.
I should totally post a video to Facebook, I thought.