The battle for the remote control

April 2007

Dear Dave,

Following on from our recent correspondence about the effects of kids' TV, I have a confession to make. I have to admit that Marie is addicted to Numberjacks. Just as I can't function in the morning without my cup of coffee, she needs her fix of single-digit superheroes.

In case you haven't seen it, it's a mixture of CGI and live-action, involving the numbers zero to nine living in a sofa and being teleported out to help people who are experiencing maths related problems created by villains such as the Puzzler, the Numbertaker and Spooky Spoon. It sounds weird but the reality is pretty straightforward. The characters look like numbers and they're named after numbers so kids learn to recognise numbers. (If you want weird then check out In the Night Garden which is also on CBeebies - that's weirder than discovering your eyebrows have turned purple or than finding a tube of toothpaste embedded in your cheese. Lewis was watching it the other day and asked me, "Why did Upsy Daisy kiss the Ninky Nonk?" I honestly answered that I had absolutely no idea).

Anyway, if Marie doesn't get Numberjacks at regular intervals then she starts to get grumpy and uncooperative. Leave her too long and there's anger and tears. Eventually she turns into a quivering, whimpering wreck. Flick on the TiVo, however, and it's instant smiles and little squeals of relief. Then her eyes glaze over and she stares in rapt attention for twelve or so minutes until the episode finishes and she demands another one.

The boys were the same when they were younger. We ended up watching the Scooby Doo movie two or three times a day for a month at one point. I wasn't complaining, though, because (a) it has Sarah Michelle Gellar in it and (b) it kept them occupied for quite a while. Having to start up five episodes an hour is more of a chore while constantly reminding me how little 'real' parenting I'm doing. On top of that, she's not always entirely sure what's fact or fiction. She knows numberjacks are only 'in the telly' but if snot starts dripping out her nose then she's convinced it's the Problem Blob's fault. She was scared to go to bed last week because she thought the Shape Japer was waiting in her room. ("He bad! I not want light off!")

This leaves me with a dilemma. Which makes me a worse parent - letting her watch and risk her living in fear that an animated miscreant is going to turn her into a triangle, or not letting her watch and risk her being so miserable that she makes herself vomit? I'm not sure of the answer. On a practical level, however, not having to clean up sick always makes a course of action more attractive.

I had been quite smug about controlling my children's viewing up to this point. Our TV set up is so complicated they can't change the channel themselves and so I have control. As what they watch is limited to start with, I've only had to put a stop to a few things on Cartoon Network. There hasn't been much conflict.

On the occasions when I've discussed censorship with other parents, it's usually computer games we've talked about. On the one hand, there are people who don't realise how much games have progressed since the days of Pac-Man and don't realise just how unsuitable some of them are for children. On the other, sensationalist news coverage singles out violent games above any other medium as the root of all kinds of evil. As a keen gamer myself I've tried to point out the middle ground. Games have age ratings on them just like films. These are suitability ratings based on content such as sex and swearing. (I've overheard confused parents in shops think they were difficulty ratings. '3+' means it doesn't have nudity or terrifying brain-eating, chainsaw-wielding zombies; it doesn't mean a toddler will be able to play it).

Obviously, there's room for some parental discretion. In my household I do the games buying and it shouldn't be too hard working out what's suitable for my kids' ages and maturity as they grow older. I've already had to stop Fraser from playing Paper Mario 2 - he's good at the fights but for me to sit there for thirty hours reading the text wouldn't be fair on my other kids. He wasn't happy but we got through it. Am I going to stop him playing Grand Theft Auto until he's eighteen, when, here in Scotland, he could get married without my permission at sixteen? I don't know. Still, armed with reviews and my own gaming experience, I should be able to make a decision and argue my case.

As I said, I was smug. Then some thoughts crossed my mind. Forty TV channels enter my house but all I watch is Dr Who, 24 and three flavours of CSI. I can't remember the last non-animated film I saw at the cinema. My CD collection stops at 1997. My video rental card has bio-degraded. The library thinks I'm dead. There are... Oh...

One day they're going to figure out how to work the TiVo remote. I can't maintain control forever. Let's face it, I'll have little idea what my kids are listening to, watching or reading. They'll probably have unsuitable friends as well. Games are only a small part of what they will be exposed to. Every practical detail of drug use and benefit fraud I picked up as a teenager, I gathered from my parents' Daily Mail and from News at Ten (thanks, Trev!). Most episodes of EastEnders portray more lying and cheating than any game I've ever played. For every book full of enlightenment, there are three biographies of footballers. Shielding children and teens from difficult issues is impossible without solitary confinement. It won't make good kids anyway, just ignorant ones.

I guess, in some ways, our job is going to get harder as our children get older. Difficult issues should be a regular part of conversation. We need to talk honestly and openly to our children about everything - sex, death, violence, drugs, sexuality, God, relationships, anger, money, failure, love, forgiveness, everything. We need to listen to them and discuss these issues. In short, we need to fill them full of real sense so that the nonsense can't take hold.

Which is easier said than done...

Marie's still allowed to watch Numberjacks but we had to talk to her about it and convince her everything's OK. We reasoned with her as best we could but played along a little as well - we told her the Shape Japer had gone far away on a train. This cheered her up a lot. "He lost in tunnel," she said and went to bed. Crisis averted for now.

It's a start, I suppose.

Yours in a woman's world,


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