One family that forgoes screens of all sizes

The first thing you notice when you walk into the Rodriguez home is the quiet.

It takes a while to figure out what's different. There's a grand piano, a foosball table, a dog named Rusty, books that fill every crevice, and a well-spun globe.

But missing are the wise- cracks of Bart Simpson, the thump-thumping of Snoop Dogg, and the shrieks of Mortal Kombat. In this house, Shakespeare and Beethoven rule.

This is the story of one family that said no to the electronic media. To most Americans, it may seem like a radical statement - and experts themselves are divided over whether such a step is wholly beneficial, or even attainable.

But in a time of increasing backlash to violent and sexual images aimed at children, the Rodriguezes believe they have made the right decision. The couple's two boys spend less time fighting and more time sharing, less time glued to a monitor and more time glued to a book, says mom Betsy Peck. As a result, she adds, they're learning to entertain themselves, rather than always expecting to be entertained, and are developing their sense of curiosity and their imaginations.

Take 12-year-old Geoffrey, a huge Red Sox fan who has never seen the team play on TV. Rather, he listens to games on the radio.

"I imagine the games in my head," he says, sprawled over a chair in the family's cluttered living room. "I imagine Fenway [Park] and how the players look hitting the ball."

Truth be told, the family does own a TV, but it's kept in the basement. When they watch, it's always as a family - complete with popcorn. They might spend two hours a month in front of the tube - way below the national average of three hours a day for children.

And there's also a computer, but it's dad's. Sixteen-year-old Daniel gets to use it sparingly for homework. Geoffrey isn't allowed to log on. Studies of media boycotters like this Massachusetts family are almost nonexistent. But many educators support limits on kids' time in front of a screen. Children who don't have a large diet of electronic media tend to be more curious, creative, interactive, imaginative, and able to problem-solve, says Diane Levin, an education professor at Wheelock College in Boston and author of "Remote Control Childhood."

But electronic media can have benefits as well. Banning them from the home is neither easy nor the best solution for every family, experts say.

"Television can really be a phenomenal tool for teaching kids about violence, sex, racism," says Patti Miller of the Children & the Media program at Children Now in Oakland, Calif. While she doesn't urge using TV that way, she says that when sensitive scenes appear, parents can use the opportunity to explain why they disapprove. That can happen, she says, only when parents watch with their children.

At the Rodriguez household, the limits work because they are consistently enforced - and the boys themselves seem to understand the rationale behind them. Here's how each family member views the electronic embargo.

* * *

Betsy Peck, mother of the Rodriguez clan, grew up in a typical 1960s television-watching family. "We ate dinner on TV trays in front of the television set and were only allowed to talk during the commercials," she recounts. "I knew right then I wasn't going to be like that."

The youngest of six children, she had the benefit of watching her siblings raise their own offspring - and she took some lessons from it. On TV-watching, she chose a different path, even though it creates conflict when the extended family gets together on holidays. "This past year, there was a sense of eagerness for us to leave so they could all watch 'Austin Powers,' " she says. "They think I'm just crazy."

But Ms. Peck is adamant. Before her sons visit the home of a new friend, she explains her rules to the parents. To avoid sticky situations, she encourages the boys to invite friends to their house.

She admits that some children are initially bored there. But she's taken care to provide a house full of fun: foosball and air hockey, dartboards, Erector Sets, a workshop for tinkering, and piles of costumes. The boys put on shows with music they compose. They work puzzles, build model rockets, and fly paper airplanes. Geoffrey went through a phase when he pounded rocks open to see how they looked inside.

"Kids are so used to instant gratification that they don't know how much the world has to offer," Peck says.

* * *

Tony Rodriguez has been the biggest holdout to an electronics-free family. Indeed, the TV wouldn't be in the house at all if not for him.

Mr. Rodriguez admits he loves watching movies on DVD and enjoys an occasional TV show. He is down to a few programs a week now that he gets the news online.

Still, he enforces the limits for the boys. The programs the family watches, chosen carefully, might be the Olympics, the presidential debates, or "Star Trek" reruns - a big favorite. The shows are always taped (so commercials can be fast-forwarded), and the boys are never allowed to turn on the TV just to see what's on.

"My wife and I believe you have to say no - and that it doesn't hurt a child to do so," Rodriguez says.

It's the same story with the computer. Rodriguez even works in the field, as a top systems architect at EMC in Hopkinton, Mass. Acquaintances wonder how he can deny his children access to the computer. He, of all people, should know it's important for children to keep up with the digital revolution, they say.

Rodriguez is unconcerned by such talk. He insists his boys will be able to catch up when they need to. "When I first went into the computer-engineering department at MIT, they asked me whether I wanted to specialize in hardware or software. I didn't know what they were talking about. But look at me now."

* * *

Daniel says he's simply not interested in seeing or listening to most of what's out there in the e-world.

An avid musician, he prefers jazz and classical over rap and rock. (Those don't "require any musical talent," he asserts.) And he reads voraciously - magazines like Time, Newsweek, Popular Science, and National Geographic, and books by the ream.

Steering clear of TV, popular music, and the Net hasn't made Daniel feel left out. Any reference to pop culture he will have read about. "I can quote lines from movies I haven't even seen."

Moreover, his schedule isn't exactly empty. Asked what activities he's involved in, Daniel leans back on the sofa and asks: "Are you sure you have enough time?"

Currently, he's the pianist for the school musical, "Cabaret." He's playing Quince in the school's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." He spends Saturdays at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge. He's in concert choir, jazz ensemble, and jazz improvisation. He also is in honors and advanced-placement courses at school.

Daniel took a typing class his freshman year - his first foray onto the computer. Since then, he has been allowed to use his father's home computer for school work. He found it addicting and began cutting his time online.

His mother says he's "got a good built-in meter." Daniel says: "I have good taste."

* * *

Geoffrey, who is emerging as a class leader, seems more aware that he isn't up on popular culture - that he's different from his friends.

His parents believe that's because he's more social than his older brother. But Geoffrey, easygoing and fun, exhibits the same self-discipline as Daniel does.

He knows about Diablo, a video game rated 17 or older, that his friends play. When they discuss strategy or read the instructions, Geoffrey doesn't participate.

"I think it's sometimes seen as a negative by his friends," says his dad. "But he has learned how to deal with it."

At soccer camp last year, counselors popped in "Space Jam" one rainy day. Geoffrey got a book and a pack of cards, and left the room. Soon, he says, other kids were joining him.

Not all experts endorse a separation from e-media. "It's too hard to do in this culture, and most who try find it doesn't work," says Ms. Levin. "Parents who think it's important to protect their children from it don't realize they are setting up battles. It's seductive to kids and they feel badly for being interested."

But to claim that children who aren't in front of the computer or TV are going to be at a disadvantage is "just crazy," says David Walsh of the National Institute on Media and the Family in Minneapolis. "Can electronic media be a part of growing up? Absolutely. But it should not be the be-all and the end-all."

For the Rodriguezes, even the boys, life is richer without them. "It seems everything out there is in revolt against the idea of treasuring children," Peck says.

She knows most parents aren't able to do as much, but says even a small effort can reap big rewards. "Parents have a responsibility for tending that invisible life, to treat their children like a dry sponge or a garden," she says.

Quips Daniel, "You're mixing your metaphors, mom."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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