Last week, Jason and I had our parent/teacher meeting with Joe’s teacher, Miss D. She told us how very smart Joe is and how advanced his reading is, and we talked about ways we can start working on some fourth grade learning, now, while he’s still in third grade. She gave us all the words he’s supposed to know at the end of next year. He knows them already.

Miss D. casually mentioned that Joe obviously reads a lot. But that’s not true. Not in the way she means, at least. The only book reading Joe does (to my dismay) is what’s required for school. But while we were talking, I thought about it, and actually he does read a lot. Hours every day. But not books. Or comics even. No, what Joe reads is the TV.

About a decade ago, I was at a hotel, hanging out during the day while Jason was in meetings, and in trying to master the indecipherable television remote I accidentally turned on the Closed Captioning. Before I could figure out how to turn it off I was hooked. I was so excited at being able to read the television that that’s all I did all day. I loved being able to see the differences between what the news put as placeholders versus what the actual interview subjects said. I loved being able to see when an actor went off script. I loved how football games turned the Closed Captioning into gibberish because the announcers just talked too damn fast. And I loved the accidentally hilarious typos (like the time CC told me that Oprah loved bestiality).

Jason just thought it was funny that I hadn’t seen CC before.

Not long after that fateful trip we decided to buy a new TV. (This was a momentous occasion because we don’t replace our major appliances until they threaten to electrocute, drown or smoke us out of the house.) Jason knew what size he wanted, what brand – I just wanted one with Closed Captioning.

Then we decided to have a baby. Surely it was bad to raise a child with the TV on as much as we had it on.

We had lots of grand ideas about how to raise a child back then.

For the first year after Joe was born, he didn’t watch TV. He heard it because I’d watch reruns of ER, Judging Amy or Dawson’s Creek while feeding him, or he’d hang out with Jason and I, being adorable while we sneaked peeks at Buffy or Friends.

Then Grandma bought him a little TV with a built-in VCR so he could watch Veggie Tales.

At first, we tried to limit his viewing. But as he got older he noticed when the TV was off. If it was on, he was oblivious. He’d play his little creative games and wander the house on adventures. But as soon as the TV went off, even if he was in another room, he’d run to it with excessive concern.

In a typical act of lazy parenting we slowly gave up the time limits on TV. But we decided to have the CC on, so at least there’d be a reading component to all the learning programs he was watching. It was the ideal excuse.

But that educational-viewing-only morphed into SpongeBob and Wizards of Waverly Place and Phineas and Ferb and the whole kid/tween array of programming designed to convince kids that they need more toys, more sugar and more games. Some of these shows are just insipid; others I find myself watching even when Joe’s not here. But what they all have in common is Closed Captioning. We never turn it off.

When Joe first started recognizing words, it was on the TV. He loves the descriptions of sounds (“jazzy instrumental,” “ominous pounding,” “sigh”) and he uses such descriptive terms in his writing. Now as his viewing grows more sophisticated and he gets more interested in how stories are told, we talk about exposition and dialog in terms of how CC differentiates between the two. He asks about accents. We compare interpretations of themes and guess at the endings of stories. We brainstorm other actions characters could take to avoid negative consequences. We point out when characters make choices that lead to positive consequences. If Joe doesn’t like an ending he’ll rewrite it. We discuss the sarcasm of House and debate what’s really happening in Flash Forward. And if the music is scary and the words aren’t, Joe will ask us to mute and keep reading.

Through TV, we’ve discussed homosexuality, the death penalty, god, bullies, politics and lots and lots about puppies. He asks questions; we pause the show and discuss (gotta love DVR). He now points out typos. His favorite thing on TV is “The Word” on The Colbert Report because the words in the blue box tell a different story than what Colbert says.

We DVR shows and watch them without commercials. We watch shows live with commercials. And we discuss how advertising works, examining the words they use and the images they show.

All this is not to say that a steady stream of TV is a good thing for kids. I’ve learned from The Doctors and CNN that this is most certainly not so.

All this is just to say that in our laziness, Jason and I found a way to incorporate something good into what is arguably a bad habit. We’ve figured out which shows to watch with Joe and which not to. We DVR questionable shows and skim them before we let him watch them with us. We ask him questions and encourage him to ask us his own.

But mostly, this is all just an excuse to brag about my son being the best reader in his class.

Category: Parenting, Stories
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6 Responses
  1. Ehm (Tee) says:

    On a dark and dismal night, you have made me smile and laugh out loud. Thanks, I needed it.


  2. Rob ... ert says:

    Hey, that’s a great idea. I wish you’d of mentioned it to me about 12 years ago. I share your frustration at the lack of recreational reading in the house. Neither of my kids share my love of books. My older son, Charley, gets mad because I glom on to his one friend who has the same adolescent taste in literature that I do. The up-shot is that both my kids read extremely well and have excellent working vocabularies. I just wish all their brain power wold somehow manifest on their report cards.

    Great blog. Make more!

  3. Anne says:

    That’s awesome. Of course you & Jason are brilliant, so I’m sure that helps. 🙂

  4. Des says:

    How smart you are! I’ve actually recommended parents of struggling readers do just that–
    Oh, and how smart is your little guy!
    Sorry not to write more, I’ve got to get back to the tv–Dr Drew and his sex addicts are on–

  5. Ryan Jerz says:

    You should definitely take a look at the book Everything Bad is Good For You. It explores the myth that television is making us dumber and the reasons behind that. I loved the read, as it made a very interesting case for why modern television and video games, which appear to put kids and ourselves into a stupor, are making us smarter because of more complex plotlines and the necessity to make decisions that alter the shape of what we’re doing. Good stuff.

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Cindie Geddes

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