Parents stand alone on front lines in kid-TV fight


Attorney General Janet Reno obviously has never tried to get two kids out the door to school in the morning while they were glued, mouths open and deaf, to the last seconds of cartoons, or she would never have interjected herself into the debate about what American children watch on television.

The same can be said of Congress. Those men have undoubtedly never watched their children race like lightning through their homework to get to the television show on the other side or, wise as they are about avoiding winless fights, they would have disappeared into the cloakroom for this debate.

If either the childless attorney general or those self-appointed arbiters of taste in Congress had ever negotiated with a couple of too-smart-for-their-own-good kids over television time, they would know that the decisions about what children watch -- and how much they watch -- should be left to the people who have to enforce those decisions. Parents.

And those who think that parental control over the television dial is a middle-American conceit should have been answering my phone last week. I asked parents to call and explain what and how much television they allow their children to watch. More than 100 did.

Their responses ranged from no television at all to letting their teen-aged kids make their own choices, but with one thing in common. This is something these families have thought about. Whether they are successful at enforcing these decisions or not, they don't recall asking the federal government for its opinion.

Jerry and Kim Sutter from Highlandtown gave their television and their video cassette recorder away when kindergarten teachers reported that their oldest son was aggressive in school.

"I asked him why he was hitting kids and he said he didn't know," says Jerry Sutter. "I thought about his response and it seemed like just the sort of passivity television engenders."

Out went the television. But the Sutters found, like a lot of parents, that if you are going to eliminate television in your children's lives, you are going to have to put something in its place. For the Sutters, it was karate and other after-school activities for Eric and his younger brother, Patrick.

"Now I can't imagine them having time for television," says Jerry. The television and the VCR have returned to the Sutters' household, but they are used only for PG movies on the weekend that the whole family watches.

Sounds pretty idealized, doesn't it?

"I know that," says Jerry. "Most people get pretty defensive when we are talking about this topic. But it shows how much people are thinking about it."

Sheila Wheltle of Arbutus has two toddlers and one school-aged child. "We are trying desperately to watch less TV," she says. "But 28 minutes of Barney for my two at home is 28 minutes of housework that I get done."

She has a tight grip on the amount and the type of television her oldest watches. "Nickelodeon, Disney, public television. And nothing until homework is done." The result is, all the kids at school want a Power Ranger for Christmas -- the toy that is all sold out -- and it isn't even on his list.

"Everyone I talk to thinks their kids watch too much TV and everybody would like to watch less. What you are finding is less TV and more rules," she says.

When Stephen Srock was small, his mother didn't let him watch any television. Now he is 14 and his mother, Sheree, of Glen FTC Burnie, is more worried about the fact that he wants to go to the mall by himself than she is about the television shows he watches. But she says he makes pretty safe choices.

"We don't watch MTV, we don't watch 'Beavis and Butt-head,' we don't watch 'Married with Children,' " she says, echoing many other parents. "I used to go through the TV guide with him and talk about the shows he could watch. Now, if he wants to see something, like a couple of videos on MTV, he asks me first and I ask him to watch it in the living room so I can check in on him."

Dayna Keiser of Halethorpe is a product of the television generation, she says, and with that comes a discerning eye she is passing on to her 12-year-old son, Danny.

"I don't believe in censorship," says Dayna Keiser. "People have to run their own homes and take care of their own children. Parents have to keep their children safe and put things where they can't get them. Not Congress."

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