Split Screen, Same Lane

On Thursday night, Kiddo was asleep and we were snuggled up, watching television and chatting when a commercial came on for the new Sienna minivan. I watched as an attractive blond woman came on, telling us about how her car makes her feel less like a frumpy mom and more like a "hot babysitter". As she rambles on, we see her get into the car. In the seats behind her are two children, neither of which look a day older than three, and both are staring at a split screen hanging from the ceiling, each child watching their own show. On their heads are headphones and on their faces a vacant, expressionless look. The last thing we see on the screen before the commercial pulls away is these two words: "Mommy Like".

Besides the utterly juvenile and vacuous content of the commercial itself, the notion that plugging the kids into the car is de riguer is, frankly, troubling to me. It's not that putting the kids in front of a dvd player in the car is the dirty little secret of many moms, it's that this commercial is offering this service as a proactive measure instead of as a last resort.

Many families rely on using movies in the car for long trips, and I have to say that I kind of understand the why of it. But unless you've got a kid that's screaming as soon as you buckle up, it's worth considering how we might responsibly use this option and what the other options are. For example, it's not so hard to pack a basket of books and toys that our kids like. Most of us have cds our children enjoy, and we can pack those too. Unless you really hate music, singing is a great option. Even if you don't know too many children's songs, being silly and rhyming words is simple enough that our youngsters can join in. For older kids, modeling beeswax is a great way to pass the time while keeping their hands busy, and this can decrease the fidgets somewhat. If you have the magna doodle, the etch-a-sketch and a small arsenal of things to keep the kids occupied, you've got a lot of great things to compete with sitting there passively, watching a dvd.

What concerns me is that instead of making media in the car a last resort, it is becoming an easy first choice for families. And I worry that if parents feel having dvds and games in the car is their lifesaver, they'll stop exploring other options. This is also bad for the kids, who miss out on so much as we travel.

When I was a child (ah, yes! another Old Lady Story!), we took a lot of drives to my grandparents home in Roseburg. While we lived in Portland, Vancouver, Salem and such, those drives were never under 3 hours, on average about 4 1/2 or so. Many of us kids got carsick and after a while, we just stopped bringing books for the trip. But my mom had plenty of ways to keep us busy. There were the Zip Zingo! Car Bingo cards we kept in the glove box; we had an endless variety of alphabet games, especially as we got older (food, musicians, authors, titles, animals, etc.), the license plate game (which can be done with numbers or letters), as well as Animal, Vegetable, Mineral (we stopped calling it 20 Questions as we played until the chosen item was correctly guessed) and singing. Lots and lots of singing.

We also spent that time talking. These long trips were time to catch up, to talk about what was happening at school--be it gossip or field trips--and we all had more of a window into each other's worlds outside of home. Even my youngest brother, eight years my junior, was included in the games and conversations; he would sometimes be a team with one of us older kids. I'm not saying, either, that we didn't ever get tired and grumbly, but we knew that after a couple helpful suggestions from Mom, staving off our own boredom was up to us.

So sometimes I daydreamed as we drove during those long trips. Sometimes we told each other stories, and we stretched our imaginations, adding onto each others stories the way quilters work to embellish their work. Car trips were never looked forward to, but because we had been in the habit of keeping ourselves entertained since we were young, they were more than tolerable.

So, back to the two children staring mindlessly at the split screen in the minivan. Here lies a second problem: treating our children like mini-monarchs. It's one thing to offer a dvd to quell the screaming, but two separate shows, side by side? When did we stop teaching our children that part of life is about taking turns and finding common solutions? Why on earth does each child need their very own little screen to be happy? Instead of asking the kids to pick one video to watch together, and to go through the good work of planning how this might work as a family, it is too easy to just plug each kid in and avoid any arguments about who wants to watch what. As these children grow up, will it be any easier for them to travel without constantly being entertained? Are the kids developing coping skills for being bored, namely, exercising their imaginations? Does getting to have their very own choice and not having to share or take turns make them become better people, or more selfish?

And most importantly with media, when people--children and adults alike--are looking at a screen, they aren't looking at each other. That means the silly conversations, the car songs and long talks--those are less likely to happen either. What I saw on that commercial was a mom who was happy her two children were entertained and wouldn't be a bother to her while she was driving. But what happens when she get to her destination and finds that she now has to help a child transition from their favorite movie in to a grocery store or doctor's appointment or grandma's house? What then? Pulling each child back from their own little world and back into the family collective isn't an easy task, so multiply it by however many screens you've got on.

Tilting at windmills? Possibly. I don't think I'm going to eradicate all the little travel dvd players in the world, and that's not the point of this. I just think we have to keep these things as special occasions, not the norm--that's all I'm saying. The more easily we bring these little devices out, the harder it is to put them away. If we come to rely on them too much, they dumb us down as parents; they most certainly can dumb our kids down too. There's too much to miss outside the car windows, so much to discuss in our lives, so many songs to sing and games to play. What this commercial offers to do is rob us of time together as a family and the memories that come from these trips.

Ah, Sienna...Mommy No Like. Not at all.


Amanda said…
...and as if we all want a battle every single time I get my boys in the car. "Can we watch? Pleeease? Can we watch?" It's enough of a battle at home, I just would prefer to have a little quiet, good natured joking, fighting? yes, sometimes....but at least it's interaction. Comes with a side of conflict resolution too.

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