Parenting in the digital age has numerous challenges that we anticipate — cyber-bullying and “sexting” to name two — and even more that we don’t anticipate. While my children are not old enough for Facebook profiles or their own phones, I still find that parenting them in the age of WiFi and TiVo is full of issues and dilemmas that my own parents didn’t face. As if that weren’t enough, the kids always seem to be one step ahead of me. As a result, I constantly feel like the general who is fighting the last war.
Recently I encountered an issue with Zuzu and our family DVR. Like many households, we have a DVR, that is, a digital video recorder. This device is lifesaver, right? I record every single episode of “Dinosaur Train” for JR and when I grant him some TV time, he picks whichever episode he is in the mood for and all is well. I record “30 Rock” and “Community” every week and watch them with my husband whenever he’s home and doesn’t have to work. My husband records the Sunday afternoon football game and watches it after the kids go to bed — and skips all the beer and truck ads. Truly, it’s a much better way to watch TV than having to sit down at the precise time your favorite show is on. But what happens when your kids learn to use the DVR by themselves and it’s recording programs for the whole family?
I would never have realized that there need to be rules for a family DVR if Zuzu hadn’t made it abundantly clear. A few weeks ago, I began to record the a cappella singing competition “The Sing-Off” for Zuzu. I had envisioned it as an age-appropriate foray into prime time television for my young music lover, and indeed it has been. She loves the diverse singing groups — many of whom are college kids — and the thoughtful comments from the knowledgeable judges. (Well, at least two of the judges are knowledgeable. Pop star Sara Bareilles is useless.) She is even properly mystified by host Nick Lachey’s compete lack of charisma.
No, the problem is not the show I had recorded for her. At least I am capable of guessing which shows are appropriate for my 8 year old. The problem arose when Zuzu began watching another show — one that I recorded for myself — instead of the show I had recorded for her. The first night I gave Zuzu permission to watch “The Sing-Off,” my husband was late getting home. As a result, I was handling bedtime on my own. As I headed upstairs to bathe JR and put him to bed, I granted Zuzu permission to watch her new show. When I came downstairs 20 minutes later, instead of a cappella singing, Zuzu was watching potty-mouthed Joan Rivers dissect celebrities’ Emmy’s fashion choices on a special, hour-long episode of “Fashion Police.”
Now, don’t get me wrong: I love Joan Rivers. She’s a fascinating, hilarious, ground-breaking female comedian. And I really, really love “Fashion Police’” which is no-holds-barred critique of celebrity fashion choices, both good and horrific. But “Fashion Police” is not rated G or even PG-13. Among its regular segments are a guessing game called “Streetwalker or Starlet?” — it’s surprisingly hard — and the ever-popular celebrity fashion head-to-head, “Bitch Stole My Look!” I was completely horrified to discover that Zuzu had watched 20 minutes of this program and I was even more distressed that she had decided to turn on not that show that she had been specifically authorized to watch but rather a different show the title of which caught her fancy.
Zuzu got in a lot of trouble for this transgression. She claimed that she had selected “Fashion Police” as opposed to “The Sing-Off” by accident, which is plausible. That doesn’t explain why she kept watching it even after it had become abundantly clear — by the lack of singing for one thing — that it was the wrong show. No, she deliberately kept watching a show that she had not been authorized to watch. And she has some culpability for that.
But what’s my culpability? Yes, I said to her: “You can watch ‘The Sing-Off’ while I bathe your brother.” That is permission not simply to watch TV but to watch a specific show. But I had never said to her that night or indeed ever: “You are not allowed to watch shows on the DVR except for ones that I specifically authorize.” The truth is, I had not anticipated this issue. Zuzu has never been interested in any shows other than the ones that I record for her, mostly Disney Channel tween fare. In this case, one friend theorized that the word “fashion” in the title of the show was too strong a temptation for Zuzu who shares my interest in the subject. But the fact that she may have accidentally selected the wrong show leads me to another question: is it careless of me to record inappropriate shows on a DVR that my 8 year old has access to?
I kind of hope that the answer to the second question is “no.” I don’t want to stop recording R-rated movies or other adults-only fare on my DVR. Frankly, the only movies that I see anymore on ones I record on my DVR and watch in snatched segments while folding laundry. (Latest favorite movie watched this way: “Coco Before Chanel.”) As parents, we have a right to set limits and expect our children to follow them. But it may not be fair to drop temptation in our children’s laps and then punish them when they fail to resist it.
I recently attended a lunch for bloggers hosted by PopCap Games, makers of such favorite procrastination tools as “Plants vs. Zombies” and “Bejeweled.” Many of the other moms there have older kids and we had a fascinating discussion about violent video games, how to set limits on screen time and other issues about parenting in the digital age. I was grateful for the insights but my main thought was that I’m not even there yet with my kids. We don’t have a Wii or an Xbox. My kids do play games like the PopCap ones — they especially like “Bookworm,” which is vaguely educational — on my phone or my iPad, but it’s mostly when we’re stuck at the airport or other occasions when we’re trying to kill time. JR has a Leapster Explorer, but that too is educational and he doesn’t have the patience to play it for too long. Video games plainly pose another set of challenges and goodness knows, I’m really not ready for those. If knowing what to do about the DVR is causing me stress, I’m so not ready for these other pitfalls of parenting in the digital age.