S. Craig Renfroe Jr. The Tree and the Screen

Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in
“How to Be a Poet” –Wendell Berry

1

When our son was born, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended no screen time for children under two years old. My wife and I took this recommendation seriously, perhaps too seriously on my part, as if the pixels would burn our baby’s eyes right out of their sockets. I could see that image becoming literal, like all the other ways I saw him die, electrocuted by licking the sliding electrical outlet covers open, drowned in the dog water bowl, crushed under the pile of child safety gear I hadn’t gotten around to installing. What made children so bent on self-destruction? I had calmed down some now that he was older, but when I hear him wandering the house early in the morning, me still in bed, I can only imagine he’s building a toddler guillotine.

2

In our backyard is a giant tree. I am not going to do this tree justice. It is a willow oak. When the arborist there to check the health of the trees got to the back yard, he stopped speaking which seemed out of character for him based on our brief acquaintance. He said, “Oh my god,” with a kind of druid reverence. He assured us the tree had been here before us and would be here long after we were gone. Which was not all that reassuring in one sense. It was planted in the 1940s. We know this because the woman who grew up in our house lived down the street and told us she helped plant the oak.

It takes four six-foot-ish adults, hand-in-hand, to circle the trunk and that’s standing on the roots. People who’ve seen the tree say that’s a surprisingly low number and would have thought it would take more. A small team of people to ring the tree. It is over twenty-nine feet when my wife and I try to wrap a tape measure around the root base.

If it were an ent from Lord of the Rings, it would have just punched Sauron in the eye and finished the damn thing straight off. It’s no redwood, but for North Carolina, it’s a monster.

3

I was a child of the screen. My parents admit as much, but it was back when TV as a babysitter was an added feature and not a dystopian fear. I grew into an addict who poured over the TV guide that came each week in the Sunday newspaper with a highlighter and notepad. I took my viewing very seriously, charting the possibilities, weighing all my options, because there was no streaming, no DVR, no VCR even. It was one and done. And if you missed it, then you missed it. Unless you caught it in syndication. Only if it made it to syndication. I didn’t know the term “syndication” at the time. I called it “repeats.”

A typical Saturday of my youth: I would set an alarm for Saturday morning cartoons. I was happy when I didn’t like the earlier shows and could sleep in. The worst was when I had to make hard choices, two shows on at the same time. I would learn through experience to commit to one and catch the other once repeats set in, rather than try to flip back and forth between commercials. I could count on solid viewing to around eleven. Lunch break! Kung Fu Theater started at 12:30 and was immediately followed by the Big Monster Movie. If both those looked good, I was stuck inside until four in the afternoon.

My parents and the TV did a good job—I was a well-behaved child, mostly, as long as I had my programs. One time I lost TV privileges because I screamed for my parents who were working deep in the woods on our property. Though I was a child of the screen, we lived on twenty-one and a half acres of trees. When they got back to the house, panting, fearing the worst, I explained I couldn’t find Fangface, a Saturday morning cartoon knockoff of Scooby-Doo about a werewolf. My parents having believed I was mortally injured unplugged the TV (an unnecessary flourish) and made me go outside. The real tragedy was that Fangface had been cancelled.

In Sunday School, I decided I didn’t want to go to heaven because there was no TV there—just a bunch of cloud-sitting, harp-playing, white-winged angels and some roads made out of gold. No, thank you. I preferred yellow brick roads and flying monkeys. And genies and nose-twitching witches—I ate lunch watching reruns of I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched. As I was raised halfheartedly (on my parents’ part) Southern Baptist, I kept this mostly to myself. It would have been enough to burn me at the stake like some nose-twitching witch. I assumed this was what they did at all the barbeques we didn’t go to, my parents antisocial and me more interested in what was on. After all, there was all that talk of roasting sinners.

4

Hell for me is no longer being eternally hot, but having to make choices for my child with no clear criteria, other than the howling, soul-crushing screeds of proponents and opponents. But some seemed clear: we vaccinated him, for example. And limiting screen time seemed just as obvious.

The studies said screen time:

  • Caused childhood obesity.
  • Limited empathy.
  • Created irregular sleep patterns.
  • Elevated stress.
  • Reduced social skills.
  • Interfered with concentration.

So we weren’t going to give him our phones as a distraction. We didn’t own tablets ourselves. And we were serious about leaving the TV off when he was awake. Okay, I might have watched the Battle of Castle Black on Game of Thrones while he slept on my chest, but he was asleep, all right? As he spent more time awake, TV time receded. We got it in as he napped and at night, and like all those sitcom parents, we spent most of that time passing out ourselves. But we remained committed.

5

We have a 65” smart TV—I wanted a 70”, but it wouldn’t fit.

6

The tree, what can I say about this tree, except that our son took to it almost immediately. If we weren’t watching TV, we might as well be outside. And the backyard, which we’d fenced, became our refuge.

As soon as he was able to walk, he was drawn to the oak. And he fit almost perfectly in the rough folds of the roots. And as he grew, we let him explore the tree. Once, while I had my face buried in my phone, doing something important like reading a Salon article about The Walking Dead not respecting the rights of dead people, he was playing on the tree. Only when he came back over to me, he was filthy and wet, despite the dry day. His clothes ruined, or at least unwearable after nap, his face streaked with grime, a little apocalypse survivor. How did he get wet, I wanted to know. There was a pool in the tree, he told me. The tree holds water, even days after a rain, so in one of the deep recesses he had struck a puddle of dark water. He was so happy.

7

Some FAQs on being screen-free until two:

Q: Did your extended family give you a fit?

A: No. They were surprisingly on board—maybe because this was the first grandkid on both sides and we were given some firster leeway. A strange cone of silence followed our son. It cut through the background TV-on-for-company we’d all gotten used to, leaving in its wake an eerie emptiness I had to adjust to, that I had to fill with human interaction, the kind that often hurts or is pitilessly boring. Passively watching people on the screen is much more pleasurable, on average, I would wager. The highs of real life are much higher certainly, “Hey, Daddy!” But the lows are much lower, me kicking off my bedroom slippers in a matching tantrum to his refusal to go to bed. Those lows have to sink the average, right? TV has such a pleasing mediocrity that asks nothing in return.

Q: Do you think you’re better than us?

A: I don’t know. I do know that I’m tired already of the judging (“Oh boy, just you wait!”). I’m tired of being judged for judging when I have tried really hard not to judge. Though, there was a delicious superiority I felt this once watching other parents waiting for pizza who let their kids watch YouTube videos of kids playing. I imagine them leaving the restaurant and watching YouTube videos of kids riding in the backseat of cars. Then, at home, they’d watch YouTube videos of kids brushing their teeth. Above their beds on suspended iPads videos would play of soundly sleeping children. Later, I spin my elaborate screen-mediated childhood theory for my wife who tells me to quit being a jackass.

Q: Can you tell if it made a difference?

A: He talks more than I expected at two, has more vocabulary (“That’s impressive,” he likes to say), is curious about the world and people around him. But he might have been the same with more screen exposure. How would I know? Perhaps if we’d had twins….

Q: Did you quit using your cellphone?

A: No.

Q: Don’t you think that really compromised the whole thing?

A: I don’t know.

Q: I mean you could have given that up too.

A: We did what we could. And what we couldn’t do was stare at each other while he cried. So we stared at our phones.

Q: Do you think that’s a cop out?

A: No more questions.

8

A screen is a screen is a screen. But is it? When I was a young TV devotee there was no portable tube. We had no phones, no pads, nothing embedded in the backseat of vehicles. I was free as soon as I left the house. And I did leave the house. We had twenty-one and a half acres, mostly wooded with paths my dad made because that was what he did for fun, that and hand dig ponds. There were as many distinct kingdoms on those twenty-one and a half acres as there were in Middle Earth—I read The Lord of the Rings the three weeks there was no power, no screen, after Hurricane Hugo. There was a wisteria that had taken over a whole tree at the side of the garden with ground running vines perfect, when cut, for the rope I used in booby traps. There was a thorn forest, where I would collect thorns for booby traps. There were no less than six excellent climbing trees that I climbed at least once a week, most of which I had tricked out with booby traps. I had seen a lot of TV shows with scenes that included booby traps.

9

Anything you set out to do as a parent, I suppose, is just an exercise in accepting failure. Restaurants are now, by law, required to have at least three TVs—the Sports Bar Ordinance. We mostly took him out to eat at Bang Bang Burgers—I loved hearing him yell “Bang! Bang!” It was the kind of place that advertises on their sign “local artisan buns” and only serves craft beer—my mother-in-law refused to drink in protest of their not having Budweiser. Even this hipster burger shop had three TVs: sports, CNN, and Nickelodeon. We’d think about highchair placement, the way generals position troops, but it didn’t matter. He’d crane his neck to stare blankly at the wall of video. Once a commercial for a Scooby-Doo cartoon came on and he lost his little mind despite never having been introduced to Scooby-Doo or cartoons in general.

Aside from the restaurant screen time, our son didn’t watch TV until he was over two years old, and then it was an hour of the summer Olympics a day. His response to this was to turn everything in the house into a diving board, so point taken. Or made. Or something.

10

He approaches the tree like a mountain climber. He can almost circumnavigate it without touching the ground, riding the swells and knees coming from the trunk into roots. Sometimes these become not obstacles but imaginary vehicles, “This one’s a digger, Daddy.” His first encounters with the tree were more in awe. I started out picking up sticks from the yard and putting them in the stick pile in the garden area, which turned into a favorite activity, with him taking sticks out of the pile if the yard was clean so that we’d have something to throw back on the pile.

And he would live in the backyard if allowed. One night, I tell him to come inside, but he ignores me. “It’s getting dark. We have to go inside and go to sleep.” He tells me he’s sleeping outside and promptly goes to a pile of leaves and flops on his back. I call his bluff and go inside. I take off my coat and shoes and watch him out the back windows. He stays prone on the pile of leaves only occasionally kicking up one little leg. He calls my bluff, and I get my coat and shoes back on and go collect him.

11

My rude thought reactions to some unsolicited questions:

Don’t you think once he can watch TV he’ll just overdo it, stare at it, mindlessly. Like everyone else already does? He may rebel, sit on a couch for twenty years letting streaming video wash over him and erode any sense of place we hoped to instill in him. I’d rather the ground be there to begin with.

Don’t you think we live in a digital world and it’s pointless to fight it? Sure (Bang! Bang!), but we live in a gun culture too and I’m not giving him a gun either (bang, bang).

Don’t you think you turned out all right and you watched TV? I would rather wash the dishes than speak to one of my many cousins, and now with peak TV, the only way we’ll reconnect is over some clouds once we’re bored of harp strumming. But I would like him to care more about people than characters.

12

An image that gave me a strange comfort when I was young: the startup independent station Channel 46, which was the first addition to our five TV networks (my parents weren’t about to get cable), had a late movie that I would sometimes fall asleep to. When the movie was coming back from break, they would show a bumper where these small TV spaceships had gathered to watch a bigger TV floating in space. I was too young to know anything about postmodernism, never heard the word “meta,” so staring at these TVs watching TV wasn’t about an irony for me, but a warm feeling, a happiness, a communal sense of belonging.

13

I’m writing this on my laptop outside as he plays on the oak with a stick and some leaves. He gets cornered in the tangle of roots, his route unclear, and calls out, “I need help!” I’ll set my screen aside, even if only temporarily, and go to the tree.

14

When he was more portable, between baby-head lolling and toddler walking, I would hold him aloft in front of me and act as if he were floating in space. “It’s baby Sputnik!” I would make satellite boops and beeps. I would also hum a tune as I would sing his name. My wife wanted to know what song it was from. I had no idea. I’m bad at music anyway. It remained a nameless tune from my subconscious—I even kind of thought I’d made it up. Until, she heard a podcast guessing game of TV show theme songs. I had been humming my son, unknowingly, the theme to Sanford and Son.

15

Actually, they’ve changed the guidelines. The screen is too much with us. It really is unrealistic, they concede, to think we can keep them from it. The AAP still recommends no screen time for the first 18 months, but then they abandon any strict rule—it becomes a matter of “content and context.” Sure, watching Daniel Tiger, which has been shown to promote social and emotional skills in kids, is better than watching the latest Fast and Furious installment. And either of these is better if a parent is there to set the context: “See that bald guy has been betrayed.”

So maybe this screen-free time has been more for me. Even if I still won’t ever be that person who brags that we don’t even own a TV. And I look forward to watching him watch shows and films that I have loved. And I will be able to Google my way through his “but why?” phase, instead of saying “I don’t know” or “because I said so”—Because Google said so, that’s why!

All that said, I’m glad we tried. If only that it forced me to focus even slightly more on him, on the moment, him in the moment, the moments fleeting by and him changing, climbing out of our arms and into the tree. Sometimes when he’s on the other side of that tree, disappeared behind the trunk, it is like a version of the future, when he will be gone, and though I know I’ll be able to see his image in the new imminent and even more inescapable screens, it won’t ever be the same.


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