The Disappearing Family Room

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Growing up in the 80s in rural Missouri, my family had three television stations to choose from: ABC; CBS; and NBC. ABC was the only one that came in clearly; the others had more static than picture, and required regular tweaking of the antenna. Our hopeless reception was mainly due to having an antenna inside the roof of our restored farmhouse. My family prioritized maintaining a 19th century aesthetic over getting reception of FOX. As a result, years later I was left out of many high school lunch table conversations, having never seen Beverly Hills 90210, and only catching tidbits of MTV when friends had slumber parties.

While we watched little TV, instead often working on puzzles together or making up stories, some of my best family memories revolved around our wooden encased 24-inch set situated in the family room. We’d race home each year to catch the annual showing of THE WIZARD OF OZ. My mom, younger sister and I would share an annual weekend watching the two-night special of GONE WITH THE WIND, my breath held in anticipation of the “Frankly my dear~” line, which had shocked my Grandmother Bloomer in the theater when she and my mother first saw it together during my mother’s childhood. The family would watch MOONLIGHTING, until Maddie and David’s “mushy” kissing started in the Season 3. Given our lack of viewing options, we didn’t debate much about what to watch, but instead just enjoyed the time together as a family.

In 1987, my parents bought our first VCR. The mom and pop rental shop offered my hesitant parents heavy incentives, including a free movie rental each week for the following year. At the time, owning movies was prohibitively expensive (sell through prices only dropped dramatically upon mass adoption of DVD). Suddenly there was a flood of content available to our household. The rental shop was kind enough to give us 5 rentals our first weekend. We each chose a movie (I think mine was GREASE). After a great deal of tinkering to plug the right cables in, we launched into a marathon weekend of viewing. By Sunday, we were hooked. No commercials, you could pause to go to the bathroom, and watching movies by VCR was much more financially accessible than going to the theater for a frugal family of five.

Controversy began to brew in consequent weeks. Suddenly the TV started to become a focus of attention, and turf battles ensued. They began at the video store, where the rental selection became an argument. For the first time, I was shooed away from the living room before bedtime, sent upstairs to do homework that was long-since finished. At first it was so my parents could see the R-rated THE BREAKFAST CLUB, clearly inappropriate for me and my siblings. I remember sneaking down the stairs to catch a glimpse of the program. I later made the same mistake with INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, which resulted in years of nightmares.

Over the years, like many families, we began to spend more time watching television, but less time watching it together. First my brother got a TV in his room, then my sister and I in our shared room. Today, this is common-place, yet is discouraged by the National Institute on Media and the Family because it inhibits participation in family activities.

According to a 2006 study published in May by the Kaiser Family Foundation, almost half of children ages 4-6 years have a TV in their bedroom and a 2005 Gallup Poll showed more than two thirds of teenagers had TVs in their room. Over half of parents indicated the primary reason they chose to put a TV in their child’s bedroom is to free up other TVs in the house so the parent or other family members can watch their own shows.

Successful movies like FINDING NEMO, which are largely driven by an experience that appeals to both parents and children, attempted to lure the family back together. However, in a world where a child can watch FINDING NEMO over and over again in the comfort of their room, the shared family experience often doesn’t reach the living room.

So what is a family to do? Give in to leading separately-entertained lives? Of course not; finding some quality time to spend together between parents’ work schedules and kids’ school and after-school schedules can be achieved both in front of and away from the TV. Here are some ideas:

Movie night – kids’ choice: Choose a night of the week when everyone can be home and declare it kids’ movie night. Let the kids pick the film (taking turns between siblings, of course), and enjoy it together as a family. This may sound incredibly simplistic, but the instances of family’s watching a program together during prime time are pretty few and far between these days.

Board games: You can never go wrong with board games. You may not think you’re a “board game” family, but give it a try. Games like The Game of LIFE and Monopoly are timeless favorites. If your children are a little older, consider more advanced competition like Balderdash. Or, teach the kids a new card game like Canasta or Hearts (they’ll be shocked to discover it can be played off the computer!).

Bowling: Bowling is always more fun than you think it’s going to be. Like playing board games, bowling is a fun and competitive activity that is family and budget-friendly. Many bowling alleys have special family nights set aside specifically for this purpose.

Make dinner/desert together: Who is going to teach the kids to cook if Mom and Dad don’t? Pick a night and let the kids take turns choosing a recipe they can help prepare. You’ll be helping to build an epicurean repertoire your kids will be thankful for their first year in college!

Watch a family-favorite program together: Though it seems as though every other program on television after 8 p.m. is rated R (or PG-13), there are still some quality, family programming choices available. Don’t be afraid to venture outside the “big four” networks to some of the smaller networks that offer family programs. Consider educational programs that air on The Learning Channel, Animal Planet or The Discovery Channel. Make a commitment as a family to watch together.

It is almost impossible to convey to kids just how much TV has changed in the last 20 years. So, since they will never be able to appreciate that evolution, you can have a hand at making sure enjoying TV and time as a family does not go extinct.

Returning the living room to the “family room,” as opposed to just being the room everyone walks through as they leave the house can be a challenge, but helping preserve the concept of the “family room” is well worth the time and effort.

write by Arianne

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