There used to be a saying that “The family that prays together stays together.” In other words, regular church attendance was thought to be good for stable, happy families. When religion went out of fashion, social scientists then said families should eat dinner together.
But I’ve got a different idea – families should gather around a TV and watch a favorite show. There’s nothing as disheartening as a house where the kids are hunched over their laptops in their bedrooms while dad is following football in the living room and mom is watching home improvement shows in the kitchen. That’s a family where everyone is in his or her own world.
I’m not advocating a return to the Fifties, when each home had a single television and the whole family had to watch the same homogenized programs. But with the amazing catalog of content available today it doesn’t seem too much to ask that families find at least one TV show per night to experience together.
Admittedly this is easier when you have fewer kids or children that are near in age. My wife and I only had one child, and until he was six or seven he never sat in front of a working television without one or both of us by his side. This smells of over-parenting in retrospect, but TV was always something we affirmatively did together – just one of several activities we shared. It was not a babysitter or a way to pass time. But if you have a handful of kids instead of just one, it’s not as easy as it was for us.
Watching TV with your kids doesn’t need to be a sacrifice once we’d separated the wheat from the chaff. In fact, children’s TV can be delightful. We discovered that “SpongeBob Square Pants” was hilarious, “Arthur” sweet, and “Hey Arnold” touching. Soon enough we were watching “The Simpsons,” “Seinfeld” and then “The Office.” On the very last week he left home for good and moved into his own apartment, we binge-watched and finished the final season of “Justified.”
There are many benefits to a family TV hour: you can make sure your kids are watching age-appropriate TV; the kids come to understand that they are important enough to spend time with; everyone in the family learns to compromise; the family develops inside jokes and special catch-phrases; and the content stimulates unforced discussions that you might already want to initiate (or sometimes NOT want to initiate – I remember all too well the day my son asked me what Viagra was, thanks to a commercial during a baseball game.)
Once the kids are out of the house, shared television-watching can also be good couples’ therapy too. I’m not making this up either – there was an actual academic study published in the mighty Journal of Social and Personal Relationships that said watching television together can strengthen the closeness of a romantic couple, particularly if the couple do not have a lot of common friends. In effect, television characters become their shared friends.
It is a truism of marriage counselors that married couples should find shared interests to prevent them from drifting apart as they grow older. I remember reading one article that praised a canny wife for taking up golf so she could play with her husband. Today it would be offensive to suggest that a wife should take up a husband’s hobby – why doesn’t he get into gardening to make her happy for cripes sake?
Watching television together is not a marital panacea but I know from experience that it’s an easy way to generate a shared experience. Five years ago my wife and I made a pact that we would watch at least one show per night after dinner. We’ve recently started to follow “Game of Thrones” from the beginning (better late than never!) and it’s been an intense bonding experience as we’ve tried to figure out the characters, the history and the alliances. Before that it was “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “The Americans.”
Please note: this video-based couples therapy doesn’t work if all you’re doing is sitting on the couch and passively turning on the TV to see what’s plying. This needs to be “appointment TV” – a show you affirmatively want to watch and interact with. It doesn’t have to be high-quality TV, though. Even just kibitzing and second-guessing the answers in “Family Feud” would work if it’s an interest that a couple shares. Because in the end, it’s not really the TV show that matters; it’s the commitment to spend time together on an experience that interests everyone in the family or marriage.