Resounding Gongs and Clanging Cymbals Are Worse Than Blaring TVs

(photo: Image: “The Hunter of Happiness” by Harry Popoff, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Do your kids watch too much TV? There is, believe me, such a thing as too much screen time, for kids and for adults, too. It's something I panic about every so often, because my kids do spent time almost every day watching something or other, so I can get some writing done.

There are screen time guidelines from various pediatricians' groups, and they usually tell you that if you kid is within such-and-such ages, he should watch no more than such-and-such number of minutes of TV. It's not the worst approach, but, like many broad guidelines, it's rather reductionist.

This essay takes a different approach. Rather than focusing on the number of minutes of screen/eyeball minutes, it asks questions about the quality of those minutes, and more importantly, the quality and quantity of time spent doing other things. It asks:

  • Does your child spend time outside almost every day, weather permitting?
  • Do you eat a meal together as a family?
  • Do you read with your child at least once a day?
  • Has your child created something recently?
  • Does your child like to watch TV?
  • Has your child had at least 30 minutes of active play and/or exercise?
  • Did you play with your child for at least 15 minutes?
  • Is your child finishing his homework?
  • Has your child had a chance to play with other children recently?
  • Is your child getting enough sleep?
  • Does your child help with household chores?
  • Is your child watching age-appropriate shows?
  • Do you sometimes watch TV with your child?
  • Is your child over two years old?
  • Do you sometimes work on educational activities with your child?
  • Have you recently played a game with your child?
  • Does your child engage in unstructured play?

"If you answer yes to all the questions," the blogger says, "your child's TV habits are probably just fine."

Whew! I didn't even answer "yes" to all of them -- just most of them. But the questions are so sensible that my mild panic now feels silly. 

What I like about this list is that it takes into account the entire day, and the character of the child's daily life as a whole, rather than saying "Up until X number of minutes is perfectly fine, but anything more than X plus one is dangerous and bad." This holistic, contextual kind of thinking is becoming more common among parenting experts, and we're seeing less reductionist, one-size-fits-all, formulaic advice about how to raise your kids.

We can assess our own behavior as adults in the same way -- not just for screen time, but for our spiritual lives. If you scroll through Catholic social media, you're likely to find some fairly uncompromising, even formulaic statements (some of them from saints!) about what qualifies you as a good Catholic. 

We hear that one cannot call oneself a true Catholic if one does not pray the rosary, if one does not have a particular devotion to Divine Mercy, if one doesn't go to daily Mass, if one doesn't have a certain number of children, if one chooses not to vote, if one does not tithe, if one does not attend rallies in support of the unborn, if one does not directly, personally interact with the poor. I even heard, recently, that if one didn't know that Fulton Sheen used to have a TV show called "Life Is Worth Living," then one might want to reassess which church one actually belongs to.

Well, a kid who watches TV for two hours a day isn't necessarily having an impoverished, neglectful childhood; and a kid who doesn't own a TV isn't necessarily having a glorious, wholesome childhood. TV-watching is just one part of the puzzle, and the number of minutes doesn't mean anything much of anything, when taken out of context. In the same way, engaging or not engaging any one particular devotion or activity doesn't necessarily mean anything good or bad about your spiritual life. What matters is how that activity fits into your life as a whole, what effect it has on your relationship with God and with other people, and how you spend the rest of your time when you're not doing that thing.

Quickest way to assess your spiritual life? Look for love. And I don't mean "tough love" or "the bracing love of telling it like it is" or "if you weren't so spiritually blind, you'd recognize this boot in your butt as love." I mean love that is productive, creative, self-sacrificial, and sometimes exhausting. 

It always comes back to that one, insistent passage from 1 Corinthians 13: 

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

It may be a quick question, but it's anything but formulaic. As we work our way through ordinary time, it's a good thing to take stock of how we spend our days. No matter who we are, and what is our state in life, how busy or burdened or incapacitated we are, we can ask ourselves about that big picture. Is love the animating force behind our behavior and our decisions, or not?