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'Rediscovering life' by turning off the television

The 12-year-old's face clouded over when she noticed the book her mother was reading: ''Breaking the TV Habit: A Four-Week Program to Help You and Your Family Gain Control of Your Television Viewing.''

''What are you reading that for?'' the daughter asked, as casually as she could.

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''For an interview with the author next week,'' her mother replied, equally casually.

''Please don't write a story about that,'' the daughter pleaded. ''It could change my life. I like TV.m''

Joan Anderson Wilkins smiles and nods understandingly as the interviewer repeats this mother-daughter conversation about her book. Changing lives has become Mrs. Wilkins's self-appointed mission, and she frequently faces this kind of opposition to her program.

''It's so frightening for many, many people to consider living with less TV, '' she says. ''The machine is such a security blanket. People say, 'Please don't take it away.' ''

Fortunately for the 12-year-old - and all other worried TV-watchers - Joan Wilkins isn't out to ''take it away.'' ''It's unrealistic for anyone to say, 'Turn it off,' '' she admits. ''Just control it.''

To help viewers do that, she has devised a four-week program that seems deceptively simple. Week 1 involves merely logging the programs watched. Week 2 requires viewing with a critical eye, deciding each morning which programs to watch and why. By Week 3, as discipline increases, viewers cut back, eliminating TV on three school nights. Finally, Week 4 brings the moment of truth: turning off the set for a week.

''Unless people are given a chance to experience life without TV, they won't dig down into their inner resources and find alternatives,'' Mrs. Wilkins insists.

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She should know. Until eight years ago, the Wilkins family came close to the American average of six hours of viewing time a day. Then one spring day her three-year-old son accidentally tipped over their only TV set. It shattered, and life suddenly changed - forever.

After the initial shock wore off, the family adjusted to life without TV - and thrived. Mrs. Wilkins turned the dining room into a craft center. A closet became a well-stocked sports center. The family listened to news and sports on the radio, played board games and card games, and visited the library. In the process they rediscovered the advantages of shared activities and the disadvantages of schedules dictated by TV listings.

Now, calling herself a ''crusader,'' Mrs. Wilkins wants to convince others of the advantages of a blank screen. Defining a TV habit as more than 12 hours of viewing a week, she notes that families seldom watch TV together, and parents often don't know what children watch. ''TV is a lonely recreation,'' she says.

Many children are actually ''relieved'' to leave the television off, she adds , because they've been sent to the set by a parent who finds it a convenient baby sitter.

''Any mother with a conscience really can't bear the fact that she's pushing her child to the television,'' Mrs. Wilkins says. ''But she does it anyway. Every generation has had something to push their children to. My mother had the nap: 'Go to your room and take a nap.' In this generation it's the television set.''

She expresses particular dismay that children are pushed to watch ''Sesame Street.'' ''The intention of 'Sesame Street' was tremendous,'' she says. ''But it has been so overwhelmingly built up, there's almost a panic that if you don't permit your child to watch, he won't be ready for school. So we put them in front of 'Sesame Street' earlier and earlier. I think one or two times a week of 'Sesame Street' is terrific for a child 36 months or older. But not three times a day, four times on Saturday, five times on Sunday.''

This early viewing causes a child's play to be ''disjointed,'' Mrs. Wilkins maintains, ''because they fit their play in among the programs. Young children get on a television time clock. They smell the hamburger cooking for dinner and they still can't tell time, but they run and turn on the television because it means 'The Brady Bunch' is on.

''When the television is taken away,'' she continues, ''that opens up this huge block of time. Children are able to play without interruption, which is when the imagination starts extending itself. The child who watches less is much more likely to start out with his blocks on the floor and build a highway all the way down the hall and into the bedroom. His play goes on much longer. It's much more thorough.''

Yet children, surprisingly, aren't the biggest TV offenders. ''It's the man who's the most addicted,'' Mrs. Wilkins claims. ''Whenever I speak at women's groups and newcomers' clubs, women say, 'Please autograph your book to my husband.' It's the husband who really fights giving up television. It's just a major problem.''

She suggests using ''little tricks,'' such as removing the TV guide from the newspaper before family members look at it; building a schedule that includes an hour of television and an hour of no television; and using a system of ''couponing'' - earning credits toward TV time by doing homework or spending time in physical activity.

But even a battery of tricks can't ignore the fact that cutting back on TV will involve more noise, mess, money, and activity. Working mothers in particular have a ''problem,'' Mrs. Wilkins admits, because of the time and commitment involved in monitoring TV schedules, discussing programs, and chauffeuring children to other activities.

In her public-school workshops, Mrs. Wilkins counts among her failures the 20 to 25 percent of students who come from what she calls ''videofied'' homes. ''Once a family is in a sophisticated electronic vein, it's pretty irreversible, '' she says with a sigh. ''Those families that have three to five television sets, Betamax, the playback units, the video discs, very sophisticated stereo systems, and video games, I can't reach. I give up. I can't. I don't. I won't pretend to.''

But Mrs. Wilkins, ever the optimist, doesn't dwell on failures, and she speaks with special enthusiasm about one recent success: her parents' victory over TV.

''They're retired,'' she begins, ''and Daddy is heavily into the news - three hours' worth, whatever you can get on Cape Cod in the summer. But last summer they decided, 'Well, our daughter has written this book. I guess we'd better break the TV habit.'

''So they put the TV in the closet and didn't watch all summer. Mother told me, 'It was so hard. Those dinner table conversations were like Daddy and I were dating again. I had to work at ideas and things to discuss. We were running to the library and comparing novels and autobiographies. But by the time the summer was over, we were happier.'

''It's like rediscovering life again,'' Mrs. Wilkins concludes, ''enjoying doing rather than being done to. I think we'd all rather do than be done to.''

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