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How one family discovered life after television

FOR someone who has spent a decade on podiums and talk shows all over the United States, Frances Moore Lapp'e is remarkably unaffected. She has the intensity of a woman with a mission, but also the forgiving and down-to-earth quality of a mother who has had to keep the children busy through endless rainy afternoons. Ms. Lapp'e is widely known in this country for her 1972 book, ``Diet for a Small Planet,'' and for her subsequent efforts to articulate the economic roots of hunger in the third world. During a decade of seemingly nonstop activity, she has managed to raise two small children -- without the help of a television.

Now she has written a book, ``What to Do After You Turn Off the TV'' (Ballantine Books, $7.95), to tell us how she and her children did it, and to help us ``put television in its place.''

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For all the words of late bemoaning the state of education in America, there has been scarcely a mention of the family. Yet the Home and School Institute of Washington, D.C., hardly made a startling new disclosure when it observed in a recent report that ``what children bring to school -- background and environment -- is critically important.''

In large measure, what children bring to school these days is television. The set is on for over seven hours a day, on average, in American households, and Prof. Neil Postman of New York University has noted that the typical American child has put in 5,000 hours in front of the tube -- that's over half a year of round-the-clock watching -- before he or she even sets foot in school. ``The only activity that occupies more of an American youth's time,'' Mr. Postman says, ``is sleeping.''

If you've glanced at recent Saturday morning offerings, you know that much of this viewing falls short of Dickens. But beyond the violence and the pandering of the commercials is the passivity of the process itself. Educators nationwide have been sounding alarms regarding the shortened attention spans and stunted imaginations of the children in class.

Lapp'e quotes Nancy DeSalvo, the town librarian in Farmington, Conn., who was chief instigator of that community's much publicized ``Television Turn-Off'' campaign. Ten years ago, Ms. DeSalvo said, first graders loved to hear fairy tales. Now they want ``pop-up'' books with cute visuals and few words. ``If the book requires imagination or real concentration,'' she says, ``they get very restless.''

After talking with parents all over the country, Lapp'e found that generally they don't have to be convinced that their children are watching too much TV. Then what's the problem? Lapp'e calls it the great ``FEAR of the VOID.'' ``A lot of parents today grew up on television themselves,'' she says. ``They can't imagine what life would be like with that blank space.''

As a woman with ``more than a fulltime job,'' Lapp'e says she can well understand the temptations to use the television as a pacifier. ``I know what it's like to come home tired, almost in tears sometimes. You think the children are just going to wear you down,'' she said in a recent telephone interview. But when she got rid of her own TV, she discovered that her childrencould actually help her relax. ``Our families can serve us,'' she says, ``in ways we think only the television can serve us.''

Her book turns the question around and asks, in effect, how good life is before we turn off the TV set.

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Lapp'e recalled that her family did have a television, primarily to watch the news, when the children were very little. But she noticed that Anthony, her son, was captivated by just about anything on the screen. ``The potential was definitely there to become an addict -- or `turnip,' as one little boy in Farmington called himself.'' She didn't want continual squabbles over what to watch, and when. So, when they moved from the East Coast to California, she gave the set away.

``There was never a complaint,'' she says. ``It was never an issue. We just started developing a different way of living.''

``What to Do After You Turn Off the TV'' is a sort of family scrapbook of that ``way of living,'' supplemented by experiences of Lapp'e's friends. They relied on storytelling, word games, living-room acrobatics, even ways to turn housework into a weekend game (well, almost). The book teems with originality. You can almost smell the Crayolas and hear the kids having conniptions over charades.

One of the games is called ``Do You Really Know Who I Am?'' One individual in the group poses a question regarding another: What compliment would that person most like to receive? for example. Then everyone tries to guess how the person would answer that question.

Did the flair her children showed in their television-free home carry over into their schoolwork?

``Oh, absolutely,'' Lapp'e responds. ``They've learned that they can go beyond the drudgery, that they can put something of themselves into it.''

They listen to radio news. ``You don't get the frightening images'' of violence and the like, she said. ``The radio doesn't `take over' quite the way television does, so it seems to be easier to get into a conversation about what you are hearing.''

Before TV, families entertained themselves in ways like these as a matter of course. Quite possibly, they tended to be closer as a result. ``Families aren't marriages or homes or rules,'' Lapp'e writes. ``Families are people who develop intimacy because they share experiences over the years that make up their uniqueness. TV robs us of these family-building traditions.''

For those who want to keep their television, there's a chapter of suggestions for getting it under control. How about the program-rating project one of Lapp'e's friends came up with? On a big pad next to the set, the children tallied violence, sex stereotypes, and the like. They became active, instead of passive, watchers, and they loved it. ``I'm not necessarily advocating that people go cold turkey,'' Lapp'e writes. ``I want people to ask whether television is dominating their lives.''

Lapp'e feels that she is just starting to reap the benefits of the eight years without TV. (The family now has a set, but they keep it in the closet.) ``My kids are self-starters,'' she says with more than a hint of a mother's pride. ``They have ideas, things they want to do. They are not into drugs. I can be in a room with my kids and feel comfortable, at ease. That has already been established.''

``I'm not telling people to do something hard or painful,'' she says. ``You feel better when you take charge'' of your life by turning off the TV.

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