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Nashville Scene Purple Passion

Making peace with Barney

By Margaret Renkl

SEPTEMBER 22, 1997:  Bad Mother Confession No. 546: I am dying for my baby to show an interest in television.

I'm dying to take a six-minute shower without having to invite my second son, the youngest male in my life, to join me. I'm dying to take a 20-minute business call without carrying him around on my hip and shoving raisins into his mouth one at a time to keep him quiet. More than anything else, I'm dying to know that when a deadline looms--when I've got exactly 23 minutes to finish what I'm writing so that I can fax it to New York before my editor's train leaves for Long Island--I can pop in a Barney tape and feel assured, as I sit down to the computer, that my son is not tossing matchbox cars into the toilet across the hall.

I wasn't always this kind of working mother--the kind who uses her television as an unpaid babysitter. In truth, I dislike television. I dislike television news, with its suited pseudo-journalists oozing false empathy as they report the latest tragedy I can't do anything about. I dislike situation comedies where everyone laughs at impolite children and jokes about bodily fluids. I dislike cop shows where bodily fluids constantly get spilled. I even dislike watching good movies on television because one third of my viewing time is commandeered by the shouting of middle-aged salesmen who insist I buy a car from them.

So my husband and I were shocked to discover, during one of the rare times we rented a movie since we became sleep-deprived new parents, that our innocent baby's little eyes were avidly following the bright flashes of light emitted by the flickering cathode-ray tube in our living room. After a brief conference, we dug out a small typing table we had stored in the garage, placed the television on it, and rolled the whole thing into a tiny half-bath under the stairs. We would not be raising a video-head. We would be raising a little boy who loved books as much as his English-teacher parents do.

Despite the muttering of family and friends who accused us of rearing our child in a study hall instead of a home, we stuck to our convictions. For two years we did not turn on a television in his presence. For two years we solemnly instructed his grandparents and his babysitters not to let him watch their TV sets. For two years we were blessedly free of both Big Bird and Barney.

Even more important, though, we achieved our ultimate goal: Our boy really did come to love books. After my husband left for work, our son and I climbed back into the big bed and read stories for half an hour before I left for my own part-time teaching job. I got back in time for lunch, after which we read stories for another half-hour before his nap. Same ritual when the nap was over and before bedtime. By the time he was 15 months old, his preferred method of comfort if he fell down or bumped his head or suffered some other pain or indignity was--no surprise--to cuddle up and read a story.

It was a beautiful system, but the system began to break down when the snow began to fall during the winter when our son turned 2. At first the snow was a big hit, but after just 20 minutes of repeated slips and falls, he was soaking wet and freezing cold. He was ready to come inside and read a story.

Fifteen picture books later, I was sick of reading stories. My husband was sick of reading stories. We played games instead. We performed puppet shows. We baked cookies. We made it through the first day of snow.

By the third day of freezing temperatures, we were praying that Snowbird would give us a break and let us go back to school. We were delirious from reading the same stories again and again. Each of us had gained five pounds from eating slice-and-bake sugar cookies, and we were both feeling a new respect for our babysitter. At least on weekends and during inclement weather, there were two of us to share the toddler-entertainment responsibilities; as for my own solo watch every afternoon, it was punctuated by the worn-out little fellow's three-hour nap: How had Sandy the babysitter managed to keep this kid entertained, alone, for four conscious hours every day?

"Let's go for a walk in the snow," my husband would propose, but our little boy would shake his head vehemently.

"No-no. Snow too cold." Each time my husband offered a bracing ride on the sled, our son would point out that snow is cold. Then he would propose his own pastime. "Read book." He would trot back to his room and retrieve the copy of Green Eggs and Ham my husband had hidden in the laundry basket in his closet. "That Sam-I-Am; that Sam-I-Am," our little boy would chortle in joyful-child anticipation as he struggled to lift the dirty clothes piled on top of his favorite book.

While our son was examining the contents of his laundry basket, my husband was struggling to roll the typing cart out from under the stairs. "We're by God going to find Barney on this thing," he announced as he wheeled it in and plugged in the set.

"What if it's not time for Barney to come on?" I wondered.

"We'll settle for Big Bird."

"What if it's not time for Big Bird to come on?"

"We'll drive to Target and buy a damn video!" Clearly this dad had read Green Eggs and Ham for the very last time.

As it turned out, the only thing on television for children that morning was a GED social studies tutorial. "I've got to hand it to Sandy," my husband remarked as we settled our son in one of those big orange carts at Target. "I don't know how she does it without going crazy every day."

Just then we heard music coming from inside the store. "I love you. You love me. We're a happy family...." Our son laughed excitedly, swinging his legs in time to the music and craning to find the source of the sound. "Barney!" he crowed, long before the magenta dinosaur ever came into view. "Sandy bring tape?"

I still like books better than videotapes for childhood entertainment, but now I take a larger view of the small screen. I have to admit that I've come to love Barney, to consider him part of my own happy family. And I'm eagerly waiting for the day when my second son is old enough to sing along.

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