Catholic Herald, 1 January 1993
Television viewing is now thought of as a highlight of the New Year and Christmas season. During the rest of the year, the omnipresent box has come to usurp the family meal, traditional evening gatherings, and now even churchgoing. Virginia Barton mourns the passing of family rituals.
Time was when the family gathered round the fire to argue, discuss, learn or relax. A radiator is a poor substitute for a hearth.
Time was when the family gathered round the table to laugh, fight, gossip and listen.
Time is – what’s left of the family gathers round the TV. Who dares tum the set off and be the spoil-sport? Anyone who doesn’t want to watch the pop, rap or zap must leave the room (to go where? With whom? Who cares?), anyone who wants to talk must shut up.
A bleak exaggeration perhaps but the trend is there. New figures show that children spend more hours watching telly than they spend at school. Whilst we cannot be so crass as to blame the TV for the nation’s fractured families, we might admit that unselective viewing could accelerate a child’s growth into a somewhat stunted “adulthood”.
I mean that an unlimited diet of TV fare cannot be good for children since it puts before them a violent and vulgar world which they may mistake for the norm and for which they are quite unprepared.
And what about the relentless noise? Most parents would recognise the impossibility of discussing the decimal point, say, or healing a bruised ego, with half an eye on Neighbours. It’s but a small step from shelving those decimals and that ego: “You never told me”, “You wouldn’t listen”.
Withdrawal and isolation are the saddest fallouts of too much TV. Picture the silent, snacking couch potato.
There are statistics to fit most scenarios. Families are spending more time shopping together but less time eating together. Does it matter? Has the ritual of sharing a meal, with a mix of generations, perhaps a guest, or a sad space where a loved one was accustomed to sit; has this ritual, so natural as to be almost unremarkable, any real value?
The symbolism and parallels between the Eucharist and the family meal are obvious to the Christian. If one has known either ritual, and lost it, one has no doubts about its value.
At the daily meeting over food, trivia – the stuff of family relationships – is exchanged, let alone hard news. Here the acute parent learns what, goes on in the playground (and the acute child senses there is a row brewing), this is where treats are planned, favours asked, squabbles made up. Children, free to express themselves as nowhere else, are listened to and learn to listen. It sounds too good to be true, smug even.
Things can go dreadfully wrong of course, no matter how many meals are shared. But often it’s a case of someone flouncing out slamming the door, or Dad hunched in silent gloom, or Mum weeping over some imagined slight. A microcosm of real life and a far better and more natural preparation for so much that is vulgar and violent is today’s world.
Of the many rituals – birthdays, weddings, holidays – the most important to the Catholic family is surely Sunday Mass. None shall be more precious, none is more open to fierce debate, rational argument, emotional blackmail. Compared with getting the family to Mass, getting them to the supper table is a piece of cake.
The moody teenager may boycott the soup but hunger will prevail in time for the chicken and chips. Nothing short of physical force will get the teenager (or the adult for that matter) to church if he/she chooses not to go. After certain age the youngster must be abandoned to his/her guardian angel.
Siblings will notice the sad space in the pew. Parents will feel guilt, shame, sorrow. They will reflect that perhaps they are not such brilliant parents after all. Sensibly they will recall their own struggles with the Almighty, aware there may be more ahead!
Let us neither lose hope nor close doors. Perhaps we should have more faith in the Almighty bringing home His own sheep, and less faith in our abilities to do so.
From a grandparent’s perspective the whole business of bringing up a family and keeping it together seems a chancy affair fraught with risk. One thing is very clear to me. One brings to the job little more than one’s own experiences.
If these have been unhappy they may well reappear in some form or another in the next generation. If, on the other hand, they have been happy – well that’s another story.