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Is My Child Truly Poor If He Mentions TV?

When we register children into a One Child Matters program, we train the project workers to ask each child a series of questions. The answers help us write the biography you receive when you first sponsor your child.

Sometimes the way the children answer the questions are nothing short of sweet entertainment. But with increasing frequency, some of their answers only create more questions. We received an example of that today, when several children in a new One Child Matters project answered a simple question with a surprising answer: My favorite thing to do is watch TV.

If you committed to sponsor a child to help them break the cycle of poverty, this statement can be troubling. Yet as we read letters from children registered in our programs, the references to watching cartoons and movies are on the rise.

So what does it mean? Is your sponsored child truly poor if they have access to television?

The short answer to that is YES. And Jack Eans, our Vice President of International Child Ministries who is currently in Africa training staff in registering new children, provides some perspective.

Many of the children here are putting that one of their favorite things to do is "watch TV." How on earth can that be possible in the country with the lowest Human Development Index for the last 5 years?

Is watching TV truly a symbol of wealth? How many children (regardless of socio-economic status) wouldn't love watching cartoons or movies or any TV for that matter?

I know it’s hard to define poverty in any other terms than material. For example, we are shocked when we visit a child’s home and see that there is a refrigerator. What we don't know that the mom is paying a loan on it or 10 family members bought it together.

But surprisingly TV, like junk food, is a cheap option of entertainment in most developing countries. Nearly every house here, regardless of shape or size has a small satellite dish on top. In America those dishes are free with the package, but we pay hundreds a month for our service package.

Here, however, a cheap TV is about $60 and the dish costs $80 and comes what they call a “free to air decoder” provided out of Dubai. They pick up signals from any satellite provider and they don’t have to unlock them to watch most American, British, or local programs.

So TV is the cheapest form of entertainment available. Even if they can't afford anything else, people still want entertainment. Even desperately poor people want diversion from their lives.

Another surprising factor in TV viewership among the poor is high unemployment and a lack of viable jobs. A mother (most fathers are dead or gone) or grandmother (acting as a caregiver) must make money and get some food, so they have to find a way to take care of their children. With the free TV programs, they can leave their kids at home. In this urban area, AIDS has devastated the extended family that used to provide child care. It seems sad, but how many people (rich or poor) use TV as a babysitter?

And as we’ve seen in this community, even if they mention watching television, that doesn’t mean they have the satellite dish and TV. They may live in a small, rented cottage outside a bigger house. The landlord or neighbor in the bigger house has the TV, and the children might get to go there and watch a cartoon or other program.

Quite simply, when a child is asked about their favorite thing to do, they will mention the best times they can remember. But that doesn't mean it’s a daily experience.

Let me share a real example of a family with one child we registered yesterday. Picture a single mother of 3. Her husband was ready to build a house on their new land. They had all the materials purchased. But then her husband died, and the workers and her family all took the materials. (I now understand why God included widows in James 1:27. As soon as a woman loses her husband she loses her value – and anything she has of value gets parceled to others who do have value.)

Anyway, in this widow’s one bedroom shack is a satellite dish. She makes her own peanut butter by hand, which she puts in used plastic peanut butter jars she buys from people. She raises chickens. And she sews clothes in a women's project and gets paid by the piece. In one month she averages $30 per month. We talk about people who earn less than $1 per day – she is one of them. They had the TV already, but the satellite dish is borrowed.

Her newly registered son may or may not have mentioned that he "likes to watch TV," I don't know. But if he did, we need to look beyond those words and see the whole story. For the local project workers, these details seem to be an uninteresting part of daily life – for us, what may seem questionable actually provides a clue into some of the challenges that child faces.

Has your sponsored child mentioned watching TV or cartoons? If so, take a moment to pray for that situation – we know that what a child sees on television can be formative. Pray for a kind adult to have more influence than what the TV-as-babysitter. Pray for your child’s parent to have other options that the television to care for or occupy their children while they work to provide.

Ask God to open your eyes to the clues which lay behind the smallest details in a child’s letter – they are important and more complex than we realize.

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