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Probably the most tiresome parental refrain my children have had to endure in their young lives - besides, "Clean up your room!" - has been: "No, you can't cook your brains out in front of the TV."

My wife and I didn't even own a television set until our third child was born. My mother called a local dealer and had a set delivered to our house. Grandmothers can be that way.That was a number of years ago, and fighting the great American instinct to flip on the switch seems to have been almost incessant. Although we have relented and allowed rather liberal viewing privileges on Friday nights and Saturday mornings, weekdays and nights are basically off limits for the kids. We make occasional exceptions for particularly informative or otherwise special programs and some family viewing on non-school nights.

This oppressive restriction has met with plenty of resistance from our kids and no small measure of comparison with the more beneficent generosity of their friends' parents.

At that point, our children receive the zillionth version of our loving admonition that we are not other people's parents and we care that they not cook their brains out.

Eyes roll, gasps of exasperation issue forth and young feet shuffle - they have been known to stamp - off to respective bedrooms to while away the remaining hour or so with the obligatory book.

If this is a war being waged for our children's minds, it is a war worth fighting and winning, even though much of American society at times seems to have blissfully surrendered.

In an essay in the Hillsdale College publication Imprimis, best-selling author Larry Woiwode placed television at the core of the demise of one of the essential skills in a republic: the capacity to think.

"Television, in fact, has greater power over the lives of most Americans than any educational system or government or church," Woi-wode wrote. "Children are particularly susceptible. They are mesmerized, hypnotized and tranquilized by TV. No wonder, then, that as adults they are not prepared for the front line of life; they simply have no mental defenses to confront the reality of the world."

TV's ultimate result, he said, is a destructive erosion of human critical faculties.

"TV eats books. It eats academic skills. It eats positive character traits. It even eats family relationships. TV eats out our substance."

Woiwode referred to observations by Jerry Mander, who wrote the 1978 book "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television," citing the numbing effect of television on the ability to differentiate between the real and the unreal.

When people "cannot distinguish with certainty the natural from the interpreted, or the artifical from the organic," Mander wrote, "then all theories of the ideal organization of life become equal."

In other words, all images being equal, value judgments about what is good or bad, right or wrong, become irrelevant.

Once life has been limited to the comfortable, glowing margins of a cathode ray tube and submerged in a pool of hypnotic languor, making sense of life's difficulties, perplexities, joys and pains hardly seems worth the effort.

In our house, we call that cooking your brains out.