Television sets are the baby sitters of the 1990s. And Head Start program directors think it's time parents reclaimed that responsibility. So they have asked parents to either cut down on or eliminate television viewing for a four-day period that coincides with a national Head Start conference.

Response to the "TV boycott," scheduled to end Sunday, April 28, is hard to gauge, according to Carolyn Firestone, social services coordinator for the Granite Head Start program. "We had some grumbling at first from a few people, but most of the parents have said they'd give it a try."The boycott was recommended to focus parents' attention on spending more time with their children, she said. Head Start is an education opportunity for low-income 4- and 5-year-olds to give them a head start before they get into kindergarten.

"This year in particular, we have had children who come in early and watch the Ninja turtles. Then they run around and try to make swords out of almost anything. We've noticed an awful lot of aggressiveness," Firestone said. "I don't mean to single out Ninja turtles. Other shows do the same. Children are watching a ton of television."

Asked if television is now the primary baby sitter of a generation, Firestone said "there's no `kind of' about it. It is the baby sitter. We're not saying that all television is bad. Don't watch it. That's not true. But we're asking people to be aware of their watching patterns. Watch with the children or do something else. We've noticed a big jump in problems in the classroom that increase with amount of time spent watching TV."

Renae Petersen has six children, ages 2-10, including one in Head Start. She grew tired of television before the boycott was announced. The Head Start decision, she said, was a pleasant surprise.

"It encourages families to interact, to do things together instead of watching television. It's gotten so people are not really communicating any more."

Her family tried to cut back on television viewing, but it kept "creeping back up to where we were before." So she took the set downstairs. Now, after school, the family reads stories. The children play outside more. And they have rediscovered crayons and dolls and other toys.

"Parents sometimes use the excuse that `we don't have money to do anything else,' " Firestone said. "We try to redirect them; send them to the library, encourage them to go outside. Or read some simple books together. Families can rediscover each other."