OK, LET’S TALK ABOUT SCREEN TIME. I’m a parenting article junky and I know the data, facts, opinions and consequences. But despite my intellectual knowledge about the relationship of TV and small kids (I know nothing about older kids), I can’t seem to pull the plug on the electronic babysitter. My views have changed over time and it’s generally been a good lesson in being flexible yet consistent, smart but not rigid, and using common sense not compromise. It’s also a good reminder that when parenting you should NEVER SAY NEVER. If you want to read an excerpt from my never to be published book called ‘Our Screentime Journey with Small Kids’ here you go:
When we first had Charlie we were pretty anti-TV or device in general until he was about a year and a half, when we discovered the ease of parenting with Sesame Street. I had read enough articles to know that fast-paced stimulation (both visual and audio) is bad for their brain development, blah blah, but the slower stuff felt ok when necessary/desperate. Up until when Birdie was born it was limited to weekend mornings and probably lasted about 1/2 hour – an hour at most.
LET ME BE VERY CLEAR ABOUT SOMETHING – Up until a couple months ago we had full-time childcare, a nanny and/or preschool. If either of us worked at home for the family it would be different (my way of saying ‘stay at home’ – but I HATE that term because it implies just ‘staying’ without accurately reflecting the amount of ‘working’). I know that showers need to get taken and parents need far more breaks if you are with them all day – in order to be a good parent. But when you are paying someone else to care for your children, watching TV is not part of their daily schedule. Besides, that emergency babysitter is reserved for us parents 🙂 We felt/feel that we should be able to parent 2 hours in the morning and 3 hours at night without using the TV as a crutch for any of us. It was allowed on weekends only and super limited.
AND THEN WE HAD BIRDIE AND BECAME GARBAGE PARENTS.
The first few months of having a newborn and a 22-month-old was challenging to say the least. We kept up mostly with the ‘no tv during the week’ thing but then on the weekends it was honestly like 3-4 hours for Charlie – maybe more. I know. It would be like being a vegan all week, then flying to Texas and stuffing your faces with pork and unpasteurized cows milk beef for two days. But we were so exhausted on Saturday mornings (hell, every morning) that usually Brian was asleep on the sofa (if he even made it out of bed) and I was breastfeeding for hours while Charlie marathoned Daniel Tiger. This did not make us feel good about ourselves at all, but we were scrambling to stay above water so we gave ourselves a break. I didn’t take a maternity leave with Birdie (no pity, I work for myself so it was my choice) so we phoned it in on weekend mornings so I could take a break from both my ‘jobs’. To be fair we were pretty strict about what was on – usually Daniel Tiger, Thomas The Train or Blue Fox – we even outlawed Bubble Guppies (too repetitive and was strangely addictive to Charlie and he was turning into a MONSTER when we turned it off) nor did we allow Peppa Pig (I only saw two episodes and in one she lied to her parents about being sick so she could stay home from school and in the other she body shamed her dad – I realize I sound like the most annoying alarmist hipster helicopter parent ever, but why send either of those messages to 2 or 3-year-olds?)
Are you still reading? Great.
Wait. Why are you still reading? Hopefully, it’s not because you are a parent of a small kid and are hoping for me to say it’s all ok. But maybe it is. WHO KNOWS??? (keep reading if you want advice from my mom – mother of 6 lovely and successful adults)
When we moved into our new house things got better and we scaled back the TV, mostly because Birdie was one year old and while we didn’t feel bad about having Daniel Tiger in the background when she was a 3 months, once she was actually wanting to watch herself we made changes and watched far less on the weekends (maybe an hour here or there – more when friends were over because we wanted to actually have conversations – some days were FAR worse or better than others).
Charlie’s 3rd year was very difficult for us in general. His incessant begging, whining and then screaming for the TV the SECOND he woke up, even on the weekdays made us seriously think about getting rid of it altogether. Our trips to the mountain house where there was no TV solidified this decision. But we were weakened by our exhaustion and the ease of the electronic babysitter. Thus the projector screen – it’s more of a “special occasion” – which we will watch on weekend nights or in the morning for movies. It has gotten better, a lot, actually but that might also be because they are getting older and understand rules and boundaries more.
So here is where I’m at right now and why I’m writing this post. I’m concerned that our strictness might have other negative consequences:
- It’s giving them early onset ‘TGIF’. To them, weekends mean ‘TV’. It also means when mom and dad are clearly the most relaxed (despite our best efforts to pretend that “Monday’s are so fun!!”). It’s also when they get all of our attention, so to say that they only want TV on the weekends is inaccurate, but if you asked them what they want to do on the weekends they’ll say ‘WATCH A MOVIE!’ in unison. My heart sinks every time (and yet I TOTALLY UNDERSTAND BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT I WANT TOO)
- By only giving them their true love on the weekends, are we setting up an unhealthy relationship with TV? Are we those people who are putting a lock on the snack pantry, thus creating an unhealthy relationship with food that leads to potential obesity?
OR ARE THEY JUST YOUNG and will tantrum at something regardless – whether it’s TV, sweets or toys?
But we can’t just let them watch TV willy-nilly, right? One of my best friends let’s her son watch a show or two after pre-school to wind down (their school ends at 12, not 5 so understandably she has 7 more hours of parenting). And another friend gives their pre-school aged kids 1/2 hour in the morning and 1/2 hour in the afternoon. So maybe we were being too strict and needed to do more moderation?? Maybe a little bit every day would normalize their relationship and reduce the withdrawals and obsession?
Recently we decided to try this new thing – we let them watch a short PBS show before school IF/WHEN they finish all their “jobs” – get dressed, toys put away, breakfast eaten, 5 minutes of piano (pounding on keys) and teeth brushed. I thought this was a decent idea until they started WAKING UP AT 6 A.M. BECAUSE THEY WERE SO EXCITED TO BE WITH THEIR BEST FRIEND – THE TV. Sure, they finished their jobs by 7am, but they totally missed the point. It’s like their brains aren’t mature or something …
To be fair, that only happened a few days, and about a week into this it got better because many days they don’t have time to watch a show or they don’t think about it (Is it a good time management lesson? – I think so). And now the rule even on the weekends is that there are no movies until 7am, in hopes that they don’t wake up early just to watch TV. Last Saturday for instance, Charlie woke up at 5:30am from a nightmare, got out of bed at 6:15 and they were allowed to play til 7am, but no TV before that. They understood and we watched something from 7 – 9 and shut it off with only a short protest but nothing too annoying. It’s getting better.
So besides the “weekend only” rules, here are our boundaries (as taught to me by my mother and a few articles):
- We tell them how long they can watch before we turn it on – 1 show, 2 shows, 1 movie, etc, and we DON’T LET THEM EVER CHANGE OUR MIND. There is no negotiation or compromise – there is only CHOICE. UGH. We learned this the hard way.
- Yes, we give them choices but we really try to be in control of the choices. We’ve definitely made the mistake of saying ‘What do you want to watch?’ while on a large kid cartoon menu and it turns into a big fight when they choose something that looks like garbage, or they don’t agree and they end up fighting amongst themselves.
- We avoid anything fast paced with lots of edit cuts. There are so many good shows out there these days. There are times Brian and I are like, “Wait, could this possibly be even really GOOD for them?” They will still watch Daniel Tiger, Sesame Street and frankly any PBS show that we let them, but the two they LOVE that we also love are Wild Kratts and Little Einsteins. We also like the pacing of Charlie Brown (but sometimes I’m like – is it super negative and such a downer?) oh, and Peter Rabbit. I recently heard that you can get the 1970’s Sesame Street on HBOgo, which is pretty awesome. I’d love to hear other suggestions.
- For longer sessions (weekend mornings or nights) we opt for movies over TV shows. Just like us they get addicted and sucked in and while most of those shows don’t have over-arching mystery plot lines (remember the time I watched 18 episodes of Veronica Mars in a row), having a movie with a beginning, middle and end and is slower paced I think helps their brain understand storytelling better and also makes it easier to switch it off. It’s just one plot, one group of characters and story to keep track of and I think it helps keep their attention longer than a 20 minute show. Our/their favorites are Moana (best messaging of any Disney movie for little kids ever), Robin Hood (the Kevin Costner version – just joking the original cartoon), Aristocrats, Sing, Frozen, Secret Life of Pets although that scares them sometimes and Monsters Inc. We’ve watched them all, but the Disney shows from our childhood (Little Mermaid, Aladdin) are uninteresting to them and the classics (Bambi, American Tale, Cinderella) scare them or ‘make us sad’. I think we’ve mined this category pretty well, but if I’m missing some positive messaging, non-scary quality movies please suggest. We try to make it a ‘family movie’ which is why we nix the bad cartoons.
I asked my mom what advice she had, and she gave me the above advice a long time ago, but the one thing that shocked me was this:
She said that the 5-6 o’clock time is called the ‘arsenic’ hour because everyone is hungry and tired so it can be really helpful to create a pleasant dinner time by letting them watch a show while you are winding down and making dinner.
THIS SHOCKED ME.
My mom has taught parenting classes for decades, so I thought she would be fairly anti-screen time especially on a day to day basis (family movie night is cherished and doesn’t count). But this made so much sense to me. All I want to do after work is chill for a bit, and obviously, our kids do too. I just thought by coming home and turning on the iPad we were being lazy. We thought that we should be able to engage them or they should be able to play independently for that hour (and they often do). But no one is less of a lazy parent than my mom. She practiced piano for 30 minutes with EACH CHILD on Saturday mornings – that’s 2-3 hours she sacrificed. That is by any person’s account, WORK. Both my parents sacrificed all of their “free time” to create a loving but consistent schedule. We learned math by folding towels into halves and thirds and learned counting by unloading the dishwasher and putting away ‘6 forks’. If my mom says you can give your kids 1/2 hour of TV while you make dinner I pretty much take it as doctrine.
But since my favorite thing in the world is to open up a controversial topic and discuss it in a very non-judgemental open way with hundreds of thousands of my friends, I’d love to hear from you. Some of you are child psychologists (I know because I’ve read your comments and taken your advice). Some of you are new parents and many are parents of older or grown kids. You are all over the globe and your philosophies vary widely while your opinion is equally valued. We all know that letting small kids sit for hours in front of a TV is not a good thing, but I’d love to hear what you have done, what has worked, what has NOT worked, what your regrets are and of course, what were your successes – what worked for you.
I wish we watched none. But I cherish my Saturday mornings where they watch Moana and I sit at the dining table, drinking coffee and writing my more personal posts like this. Besides, I need the time when they are zoning out on TV to read about how to be a good parent 🙂
IN SHORT; how much, how often and with how much control do you let your small kids watch TV?