Like any 1980s child, I grew up watching TV. And not just the occasional commercial-free documentary for its educational content. We’re talking Looney Toons, Nickelodeon shows with the apparent sole purpose of broadcasting green slime dumped on people’s heads, and the same Disney movies hundreds of times over. It was fun. Sometimes it was boring. I believe it was referred to as “childhood.”
For some reason, after I became a parent myself, this unremarkable pastime suddenly seemed controversial. Should I let my kids watch TV? How much? Starting at what age?
When my oldest daughter was born, I figured we would follow the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics on screen time. No TV before age 2, and only 2 hours a day thereafter. It was a simple and straightforward plan, right? (Ha!) Like many plans I had before becoming a parent, it did not work out according to the script.
As dutiful first time parents, we did make it through the first two years of parenting without assistance from screens, aside from the occasional iPad app in times of emergency. Then we had our second child. All bets were off. Netflix became everyone’s new best friend.
Two year old is up as 6am and the baby woke up 7 times last night? An extra hour of sleep sure sounds good. Netflix to the rescue!
Baby wants to nurse and toddler wants to use mama as a human trampoline? Netflix to the rescue!
Lunch needs to be made but the toddler is into everything? Netflix to the rescue!
It is a time-honored tradition for older siblings to watch too much TV after the birth of a new baby. The free, electronic babysitter can be an invaluable tool, especially when parents are operating in survival mode. Unfortunately, we found ourselves paying for this free babysitter in the form of lots of meltdowns. My daughter wanted to watch a show as soon as she woke up and once we turned it on, she was no longer interested in doing the things she previously loved, like going to the park or helping us cook. Our lives were devolving into constant TV or a constant battle over TV. It didn’t seem healthy.
So we tried something new. Something radical. We cut out screens cold turkey.
No more TV.
What did we do instead?
We read books.
We played outside.
We did art projects.
We jumped on the bed.
We danced in the living room.
We lost our tempers.
We wandered around Target.
We did more art projects.
We read more books.
We went to the park.
We wondered whether it was bedtime yet.
We wondered how we would make it another two hours.
In the end, we made it without TV for another two years.
Finally, we got tired. We needed a break and something had to give. We dusted off our old Netflix subscription. This time we wanted to avoid the all-day screen mania, but we knew that limiting screens to one hour per day or another arbitrary time limit wouldn’t work for us. In fact, I believe these types of limits fail to take into account the way the human brain operates.
Think of an activity you enjoy doing. Let’s say it’s going to the beach. When you first get to the beach, you’re taking in the scenery: the sights, the sounds, the smell of the ocean. You’re full of excitement. You roll out your towel on the sand, head over to the blue water to dip your toes in for the first time, and then go for a refreshing swim. You build a couple of little sand castles with the kids. Then you head over to lie down in the shade. You close your eyes for a few moments of escape from reality. Ahhhhhhhh.
Suddenly the peace is broken when you hear someone repeatedly calling your name. You open your eyes see someone standing over you saying, “OK, that’s it! One hour is up! Time to go!” At this point, you would probably feel rather frustrated. Chances are, you would feel like your beach trip got cut short. You just got there! You were just starting to enjoy yourself! Perhaps you would start obsessing about when you could come back and how to stay longer next time. After all, when a resource is very scarce, humans spend a lot of time thinking about ways to acquire that resource. On the other hand, when a resource is abundant, there is no need to obsess about it. That brain power is freed up to do other things.
With this in mind, we knew we needed a plan for screen time that would:
1) Not have our kids glued to their electronics all day.
2) Not leave our kids pining all day for their scarce screen time.
Essentially, we wanted to avoid the scenario that we had previously lived through.
Thankfully, I came across an insightful article by Project-Based Homeschooling about how to stop fighting about screen time. The article introduced me to the idea of generous limits. Under generous limits, kids have plenty of time to watch TV or play video games, but there is also built-in time each day reserved for other things. Rather than putting your focus on what you don’t want your kids to do, build in plenty of time for the things you do want them to do.
How does this work? It’s very simple. We don’t turn on the screens until mid afternoon. My 5 year old and 2.5 year old are full of imagination in the mornings and happily engage in pretend play, drawing, and running around making noise from the moment they wake up. After a leisurely morning at home, we head out for a few hours for our daily adventure. After we return home, all electronics are fair game. Turning on the screens before we leave makes getting out of the house more difficult, but we all enjoy a little downtime once we come home again after a day’s fun.
When we occasionally take a day off to stay home, sometimes the screens come out a little sooner and that’s ok. I know that our kids lead full lives. I know that they are not zoning out in front of the TV because they are stressed and need an escape. I know they are learning. I know that our days will probably change as they get older, but for now, we’ve found our balance.