I don’t care what “pediatricians” say and what the recommended “normal” amount of time spent on electronic devices is for kids these days. You know it, and I know it, plenty of kids watch WAY more than 30 minutes of TV (or cell phone, or tablet, etc.) a day when it’s all said and done. Screen addiction is a real thing for kids these days. It’s easy to see why—screens are all around us. I just started working at a school, and I found out that not a single kid knows what a blackboard is. For group learning they now use—you guessed it—a screen.
We used to have a big, big problem at my house with too much TV. It hit a low point when I was on maternity leave when my youngest daughter was born, and I decided to keep my then 3-year-old home with me to save money on daycare. I had it all planned out: we were going to spend our days following this nice little schedule I had printed out and color coded. Our daily plan included educational outings, planned snack times and mealtimes, music lessons, and art.
I was so excited to be able to spend this extra time with my kids that I forgot what it was actually like taking care of a newborn baby. Once the little one came along, I quickly remembered as the sleep deprivation hit me like a brick wall. That cute schedule that had us returning from our outing and having done 3 educational activities by 11 am quickly went out the window. I was lucky if I was even out of pajamas by 11am!
I ended up using the TV as a babysitter for my older daughter while I tended to the baby. Then I used it as a babysitter while I would take a shower– then when I needed to get a bit of housework done. And when that was all said and done I was simply too sleep deprived to engage in playtime with the 3 –year-old, so I kept the TV on so I didn’t have to talk.
That phase was only temporary, and we all eventually returned to our routines of work and daycare after my maternity leave ended. But the bad habit of TV stuck with us. When we got home from daycare, the first thing my daughter would do was turn it on. I was OK with it because I needed her to stay occupied while I cooked dinner. I would tell myself just one more hour, or just one more episode. On weekends, it was worse. The TV would be on for the majority of the day.
I knew we had a problem, but by that time even if I suggested that my child try another activity, she would either whine about it, or ask if she could keep the TV on while she did it. We reached a couple points where I would just snap, unplug the TV, and declare a ban of all electronic devices, but the temper tantrums got to me and I quickly gave in. Something had to change.
As with many parenting dilemmas, sometimes the best thing you can do is take a step back from the situation, examine where the problem is coming from, and come up with a game plan. Very rarely have I ever solved a conflict with my kids by reacting on the spot. After reflecting on how this happened, WHY it happened, and what I could do, I followed the following steps. We had our challenges along the way, and she fought back quite a bit at the beginning, but I stuck to it. Now, my daughter NEVER asks to watch TV.
Here is what I did.
Explain WHY too much TV is not good.
This step might sound useless, especially if you have a younger child, but I have found that explaining why a kid must do or not do something rather than just telling them to do or not do it actually goes a long way. When I took the time to explain to my daughter that too much TV is bad for you, she listened. She asked, “why?” I told her smart little girls don’t watch too much TV, and instead they spend time playing and learning. Now sometimes she’ll walk up to me and say “Mom, I want to be smart. Let’s make sure we don’t watch TV today.”
Not saying that every kid who watches TV is not smart, but there is some science behind that answer, and it motivates my daughter. Use whatever explanation you know will pull a string with your kid and get them to consider the consequences.
Plan to change your routine – and explain that plan to your child.
For us, the big trigger times were coming home from daycare, and after breakfast on weekend mornings. One of the first things I did that worked was to make a conscious decision that we would simply NOT be turning on the TV at those times. On the way home from daycare in the car I would tell my daughter “OK, we’re almost home, and here’s what’s going to happen…we’re going to do X, Y, and Z, and we’re not going to turn on the TV until X O’clock. Understand?”
When your child is informed about what is going on and has a heads-up, their reaction is likely to be much more mild. This worked really well for us. At first, she wasn’t happy, and would ask “How many minutes until TV?” about 1000 times each night. But you know what? Eventually she stopped asking! She would instead get so involved in other games she was playing, which is what kids ARE SUPPOSED TO DO!
Offer choices for independent play in place of TV.
One of my good friends is a kindergarten teacher. After spending a bit of time at our house he observed that I struggled with getting my child to listen. He gave me advice that I have incorporated into almost every aspect of parenting: giving options. Instead of saying, “Put your toys away!” he suggested rather “What would you like to put away first, your blocks or your dolls?” It’s like magic—they suddenly think inside this little box where those are the only possibilities of what to do next! Now, first thing when we get home from school I ask my daughter what she would like to do first. I usually have her pick among activities she can do by herself for a little while as I make dinner or tend to the baby, like coloring or puzzles. If it’s a weekend, I plan ahead with different activities to suggest if we have any downtime and TV can become a temptation.
Involve them in what you’re doing – even if it would be easier without their help.
Part of the reason I used the TV so often during and for a while after my maternity leave is I had so much to do, I felt like I needed something to occupy my older daughter to keep her out of the way while I took care of those things. (We all know that cooking, cleaning, and folding laundry are all easier done without the help of a preschooler.) As much as it bothered me at first, I let her try to help participate in some of these chores. Yes, it took a lot longer, and yes, I got a little annoyed that everything wasn’t perfect, but before I knew it she was actually becoming a big help. My daughter (now almost 5) can sort everyone’s clothes, fold socks together, and put clothes on hangers to get ready for me to hang up. All without help from me. Doing chores together has also become a time for us to just hang out together and talk, which we don’t always have a lot of time for otherwise.
Set a time that you will play with them, even if your chores aren’t done.
You can only expect your child to engage in independent play for so long, especially if they don’t have siblings who are at an age that they can play with them at their level. Some nights if I have a bunch of housework to do that I know is going to take forever, I just turn the other way, drop what I’m doing, and give 100% attention to my kids. No suggestions for what we play, no choices (unless they pick TV! Which now they don’t), just let them pick what they want to play and go along with them. Sometimes all kids want is to play their way, and nothing makes them happier than you playing a game by their rules for a little while. I feel like sometimes TV had become so normal that we never just played a game together for fun.
It took a lot of work and A LOT of patience to break our TV habit. Every once in a while, we end up watching a little more TV than I like. For the most part, though, we have made it back from the dark side of screen addiction and have learned to occupy ourselves in more productive ways. I’m proud to say that now I have a preschooler who is extremely bright and articulate, and a 1 year old who is following in her sister’s footsteps. I don’t take full credit, but I truly believe that taking the time both to engage with my kids and to teach them how to get involved in their own projects, instead of using TV as a filler for our time, has really had a positive impact on who they are becoming. Gone are the days of “how many more minutes until we can watch TV?” Now, all I hear is “What are we going to play next, Mom?” and it’s music to my ears.