Like just about 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. Most kids I grew up with did the same, and I don’t recall anyone worrying too much about it.
By the time I became a parent myself, this unremarkable pastime had become controversial. Are kids watching too much TV today? How much TV were kids supposed to watch? How do other types of “screen time” fit in? When could they start watching?
We didn’t give it lot of thought until our second child was born and suddenly Netflix became everyone’s best friend. We fell into a habit of our toddler wanting 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 a constant battle over TV. It went on for a couple of months. It didn’t seem healthy.
So we tried something new. Something radical. We cut out screens cold turkey.
Done. No more TV.
What did we do instead?
We read books.
We played outside.
We did art projects.
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 spent four hours at the park.
We wondered whether it was bedtime yet.
We wondered how we would make it to bedtime.
We wondered how we would make it another two hours.
In the end, we made it without TV for two years.
We eventually reintroduced TV when our kids were 4 and 2 years old. This is what I learned from the experience.
1. TV shows are better than ever.
My kids have learned a ton from some of the amazing shows available today, like Wild Kratts and Peg Plus Cat. You can find shows that have strong role models, inspire a love of learning, and are pretty entertaining to boot. We’ve come a long way since the green slime shows of my childhood.
2. Commercials are worse than ever.
While television shows have become better than ever, commercials have largely moved in the opposite direction. They represent everything I don’t want my kids exposed to, including rampant consumerism, unrealistic body images, whitewashed beauty standards, pigeonholed gender roles, unhealthy eating habits, and other issues. Because of these problems, we cut out ads entirely by only watching shows on ad-free platforms and apps.
3. Our lives are better with a little bit of TV.
As much as a part of me dreams of living in a Waldorf-inspired utopia of unhurried days, calming colors, nature-inspired projects, and a simple life without electronics, that dream never quite fits into my reality, which sometimes trying to find some moments of peace during a rainy weekend, or letting the kids watch a movie during a date night.
4. Our lives are worse with a lot of TV.
Although some families I know seem to manage without any limits whatsoever regarding screen time, that hasn’t been a winning strategy for us. For one thing, turning on screens in the morning derails our day and makes getting out of the house too difficult. It was also too easy for us to slip into a routine that involved the kids running for the tablet as soon as we got home every day. Once we got out of that habit, the kids were just as happy drawing or playing outside instead. That seems to improve their moods, which makes us as parents happier too. On top of that they use up more energy playing outside and with each other, which seems to translate into a slightly earlier and less chaotic bedtime.
5. Arbitrary limits are frustrating.
When we first re-introduced screen time, we initially decided to limit the kids to three episodes of a show per day. At about 20 minutes each, that adds up to about an hour a day of “screen time.” That lasted about two days before we realized it wasn’t going to 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 little sand castle 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. You would probably be upset at the person dragging you away. Of course, there are some important differences between spending a day at the beach and spending a day in front of a screen. But there are also some key similarities in that both can be enjoyable and relaxing activities that no one likes to have arbitrarily cut short due to someone else’s agenda, even if that agenda comes from the best of intentions, as we all have when it comes to our kids. For us, a daily “now you can watch, now you can’t” setup only led to screen time battles. We do much better when screen time isn’t part of our daily routine.
So what’s a parent to do? Check out these three innovative ways to make peace with screen time.