I know, I know – it seems like some kind of cardinal sin these days. You’re probably already preparing to call DFACS or the American Academy of Pediatrics on me – or worse. If you’re even still reading, let me explain and give you a little background. When my first daughter was born, I was an absolute freak about doing everything “the right way.” I read every book, website, and pamphlet I could get my hands on about how to raise a healthy, emotionally well-developed, and of course brilliant child. I followed everything to a T. Swaddle the baby, use white noise, don’t sleep with her too much, stick to the three-hour schedule. It terrified me to do something that might cause her to grow a third eye-ball or need therapy by the age of three – and I wasn’t sure which would be worse. The recommendation is no television until the age of two, and then no more than a half hour a day. I was absolutely rigid about it…until that first night when she was 9-months-old and it was bewitching hour. I had to keep her up for 45 minutes or all hell would break loose at midnight, and I had tried everything, but her eyes were getting very heavy. A friend had lent me a copy of every single Baby Einstein DVD and I was soooo tempted. What could it hurt?
Dang if that junk wasn’t some baby eye crack. She stared at the screen transfixed – and more importantly awake – for the 30 minutes, we had to survive til bedtime. “This isn’t so bad,” I told myself. “It’s classical music, and that stimulates the brain, right? And there’s nothing BAD about it; it’s totally educational…” Baby Einstein became our go to plan B for space filler and fit soothing – on occasion.
By her first birthday, we had graduated to Sesame Street. I watched Sesame Street and I’m kind of okayish, so what’s the harm? It’s educational. And yes, I read all of the articles about how TV before preschool age causes learning disabilities and watching it lights up the same areas of the brain on a PET scan that appear in drug users. I knew all that. But 30-60 minutes of Sesame Street in the morning did not seem to be producing any debilitating effects as of yet, and she was crazy in love with Elmo. Full disclosure, it was really nice to be able to sit quietly first thing in the morning to figure out what our day would look like. I could eat a bowl of cereal before it got soggy. I like crispy cereal.
When baby number two was born a year later we had let Big Sister watch quite a bit more than Elmo (although he was still her favorite). I’m not gonna lie — it is a slippery slope. Sesame Street gave way to Disney Princess and full-length movies. We tried to balance it by watching some natures shows as well; in fact, Big Sister’s first movie in the theater was Disney Nature’s Earth at 18 months. This was only possible because my kids have always had crazy long attention spans due to our other yin to TV’s yang: reading. As a former English teacher and a self-proclaimed book nerd, reading has always been central to my life. I read to my babies in utero. I read to them for 20 minutes before each nap and before bedtime from birth. Sometimes we’d read in the middle of the day for no reason at all. We read all.the.time. And, right or wrong, this made me feel better about the fact that my first born could sing the entire soundtrack of Cinderella by age two.
Since Big Sister was no longer into Sesame Street, it wasn’t around much for Little Sister. As with most things, the second child got the leftovers. I was already juggling nursing , preschool carpool and potty training plus all the other things that come with having two kids under three. I was not about to take away the one thing that occupied Big Sister while I was making dinner wearing a nursing baby with a poopy diaper when the dryer went off. By this point, TV was a God-send. Yes, there were some days when I was pregnant with Little Sister that we watched Stellaluna on loop while I snoozed on the couch, but on average Big Sister was getting no more than 45 minutes to an hour a day, and at very selective times. Usually when I was changing the baby who’d spit up on me for the sixth time that day and had just projectile pooped on my Berber carpet, which the cat was now puking on. You know survival. Nonetheless, as a result, Little Sister got WAY more exposure to television from birth than Big Sister, and I had to be okay with that because what was I gonna do? Put her in another room while we watched Tangled for the forty-eleventh time? Not gonna happen.
But you know what else we’ve done? We’ve spent every Friday night for the past three years as a family; we all agree on a movie and watch it together while we eat breakfast for dinner or pizza we made ourselves or an equal mommy-is-over-cooking-for-the-week meal. My husband and I have been able to share with our girls some of the amazing things cinema produced during OUR childhoods, as well as some true classics, like The Sound of Music with Julie Andrews, and The Wizard of Oz. These films are part of who we are as people and parents and are woven into the fabric of American culture. Exposing our kids to them is important.