Why My Kids Control Their Own Screen Time


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.

We’ve watched many documentaries.  The 2011 film Babies is one of our favorites.  Little Sister was about two the first time she saw it. She was absolutely fascinated by the other little creatures on the screen. Big Sister just wanted to know why Namibian women don’t wear shirts, but that’s a whole other conversation.  My kids have learned about nature and woodworking, cake baking and Egypt.  Big Sister has been begging to finish the God series with Morgan Freeman.  Little Sister just wants to watch the Food Network (because, cupcakes.  And Duff Goldman).
And notice the pronoun I’ve used there:  We.  Very rarely do my kids watch television when my husband or I am not in the room.  Very rarely do we not have a conversation about what we are watching before, during, and after the show.  (Those Kindles they got for Christmas have stretched this a bit, but parental controls are a beautiful thing.) My point is that it’s not television itself that’s bad.  My kids are actually able to regulate their own screen time because they know that there are many things that take precedent:  homework, reading, family time – which often includes activities like yoga, taking walks, or playing tennis.  They watch an average of 20 minutes per weekday during the school year and a whole heck of a lot more on the weekends.  But who cares?  I used to get up at 5 a.m. on Saturdays, get my big ole bowl of cereal, and roll through 5-6 hours of some pretty darn good television. From Wild Kingdom to the Smurfs, and I had quite a distinguished academic career.  It didn’t rot my brain and the kids will be just fine too.
One last word on the subject:  I hope I’ve been clear that these circumstances only exist because we have spent so much time with our children.  I do not, and never would, advocate for sticking an 18-month-old in a bouncy seat in front of the boob tube for seven hours.  That’s not what I’m talking about here.  I’m talking about purposely and deliberately raising kids who can make wise choices even around something as tempting as television without having to be nagged or using some kind of complicated chart system that their mama just ain’t gonna keep up with.  I’m talking about exposing children to a wide variety of genres, mediums, and subject matter in film, which they can use as a reference for the rest of their lives.  And I’m talking about balance, something we don’t seem to have much of these days.  Too much of a good thing always turns sour.  So get yourself some popcorn, snuggle up close with those babies and watch something entertaining, meaningful, and sweet.  It really is time well spent.

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3 Responses to Why My Kids Control Their Own Screen Time

  1. Karla August 10, 2016 at 6:27 pm #

    I appreciate this so much…especially as my almost 20 month old and I endure a third rainy day in a row with more on the way. We haven’t broken down and introduced her to more than videos of herself (which may be worse…are we inducing narcissism?!), but with little brother arriving in 5 months, momma is betting there might be more TV in our future. But only the good stuff. (;

  2. Ellen August 11, 2016 at 3:26 am #

    I love this! It’s so honest and quite funny but your approach is actually logical and a great way to look at screen time and balance. The fact that you’re teaching your kids to make their own healthy choices (and therefore hopefully avoiding sprouting that third eyeball) is the way we should all approach this parenting gig. I sometimes forget I’m raising future adults, so thanks for the reminder.

    PS It’s extra refreshing that you’re not preaching, you’re not mom shaming and you’re not stirring up controversy unnecessarily. Lord knows we have enough of that right now.

    Great piece ❤️

  3. Annie
    Annie August 19, 2016 at 9:34 am #

    Excellent post, and I SO agree with your balanced perspective. Television is not the enemy – for us, commercials are the enemy. If we let our kid watch something live on the Disney channel, oh my word, the awful gimme gimmes and whining are sure to follow. We stick with shows from Amazon Prime and enjoy them together.