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Children and Television: Screentime Without the Guilt

Updated on February 27, 2019

Cranky Toddlers

There I was: pregnant, reading my parenting books, eating my Taco Bell. I thought "My kid won't watch TV. My kid won't even want to watch TV. In fact, we're not going to have a TV. And if we do—" because I think I felt a little pang when the thought crossed my mind "—we'll have it on a stand on casters in a closet that we can pull out and roll across the room for special nights, like Tuesday and Thursday and Friday and maybe Sunday for football or an SVU marathon. But not every day, all the time." (I felt a bit of a pang there, too).

When I was pregnant, I was obsessed with "doing it right." When I wasn't watching every single episode of Law & Order, I was reading books and articles about parenting. Ever hear that phrase "I was a great mother before I had kids"? That was me.

It seems that since the first TV was plugged in, someone somewhere screamed "Poison!" As much as I loved my TV, I agreed without knowing why. Television was "poison" to children and babies—but not to me. Law & Order is a pretty smart show. I watch educational stuff; not mind-numbing brain candy. I watch quality.

Fast Forward to Baby Life

As it turns out, IKEA doesn't have any TV stands on casters. I tried. Really. And as I spent the last few weeks of pregnancy wondering when labor would shock me into motherhood, I invited an artist friend to my house to do a charcoal portrait of me and my big ol' belly. To stay still, I watched the Civil War movie Glory. In the portrait, my face is very serious and focused, a little sad. That's because she did my face during the credits.

My son was born. We were going to do everything parents do with their kids. I was going to do tummy time. Play patty-cake. Teach him Algebra. And soon we'd start our own Organic Co-op.

But first, Mommy is going to nurse, every second of every day. Did you know that simply by making milk (and I'm not out milking cows here; I'm just making it), I was burning 500 calories? Let me ask you: how exhausted were you after you last burned 500 calories? I bet your neck was stiff at the gym while looking up at the news or the last episode of King of Queens while trudging on the treadmill for your third straight hour. I bet you went home and took a shower. I hadn't seen a shower in DAYS.

But I did catch up on a lot of CSI, found that I even enjoyed NCIS, and thought Bones was the cleverest thing to hit the air since The Office. Obviously, I wasn't off to a good parenting start.

I imagine, back in the olden days, when there was no TV, that people put on their ten layers of clothing and their hard pointy shoes and calmly and peacefully found a moor to explore. Perhaps it wasn't even cold. They wore ten layers of clothing because they were bored. Barnes & Noble was light years away, so they weren't reading like literate snobs—they were merely written about by literate snobs. And the local pub was practically in the ocean on a rock called "Take a Nip."

There are no moors here. There are cars and roads and animals and strangers. I can't sit back on the veranda and watch as my son explores the world, learns, becomes inspired, and returns to say "Look what I've found, Mother. An exquisite piece of coral. Can I keep it, Mother? I'd like to add it to my collection!" I have to hold my son's hand if we step out the door. I have to run after him and teach him, every half a second, that "Don't go in the street!" means "Mommy is going to go inside and put on Caillou. Want to come?"

Pause. Caillou?

Oh, yes. In my year of exhausting nursing, I also blissfully caught up on my shows and found new ones when I'd seen every episode of my stand-bys. But all that had to change when my son stared wide-eyed at the Compass Killer's latest victim. My son can't see this! Where the heck are the kid channels?

Where are his parents?!

And the tension began. The self-wrought Mommy guilt versus the self-forced Mommy sense. "I grew up watching TV. I know for damn sure I wasn't collecting sea shells and scrapbooking!" As I watched my son sort of watch TV and sort of not, then zone out completely and nearly topple over from exhaustion, I decided I had to get a little serious. I realized that I did not have the energy to nurse him, clean the house, cook dinner, vacuum ten times a day (kids are so messy!), give baths, change diapers, go grocery shopping, hug my husband, teach manners, teach language, teach morals and values, pick rice up off the floor, wipe the sour milk smell from my unshowered body, and eat my delicious bon-bons while still doing all I needed to interact with him! My child!

How could I get all of that done while still having my child? How could I still play another round of patty-cake, build another tower, put together another puzzle, chase him out of another street without some small, tiny respite?

You ever see a zombie? Godzilla? A five-day old pizza left by the heater? No? I'll show you a picture I took of me and put on Facebook—on a good day, because I wore lipstick.


I turned that sucker on and I took a shower.

And then, I made some guidelines.

Screentime Scene Selection

I wanted to make the television a learning tool, not just a moving picture that captivated the synapses of his brain and said "Look! Look again! I'm moving!"

If you give in, like I did, and have sacrificed your own television-watching for the sake of your sanity, heed my advice:

1) Keep the volume low. Above all, your child should hear you before they hear the television, and vice versa. If you leave the room, you want to hear every cough, sigh, yawn, or "I think I want to go to Hampshire; Ivy League is so old school." Your child's ears are sensitive to the world and they aren't really paying attention to the words as much as they are the images.

2) Sit with your child when watching the show as much as possible. Point to the colors, the characters. Ask your baby questions, even if they cannot talk! They learn by listening to you and when you identify colors, context, places, and ask questions, they are interacting with what they are seeing rather than simply being lulled by it. And here's a bonus: because we were raised on TV, we'll get suckered into anything. It will be a day for reflection when you're a little bummed your child wants to stop watching. Why? Because you really want to know how Caillou's mug for his mom came out.

3) If the television is on and they aren't watching it, turn it off. Enjoy some quiet; recognize that your child has made an independent move to play independently and now would be the perfect time to read

4) Relax! If you are too tired to play a game with your child, and your child "looks bored," be assured that they are not. Like every human, your child requires time to relax and not be stimulated. Pick up a book and read, clean your toenails, play another game of patty-cake, or if you're really brave and stellar and practically perfect, cook something.

Yes, yes. A moor would be lovely. An estate with a garden and thirty butlers would be simply splendid. But I don't have that. When I take my son to the local diner, you can bet your scrapple that I'm going to pull out my smartphone after every attempt has been made for peace, and I will proudly hand it to him with 101 Dalmatians playing with zero commercial breaks. I will point to the dogs. I will ask him if he thinks it's funny. I will ask him if he can say "Cruella" and the patrons who judge me, sneer at me, or somehow think I'm a bad mother, are welcome to applaud me for my ingenuity—because it took a lot of Google searches to figure out how to get that damn movie on my phone back in 2008.

Question 1

Do you think moors offer:

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Question 2

How do you feel as a parent when you wish Heroes Season 2 wasn't so crappy?

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Question 3

Will you let your child watch TV?

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