How much TV do my kids watch? Are you ready for this? I hope you’re sitting down. The answer is: I don’t know, I don’t care and I don’t count! That’s right. I’m willy nilly with the screen time folks. Willy. Nilly. The TV goes on whenever I need it. Like when the kids are up really early (which is everyday), when I’m tired, when they are tired, when they are sick, when I’m sick, when I’m busy, when I need a break, when I need to shut my eyes, when they won’t stop fighting, when I feel like strangling someone, when it’s been raining for days, when it’s too hot, when I can’t answer anymore questions, when I’m on the phone, when I need to cook (ok, microwave), when I need to read a pointless article on Facebook, so you get it. It’s on a lot. A. Lot.
When my first child was born, like any decent human being, I was determined that MY children wouldn’t watch TV. And of course, like many parenting resolutions, that completely changed when my second child was born. I had to take care of the baby now, and so, the toddler got to watch TV. Maybe in another time and culture there would be another human in the house to do the job of the TV, but where I lived at that moment I had TV as my helper. I mean, I guess I could’ve of stayed up at night and searched Pinterest for homemade activity ideas like sensory boxes, busy books and yogurt paint (just threw up in my mouth a little bit, excuse me). But selfishly, I chose instead, to speak two words to my husband ("pass remote"), shove some much needed calories into my mouth, and try to sleep in between the cluster feeds and the night wakings. So you know, I had to shelf all my grand ideas of enriching my daughters life and producing the next revolutionary world changing feminist leader that I had always wanted. Instead I would have to settle for a toddler who watched mind numbing cartoons about The Man in the Yellow Hat and Bubble Guppies that float in water but never look wet. Mind numbing and mind bending. Double ouch.
So everyday my daughter would watch too much TV and I would beat myself up and vow to be better tomorrow. Then tomorrow would come and inevitably I'd be stuck with a nursing infant, a bored toddler and I'd be begging the Man in the Yellow Hat to please take me back. "I’m so sorry for what I said last night. I was just so tired. I didn’t mean it, I love your cheery disposition and the way you demonstrate unconditional love to a monkey who destroys everything you own and then provides you with a life lesson. So precious. Please come back!"
AND THEN when the toddler doesn't want to watch TV I would bribe her with grab and go snacks, many of which had questionable nutritional value. Yes, I bribed my child with unhealthy food to watch TV. The shame burned deep my friends, to the core of my mommy consciousness I was ashamed. I would not admit this to anyone, not even my husband.
To punish myself further I would seek out research about how bad too much TV was for kids. How does one determine too much TV you might ask? Well the almighty 2 hour a day recommend time limit of course. Any more than 2 hours a day and the consequences were staggering. It would delay language and reading ability, cause seizures, lead to obesity and cause high blood pressure. Even worse, your child would lose interest in social interaction and eventually become an anti social serial killer. Ok, maybe not that last one, but that’s how it felt. I even read an article about how more than 2 hours of TV a day increased the chance of premature death. Really, Man in the Yellow Hat, till death do us part?!?! Talk about the ultimate guilt trip for a mother.
But then I started to notice something really really strange, none of those bad things were happening to my daughter. She was still bright and delightful and ready to play outside and smile and hug her family. Huh, that’s weird, surely she should be starting to show some of the side affects of too much TV by now? Hmmmmm….I better watch this. I would say to myself “ok just one more week of 'too much TV' and that’s it!” That week would pass, I still felt barely human, and the TV was still on too much. But what the hell was this? My daughter was still not showing the tell tale signs of too much TV? She is happy AND healthy. I must be doing it wrong. How could this be?
Then a revolutionary idea hit! Maybe these researchers don’t know everything? Not about my kids anyway. After all, scientists used to say the world was flat and smoking was harmless, so let's keep that in mind when we're trying to live up to all these recommendations, shall we? I wonder, do these scientists even have kids? And do they live in a city where it rains 80% of the time and housing affordability means your family is squeezed into small home you can just barely afford? Well maybe they do, but they also get to go to work everyday and be scientists! They’re all smug at work in their fancy lab coats while their spouse is probably at home trying to nap while their kids watch Dora in a continuous loop. “Oh no Honey, they didn’t watch any more than 2 hours I promise! See Sally looked up when you came in, and she still responds to her own name, so obviously I spent all day doing child led play. How was work dear? Any revealing findings from your study 'Kids Strapped in the Car While Mommy Drives Around Drinking a Latte will Never Finish High School?' That one sounded so promising!"
So here I was with my thriving child despite the mind rotting TV. I made a pivotal decision. I decided to stop measuring how much tv she watches and instead to look at her life as a whole and measure that. I devised a checklist of my child’s baseline for being healthy and happy and as long as I can check off this list then I know she is ok. (Disclaimer: All checklists will be different for different kids depending on who they are. For example, eye contact might be relevant for this child but not for a another child.)
This was the checklist for my daughter and I would review it once a week:
Does my daughter:
To this day I do not measure the hours of screen time in our house. There are seasons in parenting where it feels like the TV is always on and there are seasons when it’s barely on. Surprisingly my kids don’t seem to love TV all that much. It usually goes on at my suggestion! And if I suggest another activity, most of the time they are happy to oblige. Maybe I just got lucky that they haven’t turned into obese anti social blobs or maybe there is more to the story than the conclusion that more than 2 hours of TV a day will lead to premature death (or whatever). Maybe there are more factors at work here. Let’s look at the big picture.
If I ever do start to resent TV. I always focus on adding in and not taking away. I don’t try to cut down on TV but instead try to add in more of something else. For example, add in more play dates or park outings or reading or whatever it is I want to see more of. It's never about cutting out something. Cause that’s like restrictive dieting, totally sucks and never stays off.
This is how we usually watch TV. Photo by: Michele Mateus Photography.
Karen Barré is an accomplished mom of 3 that can make snacks ALL day long and still find the time to make light-sabers out of paper and duct tape. As long as the conditions are perfect. And everyone slept the night. And we have groceries in the house. Or paper. Okay, I did it once, it was a highlight.