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Toddlers & The Tube

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

Ok, so seriously, I don’t think you’ve ever given out advice that I don’t agree with. And so I am hoping you might be able to help me out with this one:

I am the SAHM of one adorable just turned two year old boy with another baby on the way. When he was a little older than a year (probably around the time he switched from two naps to one and I lost the ability to shower during that morning nap), I introduced a little bit of TV. It was usually a half hour of Sesame Street in the morning while I quickly showered and maybe another half hour or so in the evening while I attempted to get dinner on the table. All was well – he half paid attention, half played on the floor with his toys while the TV was on, and when it went off? He didn’t really notice. Fast forward to today: Now he is old enough to know that the TV and DVDs are an option and verbal enough to ask for them. When we are out and about, obviously, it’s not an issue but when we’re home, particularly after nap time but before dinner, it’s all he wants to do. Last night, for instance, every five minutes, he brought me the remote and asked for a show. I would say something like, “No, no TV now. Why don’t we play fire trucks instead?” Five minutes of fire trucks and he was bringing me a DVD. And after each “no” from me, we had a mini-tantrum. ALL. EVENING. LONG.

So my questions are: Is this a phase we’re going through due to his age which will eventually get better as he can understand some “rules” around when he can watch TV (i.e. you can watch one show after breakfast and one show before dinner, etc.)? Is this something you went through with your boys and came out the other side? What guidelines do you set for your kids in terms of when and how much TV they can watch? (Or is setting any sort of “rules” just setting me up for TV being a forbidden thing that he wants all the time? My parents were pretty lax about the TV but I remember having friends who weren’t allowed to watch, say, MTV at their house and that was ALL they wanted to do when they came for a sleepover!)

Any advice would be MUCH appreciated.

Getting sick of the daily TV tantrums

Oooh, toddlers and television! So complicated! So polarizing! So very much a consensus-free zone.

We’ve got the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendations (no TV at all under two years! no more than an hour or two from then on because everything bad is TV’s fault!), but I’m the first to admit those recommendations are really hard to follow in the real world, unless you pledge to become a TV-free household and/or never have a private moment to yourself again. But then you’ve got people who still seem to think that plopping babies in front of Baby Einstein all day actually does make them “smarter.” And then there are the folks somewhere in the middle — the ones who TRY to keep TV to a minimum but are maybe secretly ashamed at the number of times they’ve just gone and exhaustedly used it as a babysitter or taken the path of least resistance. FINE. I WILL PUT BLUE’S CLUES ON IF YOU JUST STOP WHINING ABOUT IT. AT LEAST IT’S EDUCATIONAL, RIGHT?

Guess which group I fall into. Guess!

First and foremost, OMG, yes, the tantrums and the whining and the begging. My kids freaking love TV. In all its forms. They love cartoons and DVDs and video games and can navigate their way around YouTube with alarming proficiency on the iPad. As someone who was raised with very (VERY) strict rules and limited TV time, I’ve struggled with the issue you mentioned at the end of your letter: I don’t want TV to be a big forbidden thing (since whenever I got access to it I would basically go crazy and binge on whatever crap was on for hours and hours), but also, yeah: GO READ A BOOK, YOU COUCH POTATOES.

We personally don’t have hard and fast rules, mostly because when we tried that, I was the problem. I just couldn’t remain consistent, because sometimes I just NEED the TV to be on. When your kids are old enough to wander freely around the house and circumvent your child-proofing efforts, or if you have more than one kid and need to keep them both happy and in one spot and not beating the crap out of each other, I’ve sadly never found anything that works as well as the stupid television. I can leave to shower, make meals, clean, take conference calls in the other room, etc., and can be reasonably sure they will both be in the same safe spot when I return.

So…we’re squishy. Or maybe just “flexible.” Not that it’s a non-stop marathon or anything. Video games are limited to playing one level or 30 minutes, whichever comes first. The TV stays off during the  day (unless you’re sick, or Mommy is) (heh). Non-educational shows (like Spongebob or Ninjago, the stuff Noah is getting more into) are more strictly limited than say, a pre-dinner Dora/Diego double-header. You are about 99% likely to hear “no TV” from me during the week if you ask; weekends and days off are generally more relaxed and I’m more apt to indulge. No one other than Mommy or Daddy is ever allowed to turn on the TV. You must ask permission, and throwing a tantrum over being told “no” gets you a time-out. TV is a privilege, and it is one you can lose very quickly.

These are more school-aged-kid strategies, of course, but I’m listing them because YES, kids DO LEARN that TV is not an all-the-time all-you-want thing. Even if you aren’t maaaaaybe as consistent as you think you “should” be. It’s a bright shiny novelty to your son now, and while I’m not going to lie and tell you that the love affair with TV and DVDs will be anything but a lifelong thing, he WILL figure out that it’s a Sometimes Treat and learn to deal with that crushing disappointment. Eventually.

Some tips in the meantime, that I think worked pretty well for us:

1) Ditch the DVD cases.

They are too enticing and fun looking. We store all our kids’ DVDs in one of those CD/DVD zip-up binder-book things, which is kept in a storage bench full of boring stuff like spare USB cables and throw pillows. The cases are kept in a box in the basement in case we want to travel with a few movies or pass along ones the boys no longer watch. If you have DVDs displayed out on shelves alongside things like books and toys, it’s understandably hard for your child to grasp why they aren’t allowed to treat them like any other “anytime I want” option. While we might see some foot-stomping when we turn down a general request for the TV, tantrums are harder to avoid when your child is bringing you an actual DVD that they’ve suddenly become passionately in love with and want more than anything ever. (Keep remotes hidden up and out of view as well — you’ll be SHOCKED at how quickly “bringing Mommy the remote” turns into “I know how to turn it on myself” too.)

2) Use the desire for your own selfish purposes.

You can “earn” TV in our house as a reward, absolutely. And I also barter with it. Want to watch a show but the living room is a mess? Okay, we can watch one show IF you clean up every toy first. Or if you take a bath and get your pajamas on without any fighting or tantrums. First we’re going to do (insert majorly undesirable task/activity), BUT THEN we’ll watch a cartoon. Bribery? Eh. I consider it a massively effective incentive program for not driving Mommy insane.

3) Favor shows that include interaction, and watch them together.

A LOT of preschooler shows are written to “involve” your child in the story and action. Everything from characters asking questions and pausing while your child answers, to encouraging kids to get up and dance and do this and do that. The problem then, with only using TV when you’re off doing other things, is that your kid may not actually DO any of the interactive parts but just sit there staring slack-jawed. By actually watching one of these shows TOGETHER and having your child follow YOUR “get up and dance and make elephant noise” lead, you can absolutely turn TV into a great playtime activity instead of passive entertainment. So if you’re not really getting much out of him during those 10 minutes of half-heartedly playing firetrucks, it might not be the worst thing in the world to put on a show…but stay engaged with him during it. Play along with the game, hit the pause button and ask him additional questions, go over the top with your SWIPER NO SWIPING! mania — instead of simply turning it on and wandering off to check your email.

4) Suggest reenactments in lieu of reruns.

A two-year-old might be a tad young for this, but going forward it’s very likely your son will get fixated on a particular movie or show and probably even a particular episode. When he asks to watch it AGAIN, offer to act it out with him instead.  Or draw it, or build it, or whatever you can think of. Make your own map for Dora; tape pawprint “clues” around the house. Make Elmo out of Play-Doh and color your own crayon Elmo’s World backdrop. Ezra prefers dramatic play, so I can usually get him to act out Wonderpets with me instead of watching another episode, while Noah is our Lego maniac so I prompt him to build his own version of show/movie settings and characters. It’s a less disappointing redirect than trying to steer your kid into something completely non-TV related.

5) Sometimes, just go ahead and indulge.

Since I don’t want TV to get too highly exalted and coveted, or to ALWAYS be a “if I do X, I’ll get Y” thing, we have regular chunks of time where yes, you can watch TV just because. Once a week, we have a family movie night. We alternate who gets to pick a DVD and we all watch it together in a social, non-electronic-babysitter way. We make cookies or popcorn (and you can eat them in the living room, OMG), get a fire going, dim the lights, all of that. First of all, this is really fun for all of us (though Jason and I are probably a little too keen on buying/renting EVERY kid-friendly movie out there just to keep from getting bored of the same movies over and over again), and I really think it put a stop to that frantic begging for TV all the damn time, or at least the weeping and moaning at being told “no.” No shows tonight, guys, but tomorrow! Tomorrow is movie night! Yay!

But seriously: We are far from perfect experts about this topic, so I would LOVE to hear anything else you guys do in regards to television, AKA both the worst and greatest thing to happen to modern parenting.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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