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Toddlers and Television

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.

Sincerely,
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

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

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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Kim Kas
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Kim Kas

My girl will be two in a month, and never a day goes by that we don’t hear, “Watch Elmo?” or “Watch Clue?” or “Watch Gabba Gabba Gabba?” She, too, has only recently started getting upset when she can’t watch something she wants to see. We totally do everything Amy mentioned, and I think it’s all excellent advice. I was planning on making Blue pawprints tonight to stick around the house, and I know my LO is going to love it!

Becky
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Becky

Our family is recovering from an awful soul sucking stomach bug that basically ended up having us let our toddler watch non-stop TV for four days? or thereabouts.  We were that sick that we just let it go.  OMG, getting her off is torture.  I swear, it’s kid crack or something.  Now we’re finally not watching it any more (and eating and sleeping fairly regularly), but it was a hard few days of temper tantrums.  

Corie
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Corie

My husband and I are terrible about always having the tv on for background noise, even if we’re not really watching it. It’s so bad that our 20-month-old son knows that the tv is supposed to be on, and he always “tells” us to turn it on if it’s off. We only watch shows for him for an hour or so in the mornings on the weekend while we’re trying to wake up a bit (our son is an early bird and likes to get up around 5:30 or 6:00 every day, weekends included) and most of the time he’s… Read more »

Jessica
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Jessica

My kids (3 and 1)are at daycare during the week so tv then is limited to one show after the baby goes to bed. It is the older one’s special treat. Weekends involve a lot more tv, two shows in the morning as I or my husband struggle to wake up, and one before dinner as well as after the baby is in bed. We have been recording classic Disney movies and watching those on the weekends to break up the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Yo Gabba Gabba, Super Why monotony. But a movie like Dumbo is only 70 minutes so… Read more »

Jeannie
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Jeannie

My son (5) has all but abandoned tv in favour of the all powerful iPad, but it’s just replaced one begging with another. When he was young I was super strict: he had now shows before 2, and then at 2 only super short ones (think youTube Sesame Street clips) always parent-supervised. And then we graduated to toddler shows, maximum one 20 minute show a day. I say all this not to pat myself on the back but to acknowledge that I think I went too far. Being that strict was just *hard* on all of us. Now I just… Read more »

Christine
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Christine

I WILL PUT BLUE’S CLUES ON IF YOU JUST STOP WHINING ABOUT IT.

I’m just LOL’ing because that is me with DS. Sometimes, as soon as he wakes up and makes it to the living room it’s, “Boos Coos peease?” Oy.

JCF
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JCF

I was super strict when my oldest was younger, but now I have a 4yo, 3yo, and 19mo, and I have loosened up quite a bit.  We have gone through similar issues with kids begging for TV.  It is hard.  On an average day, we don’t turn the TV on at all during the morning, but while the two younger kids nap in the afternoon, I let my oldest watch 30-60 minutes of TV so that I can have a bit of a break, since he doesn’t nap or go to school.  I’ve also realized that, despite not needing a… Read more »

Jo
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Jo

Argh, I’m already struggling with this – I’m on maternity leave with my 6 month old, and I go a bit mad if I don’t have the tv on for background noise…OTHER ADULTS TALKING, PEOPLE, even if they are not talking to me! We try to get out and about but there’s a bit of a shortage of baby groups in our area and I don’t want him to be cooped up in his buggy for long periods so we stay home a lot, or visit friends locally. He plays and I play with him, but the tv is on… Read more »

FrancesVettergreenVisualArtist
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If you’re listening and not watching, that one is easy.  Radio, or podcasts…usually better, anyway.

IrishCream
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IrishCream

My 18-month-old gets to watch a half-hour show two or three times a week, in the late afternoon time when i have to make dinner or hop on the computer for work. We stick with PBS shows only, mostly Caillou because it’s so slow-paced. Occasionally we go wild and watch Sesame Street. When my second arrives this June, I can see watching one show becoming a daily or almost-daily event, but I’m pretty strict about content; I have strong ideas about what’s age appropriate from a developmental standpoint. I haven’t found any Disney shows that fit the bill, and only… Read more »

Annie
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Annie

First of all– NO JUDGEMENT from me! Do what works for you! We’ve actually taken a more conservative approach toward TV for the whole family. We don’t own any TVs, our kids don’t see us watching TV, and our kids only watch videos when they’re too sick to play. We do have laptops and Netflix, and iPhones. When my son asks me a question about bats, I will usually pull up a couple of short video clips on my phone and show him. And when we’re at others’ homes we let up on the rules a bit if a group… Read more »

Candace
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Candace

Annie, no worries your response wasn’t judgmental…it just details what you have chosen to do in your house 🙂  I struggle with the TV issue as well.  Normally we are way too crazy trying to get out the door in the morning and go to activities but when my little one does actually settle for a morning nap my older son can watch two shows, maybe.  By the second one he is pretty much ready for something else to do.  Then by evening I try and let them watch TV so  I can make dinner but no one is into… Read more »

Elizabeth
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Elizabeth

My kids get almost no tv (maybe 30-60 min/week?) but not really because of a philosophical decision on my part. I would LOVE to have an electronic babysitter occasionally. What I’ve found with my 5 & 3 year old, however, is that their behavior when the tv goes off is so attrocious that it’s pretty much not worth it. If I remember to have a Big Discussion first about how long the tv is going to be on and how we’re going to behave when it goes off, then MAYBE I’ve got a shot at avoiding an hour of crankiness,… Read more »

kimm
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kimm

My little 11 month old LOVES clips of kids dancing, and sesame st. clips on computer- we watch 5- 10 min in in morning and 10 in the afternoon. He loves cats more than anything, so we watch them and babies on youtube- he is an only child for another 8 months, we may up everything then:)

Olivia
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Olivia

I’m much like Corie, with always having the tv on for background noise so it’s really hard for me to limit tv watching when I am such an addict myself. Right now, my almost 3 yr old in in daycare full time so that creates a limitation, but on the weekends it’s kind of bad. I also use the tv when she wakes up early while I get ready for work, and she gets to watch a couple of shows in the evening while I do other chores/cook dinner. It’s going to be difficult, but I’m really going to have… Read more »

Alissa
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Alissa

I believe my kid is the weirdest kid around.  I can’t get him to watch TV.  At all.  He freaks out if I turn the TV on.  He will watch videos (of himself, or of places we’ve been), so now I make sure I take lots of videos and then string them all together in to one 10 minute movie.  He can handle watching those.  But seriously.  What three year old hates the TV?  Besides mine??

tasterspoon
Guest

I swore to abide by the no-TV-till-2 rule, but every now and then I’ll be completely out of new ideas for playing and/or just want to sit for a while, and I’ll pop on Signing Time (they were on PBS last fall so I DVR’ed a bunch). And occasionally my husband will put on a football game. Mostly it’s a failure because my 15-mo says “Hello! Hello!” to the person onscreen and when they don’t respond she seems so disappointed it breaks my heart. Maybe we’ll make it to 2 after all. But she does like to look at clips… Read more »

Shelly
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Shelly

With my oldest I was the TV Nazi.  No television at all until he was two.  That meant only music on while he was awake.  I was also the music Nazi.  Only classical, Oldies, or toddler tunes were allowed.  My nannies lived for nap time so that they could experience the real world.  At two we moved to 30 min of TV in the morning – that was because he woke up at 5 and that allowed me to nap for 30 while we watched a show in bed.  The rule was one show and tv time was over.  Very… Read more »

Heather (Laptops to Lullabies)
Guest

Thank you SO much for this timely post. My husband and I have been wondering lately if our almost-21-month-old is watching too much TV. I’m eight weeks away from having our second child, and sometimes I let him watch TV because I’m too tired/massively pregnant to do anything else.  When he does watch it, I try to make the most of every single second — shower, respond to work email, etc. — so that I can focus on him as soon as the show is over. He does throw tantrums because he wants to keep watching, which gets very tiresome,… Read more »

Natalie
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Natalie

I don’t have any kids, but I have to say, stashing the DVD cases sounds like a GENIUS idea! I never would have thought of it.

Jules
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Jules

My husband and I are of different minds when it comes to TV and the baby. My parents were very lax with TV time and my brother and I ended up obese, inactive, TV-addicted pre-adolescents. My husband, on the other hand, had a very active childhood because his parents strictly limited his TV time. Now my husband is a total couch potato and prefers to have the TV on all the time, every day, whether he’s watching it or not. I don’t really want our son (10 months old) to get too accustomed to the TV because I don’t want… Read more »

JenVegas
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JenVegas

I’m in Camp Corie also, I grew up with TV and have always had a TV on for company. I know I don’t necessarily want to raise my kid that way but I also don’t want him to grow up feeling like he’s missing out on some cultural experience. He’s home on Mondays with his dad, Tuesday is WFH day with me and then he’s in daycare 3 days a week. So I feel like he gets enough good interactive, active time that I’m trying not to feel bad about the amount of TV he watches with me on Tuesdays… Read more »

Margaret
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Margaret

We don’t have a TV, but our 2.5 year old son is pretty obsessed with our various computers. He’ll sometimes watch nursery rhyme videos or Muppets clips on YouTube (especially when I need to cut his nails!), but far and away his favourite is pictures or vidoes we’ve taken or our family have posted online. I feel better about the screen time when it’s photos and home videos – is it that much different than looking through photo albums? And it helps him stay connected to our extended family (who are all many time zones away). A limiting device that… Read more »

MR
Guest
MR

My now 3.5 year old watched almost no tv at all until I was pregnant with her sister. Working full time and being pregnant wiped me and towards the end I had a massive amount of prodromal labor. My older dd started watching more and more. We kept thinking it would slow down after the baby was born and things calmed down after the first couple months. Well, our baby ended up having a heart defect and needed open heart surgery at 4 months. As a result, my older dd still watches more tv than I’d like. But, we are… Read more »

Paige
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Paige

I don’t really have any advice to offer, but when my siblings and I were growing up, the TV was on ALL THE TIME in our house. I can tell you how old I was based on what shows came on after the 6pm news. Oh, Night Court and Wheel of Fortune? Yep, I was 9. The funny thing is now I have little to no desire to watch TV. I haven’t had cable in years, and my circa 1996 television is used mainly to watch workout DVDs. The shows I do really like, I watch at my boyfriend’s house.… Read more »

andrea
Guest
andrea

tv was absolutely a Forbidden Thing when i was kid – we had no cable, one two tvs in the whole house, and both were locked by my parents. you know those two little holes in the tv’s power plug? my parents put a little lock through them and that was that – no tv! …until we found the key. ha, kids can be sneakier than parents! but then they’d hide it again, until we found it again. it was kinda fun. 😉 still, i grew up watching *maybe* two hours of tv a week max until i was a… Read more »

Melissa
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Melissa

We don’t have a TV. We do have Netflix, a digital projector, and computer. The kid (almost 4) had no TV until 2 because I was a bundle of postpartum anxiety and thought I.must.follow.all.the.rules. Now we have movie night once during the week and she can watch something from Disney or Pixar. Or she can choose a couple episodes of Dora or Blues Clues or whatever. Then we do another movie night on the weekend. Weekday movie night allows me to fold laundry or take care of other stationary chores while sitting with her and watching. The Sa movie night… Read more »

Emily
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Emily

I will rightout admit that I have 1 child and I’m in the ‘no tv before 2’ camp. Except that sometimes I have to shower while my child is awake, so I do use YoGabbaGabba during those times. Which, hopefully means 30 minutes or less a week. I try really really hard to get up and shower before my child gets up. I am not pregnant and exhausted though. I am scared of being pregnant and exhausted and having to entertain a child as well. Sounds hard – I don’t judge you for that at all. My daughter is 17months… Read more »

Christina
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Christina

I’m in the absolutely no TV until after 2 y.o. camp. Sorry, but I do think it’s related to the many developmental/attention problems that abound today. After 2 it’s on a VERY limited basis (DVDs on road trips, “real” sickness, etc.)

A
Guest
A

I think TV is bad for kids, especially when it’s on 24/7. That said, I think it can be a useful tool and I have NO JUDGEMENT for those parents who use that tool.Sometimes you do what you gotta do. I have a 6, 4 and 20 month old. My 4 year old watches Sesame Street every afternoon while I put the baby down for his nap. We have “Movie Mondays” when my 6 year old comes home from school. We will also do a movie on the weekends Anything they watch is either a movie or something I’ve recorded… Read more »

A
Guest
A

For some reason there’s a smily face instead of saying her son is eight, I have no idea what happened! Sorry!

Diana
Guest
Diana

I was the 1st time mom who secretly thought that I was an awesome parent because my precious snowflake didn’t watch any TV before 2 (except a little Wheel of Fortune and the Today Show, but they don’t count because they aren’t kids shows and she didn’t watch it straight through, right?) Yeah, turns out she just isn’t that interested in TV so we could have it on without feeling like it was a problem. So now I have a 5 month old who is already obsessed with TV and will fuss and turn herself until she can see the… Read more »

Beth
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Beth

My 20 month old son has to do twice daily breathing treatments for asthma.  He HATES the treatments, so the only way we can get him to sit still is to watch videos or TV.  In the morning, we watch some YouTube videos – Sesame Street songs or number/alphabet songs.  In the evening, he usually watches Jeopardy b/c that’s what DH and I want to watch.   On weekends, we’re a little more lax with TV – we’ll let him watch some sesame street or curious George, but try to limit it.  He often loses interest after 10-15 min and we… Read more »

Kory
Guest
Kory

I have a 2.5 year old daughter and she LOVES TV! She is the smartest, most intelligent and respectful little girl. She is extremely friendly and is always starting new friendships at the park. As a 24/7 SAHM the TV has saved my sanity many days. We are a fit family and don’t sit with a bag of Doritos watching the tube for days on end but I will gladly admit…We LIKE TV! I sacrifice any shows I want to watch for the brain building educational children’s shows and it seems to have paid off. She has learned so much… Read more »