About a year ago, I had an email exchange with another mom. Her child is about a year older than mine, give or take a few months. Like me, she’s a little “crunchy.” She’s a yogi. She’s inclined towards creative play for kids and as well as letting kids learn through exploration of the world they live in.
I casually mentioned that Milly was obsessed with Frozen and asked if her child had the same all-encompassing preoccupation. At the time, Milly was just 2 years old, but not immune to the toddler-dominating power of Frozen. She already knew most of the songs by heart and was well on her way to being able to recite the entire script from memory. She even had an “Elsa” dress that she essentially lived in.
The other mom replied, that the only screen time her daughter was allowed was the occasional kid-friendly music video. No movies. No cartoons. No PBS.
She didn’t accuse me of bad parenting. She didn’t condemn me for allowing my 2 year old to become obsessed with a Disney movie. Quite the opposite, actually. I did feel the sting of my own internal judgment, though.
Before I became a parent, I was adamantly opposed to letting my theoretical future kids watch TV. I foolishly assumed that not only would I have loads of time and energy to entertain them, that when I needed to work they would happily amuse themselves with wooden toys and sheer imagination.
Right now as a type this my daughter is happily painting on her new easel. This is a new development. I still have to check on her every few moments. It is paint. She is not entirely responsible when it comes to keeping her art explosion and creativity contained, which is ok. She’s only just 3 years old.
In a few minutes, she’ll probably get bored and ask for the TV. I’ll willingly oblige her. I have work to get done and a limited amount of time to do it in. As a yoga teacher and wellness coach, I regularly work from home when I’m not leading a yoga class at a studio. I need time to work. Ideally, I need uninterrupted time, but that’s unlikely.
Besides needing to make sure she’s not Jackson Pollacking everything other than the easel, the list of possible interruptions during my working hours is extensive. She needs help going to the potty every 10 minutes or so because toddlers have obscenely small bladders and zero control. She needs juice/water refills. She gets hungry. She wants a hug. The mail comes and she hides. She drops her food on the floor and it needs to be cleaned up. She spontaneously decides to take off all of her clothes. Her paintbrushes need washing. She wants to play with stickers. She built a fort then got stuck up too high to get herself down.
And this is just within the space of an hour.
Even when I let her watch TV, when the episode is over it needs to be changed. Usually, that gives me a good 22 minutes to work at a time. As long as she doesn’t need to pee.
I do the best I can to get a lot of work done while she’s at school in the morning. But some mornings I teach, so I have to work when she’s home from school. And even on the magical mornings when I do manage to get a lot done, I don’t get everything done. So inevitably, some work spills over into the afternoon time. And more often than not, this means some quality time with Diego, Blaze, or those lovable math-loving kids from Umi City.
I make sure that I have mommy and Milly time, too. We color. We play with puzzles. We go to the playground when the weather is anywhere from gorgeous to marginally bearable. We have dance parties in the living room. And we also run errands, which is far less fun but is still time together not in front of a screen.
In some parenting circles, though, there is a war on TV.
TV is the enemy. It teaches our kids to be passive, mindless, and saps them of their intelligence. Screen time is blamed for kids who are too aggressive. Screen time is blamed for kids who are too non-assertive. Parents who are anti-screen time blame TV for kids who lack creativity and imagination. These kids also hate nature and being outside. And they grow up to be serial killers.
Parents tend to fall on one side or the other in this war. You are either fighting the good fight against the evils of television that is destroying the fragile minds of children across the country or you are contributing to the mass destruction of brain cells in your own child, while also supporting the TV corporations who are keeping us all docile.
While I can’t deny that TV can be a very passive activity, it doesn’t have to be. Most of the time when Milly watches her favorite shows, she is jumping up and down on the couch, singing along to songs or answering questions posed by the characters in the show. Yes, sometimes she just sits and stares passively at the TV and the expression on her face makes me a little queasy. At the same time, the information she is taking in is still teaching her.
She learns so much in school and hopefully, a little from us, too. But may of the shows she watches regularly reinforce the lessons she’s learning in school. She learns about animals when she watches Diego and when she plays with her sticker book with me. Her father and I taught her how to count to 20, but she can identify those numbers in part from her lessons at school and in part from the mathematics emphasized on Team Umizoomi (whose principle character is a little girl named Milli). In the morning, she now tells me what numbers she sees on the clock when we’re in the kitchen together and all of that combined is teaching her how to tell time.
She also learns cool science lessons when she watches Blaze and the Monster Machines. She sings about adhesion, magnets, and teamwork.
To be clear, I do place restrictions on TV watching. I have a 2-hour TV rule, which means no more than 2 hours at a time in front of the TV. It syncs up well with my own rule for working – 2 hours at a time, with breaks for stretching as needed.
There are also plenty of shows we don’t let Milly watch. We avoid the overtly anti-feminist ones in which the female characters have big eyes, tiny waists, speak in childish voices, value beauty over brains, and don’t offer much educational content. She’s mostly into cartoons right now. We tried Star Trek, but she broke our nerdy hearts when she proclaimed it too scary. And that’s ok. We’ll try again in a few years when she’s ready for shows with real people in them. She doesn’t even like Sesame Street all that much.
While I don’t love relying on TV to keep her occupied when I have to work, I also value my work time and showing her that I can have a career and take care of her, too, is something I value highly.
I’d like to offer one more thing, which might rock the boat a bit… but mommy needs a break sometimes, too. Parenting is exhausting work. And spending all day at home alone with an adorable, but frequently irrational and demanding tyrant, can be stressful and depleting. Some parents will argue that this is what we signed up for as parents and that it is our duty to entertain our kids all day long with educational and character building activities.
Personally, I’m not really sure that kind of constant attention is necessary or a good idea for kids or their parents.
I don’t want to show my daughter that being a mother requires unhealthy levels of self-sacrifice. I don’t want to make her think that she can have whatever she wants whenever she wants, including my attention. I want her to learn independence and patience. Motherhood isn’t martyrdom, as far as I am concerned. Just like everything else in life, parenting requires a lot of balance. I am much happier as a mom when I have a little time for myself doing things I love or that nourish me. I love spending time with my daughter. I also love spending time with myself. I also love my job and enjoy spending time working. I also love spending time with my hunk of a husband, sometimes on the couch, curled up watching Star Trek. I think finding the balance between these things is what will make me a better parent. What will not make me a better parent, though, is making myself feel guilty because I needed some time to work or rest or cook or clean and I opted to turn on the TV instead of trying to incorporate Milly into the task at hand. We have enough guilt as it is, mamas. Let’s not add more.
Milly rarely asks for Frozen these days, but she still asks to wear her Elsa dress and wants an Elsa braid. We spend a lot of time with stickers and art. As the weather gets nicer, we’re spending more and more time outside. She even rode her bike for the first time recently and asks to ride her bike every day now.
She is a thriving 3 year old.
And she also watches TV.