Why My Children Don’t Watch TV

I’m not here to advocate that you stop your children watching TV.

But I do advocate that you make an informed decision about how much TV your children watch. Read what the AAP has to say. Read accounts from people on both sides (and preferably those who can still see the middle). Experiment on your children. Then make a decision to allow no TV, limited TV, or unlimited TV. Whatever your choice, if you’re making it from the place of knowledge, you can be assured it’s the right one for you and your family.

This is our story about our choice.

When Big Brother was born, my husband and I didn’t research the effects of television on children. We didn’t know we were supposed to. We just did what we thought was right (and what we thought would work) and hoped for the best.

By the time Big Brother was a year old, he was watching TV all day. Actually, I lie. He wasn’t watching TV all day, the TV was turned on all day. He’d come and go as he chose. But it didn’t take long before his ‘sitting in front of the TV’ time outweighed his ‘playing on the other side of the room’ time.

I was a working Mum and my husband was a Stay at Home Dad. On my days off, I’d take Big Brother to the park, or we’d do some colouring or some craft. But as soon as that was done, the TV was back on. I can’t say I was completely comfortable with the situation, but I wasn’t the primary carer and the situation was as it was.

When Big Brother turned two, my husband and I traded places. I worked from home and my husband went to work full-time. But nothing changed on the TV front. I had work to do and it was easier to let Big Brother watch TV than hear him complain about it. Besides, TV kept him occupied and happy.

That’s when I discovered that the “experts” had very specific advice about children and television.

I’m not going to lie. I spent a lot of time arguing against the AAP’s recommendations in my own head.

“But he also plays outside and colours and makes stuff. And he’s so polite and well-behaved. And he’s so clever and he loves jigsaw puzzles and books and stories. So how can TV be harmful? Besides, the shows are educational!

“And if given a choice he’d rather go to the park, or do some craft, or play a board game than watch TV. So it’s not like he’s addicted to it or he can’t survive without it.”

Then I continued to do what I thought was best (and easiest), despite the concerns hovering around the back of my mind.

But it didn’t take long for those concerns to intensify. I stopped turning the TV on in the morning and made the rule that the TV had to be turned off every time Big Brother wasn’t actively watching it. He still watched a lot of TV, but at least he wasn’t distracted and dragged back to the screen every time a new theme song played. I’d guess he was watching up to eight hours of TV a day. (And it KILLS me to admit that.)

Big Brother was just short of four years old when I had a sudden, guilt-inducing moment of clarity.

If given a choice he’d rather go to the park, or do some craft, or play a game than watch TV.

But he wasn’t being given a choice. Not really. We’d made the choice for him when we’d let him watch TV before he was even old enough to talk. And, because he was a child, he got hooked. Because he was a child, he couldn’t imagine a life without TV. Because he was a child, it was our responsibility to know what was best for him. Not his.

Besides, my husband can’t sit in a room with the TV on and pay attention to anything else. Why would a four-year-old be any different?

So I cut down on TV. Half an hour in the morning, an hour over lunch, and half an hour in the afternoon. Two hours a day. But half an hour easily stretches to forty-five minutes. And the TV is such a useful distraction when you’ve got a newborn who needs LOTS of attention and you just can’t spend hours a day entertaining a four-year-old.

But he was down to watching an average of 3-4 hours a day. It was a huge improvement. But did it make any difference to his behaviour? No, not really.

The added complication was that we’d enrolled Big Brother into a Steiner Waldorf school — an education system that, amongst other things, specifically discourages young children watching TV. So my husband and I talked about cutting out TV altogether. Well, I say talked. What I mean is that we argued passionately every day for months on end. We were both apprehensive about the change, but my husband was also concerned that by limiting Big Brother’s experience with “normal life”, it would make it difficult for him to relate to other children.

Eventually we came to an agreement. We would trial having no TV for two weeks and see if it made a difference. If not, we’d go back to letting Big Brother watch TV in small doses.

Day One

By 9:00am, I was ready to give the whole thing up as a bad joke. Big Brother had already asked me if he could watch TV at least seven hundred and forty times. He’d sulked, whined, cried, and thrown himself on the couch in a fit of frustration and boredom. But I held my ground. By the time bedtime rolled around, I was exhausted. And then something amazing happened.

“Come on Big Brother, time to brush your teeth,” I said. I anticipated the usual argument. Every night, he reacted as though teeth-brushing was only one step removed from water-boarding.

“Okay,” Big Brother said.

And that was that. We brushed his teeth, had a story, and he went to bed. In a good mood. Even though he was tired. It was the easiest bedtime in four years. (And I hadn’t even realised it had been difficult before!)

Day Two

Big Brother asked if he could watch TV about fifty times, but it took less to distract him. He was more willing to play by himself. But I discovered something worrying: he didn’t really know how. All he knew how to do was re-enact a mish-mash of things he’d seen on TV.

“Oh no! Roary ran out of petrol!” Pause. “Mummy, what happens now?”

“I don’t know. What do you think happens?” I asked.

“No,” said Big Brother. “What happens next in the story?”

“Let’s see… Maybe this green car could help him?”

“No.” He was frustrated now. “What happened next on Roary the Race Car?”

It took me a while to get it. All those stories and games we’d thought he was making up? He wasn’t. Not really. He was retelling stories he’d seen on TV, mashing them together or using different “creatures”, but still telling the same stories. And when he forgot how the story went (which happened remarkably quickly), he had no idea what to do next.

No wonder he needed help entertaining himself.

He ate all his dinner without being prompted. Bedtime was easy.

Day Three

Big Brother only asked about watching TV a dozen times. He drew pictures of animals rather than cartoon characters. He asked if he could please, please, please help do the washing and sweep the floors.

Days Four to Seven

Big Brother stopped asking about the TV and started helping with the housework. He ate his meals without needing to be prompted and listened to what I said with a level of focus I’d never before seen. He didn’t complain about brushing his teeth. And he slept better (and for longer) than he used to.  I’d thought he was well-behaved before, but the difference in his behaviour after only a week without TV was amazing.

My husband and I didn’t even have to talk about whether the “trial” was successful.

Day Eight

Big Brother made up and used his toys to enact a story that was his, rather than being inspired by something he’d seen on TV. He didn’t need my help. He didn’t need me to entertain him. All he needed was his imagination and half a dozen toys. Watching him was bliss.

Now

It’s been ten months since Big Brother stopped watching TV. We have Family Movie Night on Saturday nights, but that’s the only time the television is even turned on.

Big Brother isn’t perfect. But he’s so much more creative and expressive and empathic and helpful and… I don’t know… present than when he was allowed to watch TV. He listens. He focuses on what’s happening around him. He takes responsibility for himself and for his role in the family. He comes up with amazing stories and games, he thinks so far outside the square he can’t even see it anymore, and he can entertain himself for hours on end without the need for parental interaction, electronic devices or even necessarily toys. (Seriously, he can spend hours telling intricately woven stories of honour and love and betrayal using only two sticks and a couple of leaves.)

As I said at the beginning of this (incredibly long) post: I’m not here to advocate that you stop your children watching TV. Not at all. Your family is different to mine. Your needs are different. Your children are different. And in all honesty, perhaps we wouldn’t have seen such a large change if Big Brother hadn’t spent the first few years of his life watching unlimited TV. It’s impossible to know.

But if you sometimes feel that your preschooler isn’t really listening to you, or you worry whether she really knows how to play by herself, or you’re in the least bit curious whether watching TV really makes a difference… Give it a try.

Cut out TV and computers for one week. Not the week when you’re on holidays or you’re out of routine for some other reason. Just an average, ordinary week where any change (positive or negative) will be obvious.

Give it seven days with no screen time and see what happens. You can always go back to normal afterwards. And what have you got to lose?

What rules do you have in your household for children watching TV? Have you ever done a no-television trial?

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15 Comments

Filed under Life With Kids, Opinion

15 responses to “Why My Children Don’t Watch TV

  1. I’ve never had kids, so I can only speak from my experience. I loved TV growing up, but my parents were very concerned about the effect of too much television. For a while we didn’t have one, and then when we did I had strict limits. I think I was allowed seven hours a week — every week I had to make up a schedule for which shows I planned to watch that week.

    I own a television, but I only use it to wach DVDs. I don’t have cable or antenna to watch regular TV shows. I just find if I have a TV in the house, I watch too much.

    What really drives me crazy, though, is people who leave the TV on all the time, even when they have company. I find that to be really rude. Even when I was watching a lot of TV, I always watched specific shows, and then I turned it off.

    • I think we’ve talked before about TV, and realised that we have more or less the same mindset. I didn’t own a TV for years, and haven’t watched TV on any regular basis since I moved out of home when I was 18. When we finally got a TV again, it was only so we could watch DVDs and we didn’t bother setting up an aerial. (That’s one of the reasons I can’t believe I ever let my son watch so much TV. I don’t even like it.)

      I’m going to remember the pre-scheduled TV for when the boys are older. What a great idea! A TV limit combined with lessons on pesonal responsibility, preparation, and time-keeping. Love it.

  2. Relatively speaking, our kids don’t watch much TV. We do not have cable, so what they watch – when they watch – is limited. This morning, before school, they were in the playroom playing with their Legos. Sometimes, creativity wins over the television – without Rob or me telling them to turn the tube off.
    That said, we are currently in a grumpy stage with the kids. Moaning, groaning, and back talking. I think it is time we turned the TV off – at least for a week, perhaps longer. You’ve inspired me. Now … to whom do I vent, when they start whining initially? Oy. (smile)

  3. Good for you! We never really kept the TV on all day- but there were days where I simply could not oversee, safely, my kids’ activities and interact and respond if I hope to get anything done so on those days, I sedated them with more TV than I think is good. i justified it by saying it was educational and infrequent….but now, my kids like older shows like transformers and super hero cartoons with much less educational value. I noticed that my son played aggressively because he was playing joker and batman- he didn’t know that his play really hurt his play partner….so we have had to address that. He still watches the shows sparingly- really as a treat. But, it is also the first treat to go if his play becomes too rough- Our vice was the mini-van drop-down. Our kids developed an entitlement issue to it- Now, I have dry erase boards in the seat pockets in front of them. I keep a lot of dry erase markers in pencil bags in the car for easy access. To have small erasers, I bought make-up compact puffs that do the job. My daughter also has a sketch pad and another pencil case full of beautifully colored pens to create art with. My son has a Super Hero Coloring book and markers. We keep a kaleidoscope in the front pocket of the “toy Bat Bag”- a batman backpack filled with my son’s fave things- a spider man mask, power ranger gloves, green lantern rings, small monster trucks that he can hold derbies with on his food tray. We keep 2 magnifying glasses and a tupperware container in the bag for ‘discoveries”…the kids pick up interesting rocks, plants, shells, etc… and they analyze them in the car on their food tray (best purchases ever those handy trays)….Plus, our newest activity in the car? Learning new verses to our kids’ favorite Shel Silverstein poem “Ol Man Simon Planted A Diamond”…we are now on verse three. We practice the rhythm with clapping. We practice setting the poem to new music we make up. it is a beautiful time. (the only think I will say is that I pronounce each and every word properly in the poem. I do not like Silverstein’s use of slang in the poem….so my daughter thinks that poem is actually done in proper English- and it is more beautiful to me that way, too. Thank you for your thoughtful post. Montessori also discourages TV for kids- I think there are benefits to watching some for both parents and kids- but there must be moderation or they become like entitled zombies…. 🙂

    • I may regret some of the early parenting decisions we made in regards to TV, but there were definitely times that I wouldn’t change. When I was pregnant with Little Brother, I spent months too sick to even move off the bed/couch. At those points, I was so grateful for the TV and its ability to keep Big Brother entertained. So I totally get the fact that there are times when it’s not all bad. I think it’s just a matter of balance, as you say, and also being conscious of making a decision rather than letting someone else make it for you and them.

      I love your car entertainment pack. Sounds awesome!

  4. We have a no TV rule in our house (hubby and I occasionally watch movies after Charlotte goes to bed), but we’ve had it since Charlotte was born, so she doesn’t know any different.

    And rather than being sucked in and utterly riveted when she does come in contact with TV (mainly at friends’ houses), she watches for about 30 seconds, bores quickly, and goes off to find something else to do.

    So I think we’re doing something right.

    If only her lack of TV watching had the same effect on her eating and toothbrushing as it has had on Big Brother 🙂

    • I think you’re doing LOTS of things right! As for the toothbrushing and eating, it think about it this way: if it’s hard for you now, think about how much WORSE it could have been!

      (Now, if only I could get my husband to wander away with boredom after 30 seconds of TV.)

  5. I only watch TV to put myself to sleep. My kids are grown up now, but they rarely watched it when they were younger (probably because we lived on a farm and they were always outside playing). But what you’ve done is great. I’m impressed 🙂

  6. Before B.T. was even born Dear Wife and I had made the decision not to expose him to television for the first several years of his life, and thereafter only in very controlled and limited doses. (We were aware of the recommendations on TV, and I, for one, knew that I had problems with TV, inasmuch as if left to my own devices I’d watch far more TV than is healthy even for an adult.) And we did good at it for the first 6-months to a year.

    And then something happened. I won’t go into the details – they’re a bit private for our family – but suddenly and unexpectedly TV had become an important tool for a accomplishing a major health and quality-of-life goal for our Child. At the time, we were terrified, we didn’t understand the problem we were facing, and anything that seemed to help or make things better we glommed onto almost without question. (It took us a while to convince B.T.’s pediatrician that what we faced was a real health problem and that we needed to see a professional; we subsequently dropped said pediatrician when he begrudgingly gave us a referral and loudly declaimed our intention to see said professional.) And once TV was introduced… it’s been hard to take away. In fact, we still use it as a tool, pretty shamelessly, in getting the outcomes we need in this particular health-struggle.

    • Firstly, let me just say that I’m pleased to hear you dropped that pediatrician.

      I’m impressed that you had a goal and a plan before B.T. was born. But the fact is, life happens. The best laid plans go awry. It sounds like you and your wife have made a conscious decision to do what’s best for your child and your family, and no one can ask more than that.

      Although you’re right: once TV is introduced, it’s hard to take away. Just as much for the parents as the children. There are still days when I have to fight my own desire to tell Big Brother he can turn on the TV for half an hour if only he’ll do .

  7. Pingback: Girls in Video Games | The Happy Logophile

  8. seanie65@akl.com

    Im not an advocator of preschool but gee wiz why not send a kid to a cheap preschool in lieu of so much tv i dont really like waldorf schools and their pseudo save the world philosophy but kudos to them for discouraging tv. most parents i know do 2 hours which i think is excessive. i never heard of 8 hrs. i think your child is still enacting tv. how else would he know about love honor and betrayal. i think he is imaginative anyway, tv doesnt take away imagination. it takes away interaction. why should your child play alone for SO LONG

    • Thanks for commenting. I’m not quite sure whether you’re dismayed that my son used to watch so much TV (as I am), or that my son now watches no TV and attends a Waldorf school, or that I don’t spend all me time entertaining him. But I appreciate you reading my post.

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