Tag Archives: AAP

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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Entertaining Kids in the Car

Long distance car trips are something I grew up with. When I was very young, our family would drive from Melbourne, Victoria all the way to Toowoomba, Queensland for the Christmas holidays. That’s a car trip just short of 1600km (or 1000 miles) long. I have vivid memories of being three and four years old and being woken up in the middle of the night to drive to Nana and Grandad’s house. I’d stay awake for the whole trip, pointing out kangaroos near the road, singing little songs I’d made up, and counting cars and trees and sheep and anything else that took my fancy. We’d stop every few hours and have “car food”. Hot chips, or donuts, or sausage rolls — the type of food we never had at home. Sometimes, we’d even stop for a hot chocolate or an ice cream.

When I was a bit older, car trips were full of games. I Spy, Trivia, counting games, rhyming games, and home-made Bingo Cards full of things like cows and postboxes and Ambulances. The first one to see them all wins!

When I was a teenager, I got my first Walkman. I’d happily bliss out to my music for a while, but before long I’d be bored and playing Guess Who? with my sister (we memorised all the people so we didn’t need to use a board) or challenging my siblings to The Alphabet Game.

Car trips were fun, family events when I was a kid. And now that I’m a parent, I endeavour to make them fun for my boys as well. Even driving five-year-old Big Brother to school involves games, made up stories and rhymes. And a traffic jam is a perfect opportunity for I Spy.  
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There’s an interesting Facebook page that I occasionally visit called Brisbane Kids. They regularly post questions that have been emailed in to them by concerned, curious, or interested parents. I happened to come across this question last week:

My 15 month old is a shocking car traveller and has been for quite some time now, even on very short trips (less than 10 mins). I think he gets frustrated with being restrained, as he is usually so active. I now avoid driving places which is becoming pretty restrictive. Any suggestions as to how to improve the situation? We have tried singing, kids CDs, food (car is now a bomb site), box of toys next to seat etc.

Well, I know a thing or two about entertaining kids in the car. Plus,  I’ve been in this situation with both my boys in the past. Big Brother hated the car between the ages of 6 weeks and 13 months. Little Brother wasn’t quite so difficult (possibly because he was excited about being in the car with his brother), but still went through a stage when he was about a year old where he hated the car for a month or so. And in both cases, I did exactly what I would recommend to anyone else: I persevered.

This question sounds like it’s from a mother who has, and is, trying to persevere. She’s tried everything she can think of, and now she’s reaching out for advice, suggestions, and possibly even a simple reminder that it does get better. Good on her, really. It’s not easy to ask for help when you’ve got a small child, and I have a lot of respect for people who can bypass their pride in favour of doing what’s best for themselves and their children. But before I shared my thoughts with her, I decided to read the other 43 comments. Just to make sure I wasn’t repeating anyone else.

But what I found shocked me.

There were some good suggestions. Try moving the car seat to a different position. Make sure the car seat is comfortable. Use toys that are only available in the car. Sing songs. Wait it out. Persevere.

All good advice.

But twenty-three different people had a different answer. Twenty-three people suggested the mother invest in a portable DVD player for the car. Twenty-three people said some version of the following statements:

  • There’s only one way to keep kids entertained in the car and that’s a portable DVD player.
  • My child used to cry in the car, so I put in a portable DVD player and now she’s always quiet.
  • Just put children’s programming on a portable DVD player and all your problems will be solved.

I was really stunned by this response. Perhaps I should have seen it coming. Perhaps the fact that I didn’t see it coming is a sign that I’m not really in tune with modern society. Either way, as I read the comment I found my mood vacillating between outrage and despair.

I don’t believe that all twenty-three of those people are bad parents, but I do worry about the over-reliance on electronic devices to entertain children. Even disregarding the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that children under the age of two  shouldn’t watch any television at all, I have a number of concerns:

  1. Are the parents who suggested DVD players aware that there is scientific evidence that children of that age can be negatively impacted by watching TV? If not, what does that say about the way the message is being spread?
  2. If the first reaction of parents is to stun a 15 month old boy into silence through use of a DVD Player, what do they do at home when their kids are noisy or argumentative or upset or tired or loud?
  3.  If the only way you have to cope with upset children is to put them in front of a screen, what do you do when there are no TVs, DVDs or computers available?

Keeping a toddler quiet by putting him in front of a TV screen might seem like the easiest option, but is it the best one? At the end of the day, the only person who can make that decision is you. But remember this:

It’s cute when a two-year-old goes from shrieking to silent with the careful push of a button on a portable DVD player.

It’s not so cute when a twenty-year-old man has no ability to entertain himself for five minutes without a screen in front of him.

Instead of reaching for the ‘on’ button next car trip, try challenging your children to be the first one to spot a man walking a dog. Tell as many terrible knock-knock jokes as you can make up on the spot. Sing songs from your childhood. Take it in turns to sing a line of a made-up song. Try something different. See how it goes. Maybe you’ll discover the same thing I did, all those years ago: Being trapped in a car for 20 hours at a time isn’t a chore, it’s a fun-filled adventure that comes with its own captive audience.

Did you play games in the car when you were a child? What about now? Do you own a portable DVD player? Do/Would you let your children watch it?

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