The great debate…screen time. We made through Bowie’s first year without it not because we were set on that timeline but because Bowie showed zero interest. We then brought the ipad with us on his first flight and it became a part of our routine without us realizing it was happening. It started with one show and has now morphed into a movie. Bowie won’t sit for the whole movie so it’s usually background noise but still, it’s on. It’s a distraction when I have to take a work call and a babysitter when I’m making dinner or trying to wrap up a blog post. But, what if it wasn’t those things because the television no longer existed? Could I set it up that independent and creative play was the new normal? That would be a dream. Guest contributor Lilly Neubauer and family have been tv-free for a year and are sharing why they made this decision, tips for setting up creative play, and the benefits they have seen for their family. Photo by Paige Newton -Cristina
By Lilly Neubauer
“Mom…Mommy…Can I watch a movie?”
Opening my eyes for the first time that morning, there’s my bed-headed three year old a foot from my face. She knows this is my most vulnerable state and to ask for the good stuff: TV.
I don’t feel guilty in the moment – those precious weekend hours before adults need or want to be awake is why children’s television programming was invented. My only guilt and anxiety after saying “yes” comes from the inner knowing that I just unleashed Pandora’s Box of screen time and the zombie my child often turns into from partaking in it for the rest of the day.
Did my parents let me watch TV growing up? Yes. It was a little more than child regulated, but for the most part easy to manage. Kids’ shows were on for a few hours in the summer mornings before switching over to daytime talk shows and news programming that reminded me of the more entertaining options outside. Even the kids’ cable TV stations that followed in my later youth had their afternoon lulls and commercial breaks – a far cry from the hours of Netflix programming created for and constantly available to our child.
I tried “yes but no” with screen time as long as I could. I tried “one show only” to realize the buffer Netlfix puts between episodes is (literally) three seconds long, making it hard for me to notice or my toddler to comprehend it as finality. I tried setting timers, earning screen time after chores or outdoor play and, at one Pinterest-inspired low point, a system with tickets.
Then my Mom’s television broke. And I had an idea. Later that week, we walked in the front door of our home and, like usual, my daughter asked if she could watch TV. And I said no, because we no longer had one.
My daughter loves a challenge, so she tends to ask for the hardest won privilege first. But she’s rational, so she’s not going to spend time asking for something she’ll never get. By the next day, our civil but constant television tension didn’t exist.
It’s been a year since we said goodbye to our television. Does my daughter still see and use screens? Definitely. How could she not? They’re everywhere – the doctor’s waiting room, grandma’s house, playdates, videos on my phone – the options go on. When I read the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one hour of screen time a day for children two to five years old, I realized how likely that quota can be passively experienced on any given day.
While we don’t have a television in our home, we do still have a laptop with a large screen, about the same size as the first television we had at my house growing up. My husband and I use this to watch occasional shows together and let our daughter watch specific programming on it when she’s at one of our offices or on an airplane. At the end of the day, TV is a babysitter. And boy does our kid love seeing her favorite babysitter when we need it. Because it’s such a rarity, it’s effective for us and puts our daughter on her best behavior when we need the help. Watching a show on a laptop, for adults or children, does the job but is nowhere near as enthralling as being immersed in a 70” widescreen retina display television. It’s good enough to watch an episode or two of a favorite program but easy to walk away from, which is just how I like it.
When I mention our TV-free living arrangement, I’m often asked what I did to transition child entertainment in our house. Did I make a game plan? Were there organized activities? I’m not embarrassed to share my plan of attack was as lazy as my original idea. I kicked out the television and my child did the rest. So many toys started being played with for the first time, forts were constructed and new territory was discovered in the backyard, where I ended up adding an outdoor play kitchen to help along the endless mud pies and potions that were being created almost daily. Looking back, I feel like I actually depended more on structured play and parent coordinated activities when I was competing with television for the attention of my child. No one has better ideas on what to play than a bored child left to his or her own devices, and I’ve been more entertained taking her in this past year than ever watching an episode of Westworld.
In fact, I could say the thing that’s brought us all closer together this past year is common boredom. My daughter and I cook dinner together most nights. We have a great time and enjoy it, even if it’s not as cool to her as sprawling out on the sofa watching Bubble Guppies. At this point though, the alternative doesn’t cross her mind. It’s the same for my husband and I at night where we’ve fallen into a routine of playing music and, get this, just talking to each other. And yes, it takes considerable effort to keep conversation going with anyone after a long day of working and parenting, but we’re just bored enough without TV to try.
The wall the television was on is filled with art now, and our sofa faces the fireplace that we often light as a focal point to replace the previous glow that radiated off our television set. We make things like The Oscars, Super Bowl and Olympics social affairs or we skip it, missing out on a little water cooler talk about it the next morning before remembering life goes on. With streaming and devices as close to us at all times as our pocket, we’ve found plenty of ways to get a TV fix here or there, but it seems improbable we could keep everything we love about our days now with TV back in the equation.
What I thought was a short term experiment has given way to a lifestyle in our home I always dreamed of. I still get woken up early on Saturday mornings, but now it’s to a four year old girl dressed in her pajamas and rain boots whispering, “Psst, Mom…Mommy…Can I go outside and play?”