Why (and how) we watch TV with our toddlers

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Categories Activities, Development, Family, Mommy Issues

During my journey of motherhood, I’ve learned I’m a middle of the road mama. I don’t really classify myself into a single style of parenting. I take what I like from each style and leave the rest. I try not to judge what others decide to do because it’s their family. Besides crying it out and working out of the home, I would say the biggest judgement I’ve received is letting my kids watch tv.

I’ve watched enough “Honey We’re Killing the Kids” to know unlimited screen time is not good for anyone. I’m also a big proponent of getting outdoors. But one of the things I hope to teach my children is to enjoy everything in moderation. In my parenting and life philosophy, small amounts of ice cream = necessary. Large bowls of ice cream every day followed by potato chips and soda = taking it too far.

We’ve adapted the same attitude with tv. We let the boys watch one or two shows per day and we always watch together. If we’re not actively watching tv, the tv is off. We record only shows both the parents and children like so we can watch the shows together. We don’t watch commercials. We talk about the shows afterwards. We learn the songs and sing them together. We learned sign language as a family by watching Signing Times. Watching tv is a (semi-)passive activity we do together as a family that balances out the active activities we do such as walking to the park, playing in the backyard, and enjoying time outdoors.

As with anything else in parenting, I believe there is no right or wrong way to parent. I would like to teach my children that you can have a healthy relationship with tv, video games, computers, chocolate… anything. For me, the way I choose to teach that is to teach by example. I’d love to hear other’s thoughts on why they do or do not let their kids watch tv!

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23 thoughts on “Why (and how) we watch TV with our toddlers”

  1. Laura, I agree with everything you said about moderation — so important in all areas of life.

    This was a HUGE issue for my DH and I when we became parents. He is a passive TV watcher – it’s always on in the background. I am someone who lived without a TV for many years. It was hard getting him to break the habit. Until one day he left on “Band of Brothers” and realized our daughter was just sitting there watching it. He suddenly “got it”. But it was a battle.

    Our current “debate” is whether it’s okay to let kids watch something that we haven’t seen ourselves yet. Not so much TV, but movies. That is a huge NO-NO for me. He is much more trusting of ratings and Disney/Nickolodeon. I disagree! I also don’t believe in letting them watch movies alone (at least for the first time) Even some of those “G” rated Disney movies have scenes and themes that need to be discussed or can raise questions.

  2. My twins are 15 months old, and we aren’t letting them watch tv right now. We are planning to wait until two (following AAP guidelines re: tv) and then letting them watch a little bit—maybe a half hour a day?–as a way for me to get a break.

    This is an interesting issue in our house since I was raised in a no tv house. I can see both the pros (doing other stuff instead) and the cons (so out of the pop-culture loop). Now, we watch tv at night after the kids go to bed.

    I actually thought no tv would be a lot harder than this, but so far we are doing fine. It helps that the tv isn’t in the playroom/kitchen area, but the “grown-up” living room. It also helps that they don’t know what it is, so they are never crying for me to turn it on or put a movie in.

    I really like your idea of tv time as “family time”. I have great memories of watching the 1988 Olympics with my mom (the battle of the Carmens!) and other big events. I’mm totally for a bowl of popcorn and a baseball game or a good movie. Or, letting a sick kid watch a morning full of cartoons. TV has its value, just not as an “on all the time, every day” thing.

  3. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, although by most measures, my kids are still way too young for tv. I grew up with years of no tv in our house alternating with years of watching tv nonstop, so I don’t have a healthy relationship with it. Its good to hear a strategy for keeping tv watching reasonable in a household. Thanks.

  4. We have a no-tv household, but we watch dvds together. I’ll second the opinion above that with very small kids, you should watch even G-rated movies together. There are intense scenes all over the place and different kids deal with them differently.

    As far as not keeping up with pop culture, it’s just not an issue at all. I ask my three middle-schoolers about this a lot, because I’m really curious. My kids are popular, savvy, and if anything, much less jaded than their classmates.

  5. So far we haven’t watched any TV. I totally agree with moderation. At first we were totally no sugar. But I love so many things with sugar, so it was fun to share those things with them, as you said, in moderation. S&J watch TV 1/2 hour a week at daycare. We could also arrange something at home, but the times we’ve been at others’ houses and it’s been on, they have been more interested in playing. I think part of the reason we’re currently zero TV is that my husband and I aren’t great at moderation ourselves. If we started to allow some TV, it would be easier to justify 12 hours of US Open, or the Masters, or whatever. So keeping the TV closed in the cabinet works well for our family. When they start asking for it, we’ll have to think about next steps. And I do look forward to movie nights in the future (plus I imagine the TV might help with some sick days this next winter…).

  6. I have to admit – we’re a TV family. I grew up with a lot of TV (although, my brother was King, so he ruled what we watched – a lot of Incredible Hulk and Charlie’s Angels 😛 ) The kids watch mostly DVDs, but there are PBS shows thrown in as well (usually DVR’d so we don’t have to watch commercials).

    I’ve found with my son that the TV is sometimes the only thing that will kick him out of his “moods” he occasionally has. Not the best solution, I know…but there are times when it’s like, whatever works!! Sometimes I watch with them, sometimes I go and get dinner ready (or post on my blog 😉 ). I always watch with them when they’re seeing something for the first time though. Especially Disney! There are always scary parts in those darn movies.

    I used to feel really bad about it – but then I realized that they’re actually pretty balanced and have a lot of outdoor time and a lot of puzzle/reading/play time as well. And when I think about it more, I know I watched A LOT of TV while growing up (still do), but I also know that I read a lot, ran around outside a lot, and more…and I think I turned out okay, so I’ve stopped feeling guilty and started enjoying a half hour to an hour and a half of “me time” when I need it.

    I’m always so impressed with no-TV households…not jealous, cuz I know I’d miss it LOL! But impressed that they’re able to do it :)

  7. For the kids we use TV as a learning tool. I can’t even measure the amount of things the boys have learned from Sesame Street. At age 2 they are saying the alphabet and know their numbers up to 20. This is amazing as they were severely premature and have had to fight to catch up. Jack’s Big Music Show is something we all can watch together. We dance & sing and laugh. Yes, even my stodgy husband. Tony & I disagree on TV watching in general. He doesn’t know how to turn it off and I could live without it. So for now, we agree on keeping it to a minimum for the boys. Even commercials will scare the pants off of them and almost every moment of evening TV I’m worried they will hear or see something inappropriate. So, in fear of admitting that there is a double standard in our family, as far as evening TV we try to keep the TV off until the boys go to bed at 7:30pm. During the day we only watch Sesame Street and maybe one other show (Jack, Play with me Sesame or Elmo DVD).

  8. I love that you are putting this up for discussion. I also believe TV should be watched in moderation and limited to age appropriate viewing. I watch it with my children and tell them what is going on. My twins are 19 months.

    There are a lot of folks out there blindly flipping on the TV without a filter. Or worse yet, watching adult shows with their children in the room. That makes me so crazy!!!!

  9. We don’t have a tv right now. It just sort of happened. We gave up cable to save money a year and a half ago (hmmm maybe that’s how we got pregnant;). Then we moved and it was easier to sell the tv than to pack it up and move it 2 states away. We have been without it for a year now and don’t have any plans to get one soon…mostly just to save money.
    My husband and I rent dvds from the library (free!) and watch movies after the kids are asleep. We watch shows when we are visiting family. If the tv is on and the babies are in the room, they will glance at it-but we have never had the kids watch a full espisode of anything.
    I don’t know what our plan is for the future of television in our home. I would love to watch signing times, Sesame Street, etc for educational purposes, but it just doesn’t justify buying a new tv…yet:) Possibly when the kids turn two.

  10. Great post. I have to agree that my issue is more with DH’s patterns of TV-watching. I am pretty much off TV altogether and other than screening my girls’ videos, I do not sit with them much anymore. I did that earlier on, like when they were just starting to watch, but that got really old, really quickly. I’m also anti-TV for my daughters other than Sesame Street, which I only turn on once a week, at the most, and then just for Elmo’s World. I’m not a mom who feels that the ABCs or 123s are really necessary at age 2. I’m much more interested in seeing them develop an imagination and learn to use common sense. The rest will come …

    That said, my girls LIVED watching Elmo DVD in the car during our road trip and they learned a ton doing so. LOL

  11. This is definitely a tough issue, but I found a really interesting book called:

    Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children from Birth to Age Five, by Lisa Guernsey

    She is a mom who struggled with the same issues, so she did some investigating about how TV impacts little ones. she interviewed neuropsychologists and other professionals who do formal research on how TV effects children. the findings were really interesting, and I couldn’t begin to summarize them here. But it is definitely worth the time to read!

  12. perfect way to explain your (and my) way of parenting. in a day of such extremes it is nice to know we can make rational choices for our children and give them the ability to do the same when the time comes.

    we watch sesame street right now, together, most days. sometimes one more program in the morning. that is it for now.

    i have found i rarely (if ever) turn on the t.v. during the day (exception: today’s earthquake and the news following. i hate earthquakes). i love being unplugged from that medium. now the computer, totally different story.

  13. I think that watching TV the way you do is probably just fine for your kids, and I applaud you for being so intentional about it, but I also think that the vast majority of parents who let kids under 2 watch TV don’t watch it that way (allow commercials, don’t talk about it or sit with them, etc.). Moderation is good, but also I have to say that I also don’t think I owe my kids TV. We don’t have one currently, and I think that’s the right fit for us and our kids. Interestingly, they know all the same stuff that people credit TV for (all their letters, numbers, colors it by early age 2). They get it from books and their environment. When we got rid of the TV, I suddenly had a lot more time on my hands, and my boys have learned to let me make dinner in peace. It is possible. TV can be OK, but it isn’t essential, and I think it’s fair to say that most kids have way too much media exposure from an early age. I’d personally just rather not have the thing in my house for now.

  14. I agree…everything in moderation!

    When the boys were very little, Brook would turn on english soccer for them while he made dinner (4 month mark) and I went to the gym. I stopped going to the gym when the boys were 5 months. :) No correlation.

    I watched the Today show in the early weeks while I was on maternity leave. It was my only connection to ‘the real world’ during the winter.

    When they had the stomach flu and were laying on the couch being miserable, I turned on one of those Baby Einstein videos. They were entranced.

    Currently, we use television as a diversion tactic while we clip their finger and toe nails.

    Reid was sick two weeks ago and it was just him and I at home for 2 1/2 days while I sent Finn to daycare. I tried to find some kid-friendly shows, but couldn’t. I did, however, find Sesame Street which has totally changed since I was a kid. Reid was a magnet to the television and, in his ill state, got up off the couch and went up to the tv. It IS very educational, but man-o-man there is a LOT going on and they change topics/scenes every 5 seconds (or so it seems). He did learn the word ‘potato’ from that one episode, however.

  15. When my daughter was around 6 months old, I got rid of my TV. Now my wife and me watch our shows off our PCs, and only when baby is asleep. When baby is awake, we fill out hours with more important stuff: reading, interaction, playing, singing, going for walks and hikes, talking, etc.

    There is also no processed sugar in my apartment… we only eat natural sugary whole foods (grapes, coconut juice, etc).

    This is my first and only family, my first and only wife and child. I am not a military man, but I believe a STRICT household is the way to go, so that the household has STRUCTURE.

    My daughter is 13 months old now… very sharp, beautiful, SLENDER, ACTIVE, and rambunctious. I intend to keep it that way. When she is old enough to move out of my apartment, she can stuff her face with sugar and rot her mind with TV all she wants… that won’t be my business.

    But while she’s under my roof, I believe it is my fatherly obligation to give her the best life possible. And that includes keeping her body safe from trans-fats, excess calories, and other bad foods. My obligations also include protecting her growing brain from BET, MTV, VH1, and other TV junk.

    If more people approached child rearing this way, I bet we’d have fewer obese, TV-zombie children in society.

    Take care bye bye now.

  16. Aside from a very limited selections of DVDs we permit the children to watch (that we’ve assured has no objectionable content) we watch absolutely no television.

    My wife and I canceled the cable over a year ago and it was the best thing we could have ever done. I wish more people would try it. Break from the mold and give up the TV. You may be surprised how well you adapt without it.

    Besides being an enormous waste of time, I found that all that’s good and worth watching on television could fit in a thimble and still roll around in it like a B.B. in a bathtub.

    Just my two cents,
    – The Pilgrim

  17. I agree with the writer, a little supervised TV can be a good thing. I lived without TV for years, but have found that watching a little now and then helps me unwind, and adds to my general enjoyment of life. My twins are only 5 months old, obviously too young, but when they are older, I plan on letting them watch in moderation. This is in part because we are a very active family- lots of outdoors, lots of play, lots of projects, and at the end of the day we are all exhausted and need to relax. Being entertained together, and learning a thing or two before bedtime can’t be too bad.

  18. To each their own and everybody eventually finds out what works for them. I will say this though, a person isn’t less of a parent because they have a tv and permit the child to view it, a bag of sugar in the cupboard or chicken nuggets in the freezer.

  19. We got rid of the TV about 3 years ago when my son was about 2 and half. I wish I’d done it earlier. My house is peaceful and I spend more time doing things with my son, talking, singing, dancing… I don’t have unwanted strangers in my house via the tv, people I would probably cross the street to avoid if it were real life. :)

    Content and medium were the reasons (and time). The content speaks for itself, even when it’s not bad, it’s still not good. Most of it is about marketing to children under the guise of ‘entertainment’ or ‘education’. Not sure which is worse. The people creating the programs are interested in a financial return, they aren’t interested in what is good for children.

    Little kids need to play and explore, not watch someone else do it on tv. They don’t need to be ‘educated’ either, that’s why they play and explore, to learn about their world. That is education.

    The medium of tv is not helpful either. Ever see a small child that wasn’t watching tv sit and stare for a long period of time at one thing? Me either. Sure, they might watch the tiger in the zoo but if the tiger is sleepng they move on after a few moments, if the tiger is moving they may watch but it is a completely different experience than watching a tiger on tv. Physically and emotionally.

    Do we understand the physical effects of watching tv/computer on the developing child?

    I could go on and on but I think we’ve become so accustomed to the presence of tv/computers/dvds everywhere that we don’t really notice it anymore, and obviously most people don’t think it’s a problem for anyone, despite studies and books written to the contrary.

  20. I’m pretty middle of the road too. We probably watch a couple shows a day. My four year-old daughter will just go go go go go and TV is really one of the only ways to slow her down a bit. My 17 month-old, by default, ends up watching a bit more TV than my daughter did at his age, but what can you do.

    I do watch with them mostly, and their show choices are limited — right now it’s Sesame Street, Dora, or Super Why. They are TiVo’ed so they are available on demand. I like all these shows because the kids will interact with them, even the toddler. I do my best to keep them engaged; I figure it’s the slack-jawed vegetative watching that’s more detrimental. As soon as they turn into potatoes the TV gets shut off.

  21. great question, and I agree, everything in moderation…I have heard from so many parents of older kids that banned TV/sugar/fast food or something along those lines when their kids were younger, only to hear from their kid’s friend’s parents later on that ALL their kids wanted to do when visiting was watch TV or eat sweets…there is much more value to teaching kids how to watch TV constructively and eat sweets in moderation…that will translate into real self-moderation skills later on, instead of them forever addicted to the ‘forbidden fruit’…

    also, re: the AAP recommendations on no TV until two, I researched the studies behind that at the time, and the real issue was non-age appropriate television and videos, and doing it for HOURS a day…they found some signs that babies that watched more than 2 hours of non-age appropriate TV a day (usually with older siblings) had some language delays…but there was NO issue with toddler appropriate shows or videos, or with less than two hours a day…they just opted for the more restrictive guideline because they were afraid parents would not read the fine print…

  22. I totally agree with everything in moderation….
    occasionally my husband lets the baby watch some TV, but only children’s shows like “Little Bear” and only for about 15 minutes while he grabs a shower, or throws in laundry (no commericals on the Noggin Channel that we have…FABULOUS!)

    The one thing we have watched a lot of is the Signing Time videos, like you. Our 20 month old son has a speech delay and hearing loss, and we’ve been trying to learn sign language as a family, so we can teach him to communicate with us, and we can communicate with him. These DVD’s have a been a real lifesaver. We can finally figure out that he wants milk without a screaming fit.

    I’m sure theres all sorts of statistics about how much I should or shouldn’t let him watch, but in this case, I think the learning factor, and the time together (rarely we do leave him alone to watch while we quickly throw dinner in the oven, or start the dishwasher, but we come right back) and the communication outweighs the risks.

    Thanks for your post!

  23. What about the TV I assume I’ll watch while breastfeeding my infants? Is that going to hurt my kids? Knowing how difficult a process it is I assumed TV would help me through it.

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