Q&A: How Can I Decrease TV-Watching in My Kids?

How Can I Decrease TV-Watching In My Kids? // jessconnell.com

After last week’s topic (Should Kids’ Screentime Be Unlimited?) a reader asked:

Q: how do you let them watch a video/cartoon without the younger (under 2) seeing it or wanting to see it? He’s in the same room or walks by, for example, and now he likes to watch (and asks to) at an even younger age than my first cared to.

I feel awful about it but sometimes it really does help.. If I need to get dressed or take care of a task, or do something on the computer and they won’t stop pulling at me.

As an aside from my original question, how do you “go back” after you’ve already opened the door of cartoon entertainment and they expect it & ask for it? :-/

A: I simply don’t let them stay in the area of a video when they are younger than 2. Something medical I read early on in my mothering talked about the still-developing eyes of children up to about age 2. So for me personally, it’s non-negotiable. That doesn’t mean I freak out if they’re in the room with a screen, I just don’t let them sit down or focus on it for longer than a few seconds. Even after 2, I am cautious. I use baby gates, pack and plays, distractions, and my verbal direction to keep a young child away from a screen.

(And yes, I did this even when my kids were all little. This has been my m.o. for 13+ years now. I know it’s hard; but you really can do it if you want to! Mothers have been mothering little ones without TVs for thousands of years.)

Our 3-year-old sits and watches videos with us but they are videos for the family, together… rarely do the kids watch their own videos, and rarer still would be something for him alone.

I, too, have used videos for those (roughly) once-a-year sicknesses. That’s a rare event and I’ve personally been OK with using videos for that. Even still, I don’t do it for younger children. For little ones, if I’m sick, I’ll rotate toys in a pack and play… lay on the floor near them and let them crawl and play with blocks dumped out… that kind of thing. Then I take naps WITH them to try to minimize my up-and-down.

For quiet afternoon time, I’d encourage you to use bags of books, or interesting games/toys (ZooLogicpattern blocksMagformers) for your preschooler. Do all you can to fight letting screen time and TV watching become a normal, daily activity in his life. Too many people are mastered by TV shows, and you have the opportunity to shape his affections for his whole life with the choices you make now! When my oldest first dropped his nap, while his little brother was napping, we had a 1-hour read-books-on-your-bed time every afternoon, and then he could come out to the living room and play quietly for another hour. Quiet wasn’t optional, but I let him choose his toys for that hour as long as he was quiet.

“Going back” is something we all have to do on a variety of things– I still have to do it sometime when I see that a choice we’ve made has gotten out of control or is mastering our children. Here are some things we’ve done it with:

  • Nintendo DS games (we were gifted a few sets and it can easily get out of control. Sometimes I’ll pack them up for 3-6 months at a go, to remind my children that they are not a “right” but a rarely-enjoyed privilege).
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (and other franchises– Transformers, etc.)– when I see the kids getting angry about who gets to “be” a certain character, who gets to have the yellow truck, who gets to play with a particular thing, I shut it down and tell them they can’t play that thing until further notice. Anytime I see my kids being out of control about a particular thing, I restrict that area and pull it off the table for a while.
  • Screens & devices. This is something we watch really really carefully. Even e-readers can be used with a mentality that they have a “right” to use it for as long as they want.

All that to say, this is not merely a screen problem. Throughout our kids’ lives, they run the risk of being mastered by something external. So I watch for those things, and tell my kids “if you don’t exercise self-control from the inside, I’ll exercise control from the outside.” They have learned, over the years, to handle their play and devices in a controlled, kind way, and I do believe this builds self-control over the long haul. It is also the way that, as mothers, we can work to see to it that our children are not being mastered by something outside themselves.

When we see our children struggling to have a good attitude without something, that is really a cry for help. They’re telling us, just like a junkie, “I need help to ditch this thing that I feel like I need. My attitude is telling me I can’t exist happily without this thing which means, all the more, that I need your help to help me learn to function without it.”

As a side note, even without attitude problems, anytime I see an “entitlement” attitude in my kids (like you describe in your last sentence, asking for it with expectancy), I squash that. Across society, I see tons of problems with people who are entitled, and want to do everything in my power as a mom to fight that attitude in my kids, anytime I see it.

You really CAN pull back on devices. I find that (just like an alcoholic “drying out”) going cold turkey is the best way for us all to break a bad habit, and then, after a lengthy time “off” the undesirable thing, if it’s something I don’t outright think is bad/harmful, we ease back into it with a guarded attitude as I watch their attitudes for undesirable attachments to the thing.

When I want to stop something outright (or cut out a particular thing), I tell the kids, “no more watching X show for a while. It seems like you guys are arguing about it and I care more about your attitudes and relationships than the show. We can be happy without watching X. Head outside and play in the yard; it’s a beautiful day.”)

I think this (watching for the things that are influencing our kids and fighting any mastering/controlling influence) is a significant way we can help develop our children’s appetites. More on that idea here—-> WHY YOUR KIDS’ APPETITES MATTER


IN THE COMMENTS, PLEASE SHARE: How do YOU decrease TV-watching when you realize you’ve let it become too frequent in your home?

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Jess Connell

Jesus-follower, Happy wife, Mom of 8 neat people. Former world-traveler, now settled in Washington. Host of Mom On Purpose podcast (momonpurpose.com). I write and wrangle kids.

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5 Responses

  1. Brittany says:

    Just a few (long, rambling) thoughts…
    First of all, I love the description of “going back.” It happens to all of us, and it’s really humbling when a parenting decision doesn’t work out like we thought it would.

    The article you shared was really interesting. Personally I do let my younger ones in the room while their siblings are watching TV, but they don’t pay any attention to it, which make sense if their eyes aren’t able to really see the pictures. We also limit our screen intake a LOT around here, for many of the reasons you listed in the original media post. So they are only in the same room once a week for a 30 minute Andy Grifith episode that we watch as a family, usually playing or eating a snack. :)

    Also, I’ve noticed in our house, the less TV/screens we use, the more my kids can entertain themselves. When it’s not even an option, they come up with all kinds of stuff to do, like make up elaborate imaginative games, read voraciously, play card/board games, create art, and more. When we’ve been sick or had crazy seasons where I let them watch/play computer games more than normal, it quickly becomes their default activity of choice. People ask “What do they DO all day?” when they see we don’t have a TV, but it really isn’t as hard as it sounds once you get past the initial “detox” phase. Just some encouragement to the mom who’s hesitating to pull the plug. :)

    • Jess Connell says:

      Thanks for sharing your rambling thoughts. I like hearing other people’s ramblings. :) Gives us all more to learn from!

      And what you said here is really TRUE:

      “People ask “What do they DO all day?” when they see we don’t have a TV, but it really isn’t as hard as it sounds once you get past the initial “detox” phase. Just some encouragement to the mom who’s hesitating to pull the plug.”

      I’m glad you said that outright; we’ve found the same thing to be true. When we’re in bad habits, cutting them off completely and backing off really isn’t so bad (after, like you say, that “detox” phase)… we just have to stop and find our way again.

      Thanks for speaking up! I liked your “rambles.”

  2. Allison says:

    Thank you for tackling this topic! My husband and I have noticed that our 3 sons are becoming TV obsessed, and have just been discussing over the past few days our need to scale back their media consumption. We already eliminated one of their favorite shows that we decided was unhealthy, but have been taking steps to scale back the amount of time they’re watching even the good shows. At this point, I don’t see us completely eliminating it (This is probably an area where genuine sisters in Christ can handle some of these “gray-areas” a little bit differently), but I definitely do see the need to scale back even more. Right now, my kids are watching about three 20-25 minute shows during the daytime, and prior to cutting back, sometimes more with Daddy after dinner. I still feel that this is too much, and would rather keep it at 1-2 episodes in a 24 hour period. I think this article has given me more fuel for my video-slashing passion, and I thank you for the extra motivation! :)

    • Jess Connell says:

      Good; go for it! I agree that whether or not to have a TV isn’t an absolute. But working to help our children not be ‘mastered’ by anything is a wonderful goal.

      Glad to fuel your “video-slashing passion” LOL :)

  3. Polly says:

    I have just been formulating my own possible blog post about this very topic! It must be on many people’s minds these days–maybe it’s the end of winter!

    I think I will use this as the nudge to write that post. But in short, in our world (my children are 8 and 5), I don’t have any kind of system that imposes limits on screen time (like “30 minutes per day” or “a token per half hour”), but we also don’t really have screen time. We do not own gaming systems or have any games on my phone, ipod, or kindle fire, so that is currently a non-issue. My children do not watch television–I don’t think they realize what television is (in terms of shows being on at certain times…etc.) They are allowed to watch shows/videos from a pretty short list, via Netflix or DVDs we own–the shows we love are Daniel Tiger and Mister Roger’s Neighborhood….and they sometimes watch old episodes of Andy Griffith. On rare occasions they get to indulge in something like “Sofia the First.”

    My son does some lessons online–this hasn’t posed a problem.

    We like to have a family movie night about once a week. We like classic movies the best (“Pollyanna,” “Swiss Family Robinson,” etc) but also enjoy newer movies like “Enchanted” and “Nanny McPhee.” We watch them together and sometimes use them as fodder for conversation, which is fun–we like to discuss character development–why did s/he make that choice? What might have changed his/her mind? Et cetera.

    I don’t see the point of screens for toddlers and babies so we never really did that, but when I brought my newborn daughter home in the dead of a very cold winter, my then-three-year-old son did watch a couple of “Thomas the Train” episodes per day for a few weeks while I tried to assimilate into having a new baby! He was none the worse for this binge–which was about an hour of Thomas per day–and it was no big deal to sort of ‘wean’ him off. Saying “no” isn’t that hard…:)

    For me, the biggest thing I can do instead of setting limits on my kids’ screen exposure is to set a stellar example myself. So I basically do not use the computer or phone in their presence (I will often walk into another room to send a text!), or just use it very sparingly if we’re in a situation where I must check something on my phone and I can’t go somewhere else. I view technology as a tool that *I* use to help me live my life (and it really does!), not as something that should own/distract/dominate/control my time or my life. There’s too much fun stuff to do! And my husband doesn’t even use a cell phone, so they have a great example in him. We have full lives, use technology to our advantage when needed, and it seems to result in a healthy balance!

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