We quit letting our toddler watch TV about five months ago. We didn’t intend to be these people. We aren’t anti-screen time and it was never our intention to head down this path. We always figured that a small amount was okay and that it’s something you use when you need it (as a parent). So being a “no screen time” family is kind of a new thing for us.
Up until then Ben watched an episode or two of Sesame Street every other day. I’ll admit that I used it as a tool. If I needed to get dinner ready and him “helping” was going to slow things down drastically, I let him watch while I cooked. Sometimes I let him watch an episode so I could finish up work if he got up from his nap early. Occasionally we let him watch while we ate dinner so we could have some adult conversation. Sometimes I let him watch because I was pregnant and exhausted or nauseous.
Here’s where things went wrong: He started getting really upset when we turned it off. If he had one episode of Elmo, he wanted another. Even if I insisted that Elmo was “all done” and attempted to redirect his attention, these requests would turn into full blown tantrums. Brutal tantrums that lasted for more than 15 minutes. Ones where I couldn’t get him to calm down.
These were very unlike him because of the duration. Sure, he’s a toddler and toddlers have tantrums but these were different. They were much longer and more intense than any others he’s ever had.
I don’t know if I’m a strict parent or not yet (tbd) but if he had a tantrum there was a 0% chance I would put on another episode. It seemed like reinforcing the behavior so I’d just tough out the tantrum by trying to redirect his attention, hugs, or maybe just some personal space to let him get it all out (i.e. I’m right here if you need me but nothing I’m doing is working so just feel your feelings and we’ll regroup in a few).
This happened a few times but in desperate moments (usually when I couldn’t stay awake in my first trimester), I’d still cave and let him watch one episode. I’d regret it every time.
I knew it was time for us to be done with screen time (for right now) when he had one of these tantrums because I wouldn’t turn something on at all. It was morning (not a time when we ever watch tv) and he kept pointing to the screen and saying “a show!” When I said no repeatedly, he had one of the worst tantrums I’ve seen him have. Just absolutely inconsolable that he couldn’t watch Elmo.
So we quit. Cold turkey.
To me, it just wasn’t worth it. In some ways I almost feel like just not letting him watch anything feels lazy. Like, shouldn’t I be able to parent appropriately? To reason with him post-show and prevent a tantrum? I tried (we both tried) but it just didn’t work. He didn’t seem to understand the concept of “just one episode” and couldn’t really grasp why we can’t just watch “more!”
So if I have to cook dinner with him on the counter every night and it’ll take almost twice as long, so be it. He enjoys it and I’ve tried to start viewing anytime he’s “helping” me as an activity for him. He’s learning and I’m engaging and he’s probably better off for it.
I’ve dug through pinterest looking for toddler activities (here is my toddler activities board) and I follow any toddler activity Instagram account I find. The tube that poster came in? Let’s make a rain stick! An empty egg carton? The perfect painting palette! We need more tree ornaments? Let’s whip up some ornament dough and make our own! It’s a very active form of parenting that is simultaneously fulfilling and exhausting. Mostly exhausting but hey, at least I don’t feel guilty about the screen time and subsequent tantrum.
Of course, like any rule, there are exceptions. He is allowed to watch shows on the iPad on long car drives. My parents live in Maine and we visited three times this Spring/Summer. We could not get through a 9 hour car ride without it. Basically any trip over an hour, the rule doesn’t apply.
Watching TV also keeps him awake. If we don’t want him to fall asleep in the car, we’ll let him watch something. I’ve even let him watch in the stroller on occasion when I couldn’t walk fast enough to get home from an activity and he was falling asleep. For Ben, five minutes of sleep in the car or stroller would ruin his whole nap (which is when I work). And if he’s not feeling well? The rules don’t apply. It’s couch snuggles and nature shows with Mama. And of course, all bets are off at Mimi and Papa’s or at Mom-Mom and Pop-Pops house. We don’t make the rules there.
I still kind of try to avoid Elmo because really, what is it about that guy? He’s obsessed! We’re still big Elmo fans, we just listen to the music from the show instead or read Elmo books.
Are we going to be a no screen time family forever? No. I’m sure we aren’t. Again, I’m not anti-screen time. I just haven’t figured out how to keep it in our lives without it causing behavioral issues. But it’s winter and we have a newborn baby. Nav is about to go back to work after his paternity leave ends. I’m creative, but there will be days when we just run out of ideas or days that weather prevents outdoor adventures. We might have to bring it back (with parameters, obviously).
Our hope is that once he’s a little older and can be reasoned with more (or we’re past the tantrum stage?) that we can reintroduce it. Of course by then we’ll have another toddler so who knows what the rules will be for her! Gah. Parenting. Tough stuff.