Before you read this post, please know I have no judgments about how other people use TV in their homes. At all. The intention is not to shame people for how they make it through their days, not even a little bit. Parenting is so tough and I do not even pretend to have all of the answers.
There have been phases in our family life that this would have been completely out of the question. Furthermore, we have tried this in the past and failed. I simply wanted to share the unexpected benefits of reducing screens in our home and let you know that it is possible, even though I truly thought it would never work.
We gave screen-free parenting a whirl last summer and it was not a success. I felt constantly overwhelmed; it was impossible to complete any task with the kids (then one and three years old) awake. Furthermore, my introverted nature was missing the “quiet” time I gained when the TV was on.
That said, the idea was still intriguing. In January we decided to give it another go, but take a different approach. This time, the goal was not to eliminate screens completely, but simply to remove them from our daily routine.
There are still times when we use screens: when the kids are sick (qualified by us, not them), the occasional lazy Sunday morning, family movie time, or as a treat for them if we have a babysitter.
Here is when we don’t use screens anymore: before breakfast, after lunch, or after naps the way we used to. It’s no longer a reflex for us. My four- year- old hardly ever asks us to watch TV anymore.
Set-up and expectations
The biggest reason for failure the first time around was that I did not manage the expectations well. Anticipating a terrible reaction, I went with a parent-directed entertainment approach instead of a child-directed entertainment approach.
The first morning screen-free, I had blocks out as an immediate distraction, so when I told him he couldn’t watch TV I could avoid the inevitable meltdown. I was able to settle him by saying, “guess what? Even though you don’t get to watch TV, I’m going to build blocks with you”. He was pacified temporarily, but it was the wrong approach for the long-run.
Of course, I play with my kids, but my point is to avoid setting yourself up as the substitute for the TV. To serve as their constant form of entertainment is overwhelming, especially if you are used to having screen-time as a break for yourself or a chance to do household chores.
Here’s some advice from Dr. Screen Free Mom I tried to keep in mind the second, more successful time around: “respect your child’s ability to direct their own attention and come up with something to do. If they get bored, that’s totally fine. Life can be boring sometimes. If they get into trouble, that’s okay too. Find the naturalistic consequence and move on. They don’t need a screen to protect them from negative emotions or trouble. They need to experience those things”.
So, when we tried it again in January, I allowed my son to have a meltdown each time I told him he could not watch TV. This ended up happening about three times a day for approximately a week. It was an unpleasant week to say the least, brutal actually. But then it stopped. He started finding independent ways to entertain himself. We survived it. And life on the other side is great.
Six noticeable benefits of eliminating screens from our daily lives
- Freedom of time
I am no longer chained to the length of a television show segment. Anyone know what I am talking about? How you cannot possibly ask your kids to brush their teeth in the middle of Paw Patrol (unless you want an epic meltdown)? You must wait until there is a break in the show—a new story line or a commercial.
Since we took screens out of the equation, we get out of the house in the morning on my watch instead of at the mercy of the TV. We are still rushing many mornings, but it is not because of the TV. Nap time happens after my five-minute warning, not at the next commercial.
I feel much more in control of the flow of the day.
- Conversations with us
Pro: I noticed that when we got rid of regular TV times, my son started initiating meaningful conversations more often because he had the time and space to do so without the TV constantly blaring in his face. I have learned so much about him during this time. I love listening to the way his mind works; his curiosity is astounding. I feel like I have a better understanding of who he is and what makes him tick now that screens no longer take up most our time together. His inquisitive nature has inspired me to discover new things as well.
Con: I will say that although the conversations are wonderful, this is also probably the hardest thing about losing screens on a permanent basis. The endless chatter can be very draining.
- Collaboration and communication between siblings
When screens were a big part of our life, my son could sit for extended periods of time in front of the TV. My daughter, on the other hand, could only tolerate it for about 5 minutes before wanting to jump on him, climb the back of the sofa, bite him, etc. Screaming and fighting would inevitably follow.
Now that the TV is no longer constantly in the middle of them, I have noticed a significant improvement in their relationship and tolerance for one another. We still have tons of sibling fights, but not nearly as many as we used to. My son has no choice but to engage with her unless he wants to play by himself, which is an option he sometimes prefers.
- More creativity
Kids are super creative. Of course, I know that creativity happens even with screens, but it has been so much fun to watch my kids explore this more deeply in their new-found time. It’s hilarious to watch them switch from one activity to the next within seconds; it has given me tremendous insight into their thought process.
“Let’s build a fort…. let’s jump in a pit of rocks and lava…. let’s pretend we are dragons… let’s make fishing poles… let’s pretend we are on a ship…. let’s climb this mountain…”
They love working together to create their imaginary world. And I’ve noticed that the possibilities of their imagination seem endless now that they are not bombarded with pirates and superheroes.
- Tolerance and patience on my end
It took a while for me to adjust to constantly having the kids under my feet, talking to me non-stop once the TV was no longer an option. Over time, though, I have embraced it. I have gotten more creative about sneaking in the tasks I need to do while they are awake. Because they entertain each other more often with less screaming, I can quickly work on a meal or fold laundry if I see / hear them playing well. As soon as I see them engaged with each other, I back away, both to give myself some time and to watch the sibling magic happen.
- Behavior and maturity
No, taking away the screens did not make my kids perfect angels, but I have noticed better listening skills and more patience since we took it away in January. There is whining, but it seems to be less often. That could be a maturity thing, but I feel like their heads are clearer, more open to hear what I have to say.
Reduce the choices for shows
Maybe you don’t want to reduce the amount of time your kids watch TV, but you want to become more intentional about what they watch. Why not pick a handful of shows they can watch and let them choose from that list?
I used to let my son pick whatever he wanted from the options on the Netflix Kids’ page (eek!). Now on the rare occasion that he does get to watch TV, he only has a handful of options. That has made the TV even less exciting in his mind because I took away the ability for him to watch some of the shows that were causing some negative behaviors.
Cold turkey vs. one session at a time
I chose the cold turkey route, but you could also just reduce screens one typical session at a time. Pick a time of day when you could easily offer a child-centered distraction, a chance to go outside, etc. See how that goes for a couple of days or so, then drop another. (This sounds oddly familiar to the breastfeeding weaning process).
Remember, the first couple of weeks are hard regardless of the method you use. Just remember your end game and stick with it! The tantrums and whining (about screens) will not last forever, I promise.
Final words and encouragement
If you are committed to this idea, it can work with a little bit of time and dedication.
Please leave a comment if you have any tips that have helped you reduce screen time with your kids. I would love to get a good conversation going!
Now, the next challenge is reducing screens in my adult life… one thing at a time though, right?