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Screen Time

Our 12 days of no TV

Posted - 22 December, 2013
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Today marks 12 days of no TV! Usually Saturday is my least favorite day of the week. My husband works on Saturdays 9:30am – 10pm which means that I have to take care of our kids by myself all day after watching the daycare kids all week (plus my kids). Saturday is like my non-day off. It’s the day I feel for all those single moms out there. I love my kids, but by Saturday I need a break from ALL kids. I usually would let them have free reign over the TV. Then somewhere between 9am and 11am, or even earlier depending on how much TV they had watched, the first meltdown would happen. Then another, and another. Then a fight. And another fight. Usually around 10:30 I would be yelling for them to get dressed so we could go to the park (aka get the hell out of the house.) They would never listen. I would usually end up dragging them out still in their jammys. There would be a huge fight to get into the car and despite going to the park the rest of the day was no better.  I literally would loose my mind every Saturday.

Now looking back I can see that their “cabin fever” was actually TV induced crankiness. In fact, over the past 12 days there has been a huge reduction in meltdowns. I can only remember 2-3 times that our daughter was cranky and crying a lot and this was because of lack of sleep and a cold. I’m not good at math but compared to the 2-3 meltdowns daily we used to have I would say that is a 98% reduction in crankiness. Today I realized that unplugging our daughter has changed her behavior significantly and dramatically. She toddles around all day long playing little games she makes up, usually using items from around the house that are not even toys. The biggest change in her is that she plays with her brother now much more than she used to and with little or no fighting. I actually have heard them resolve conflicts on their own and quickly before they escalated into a huge problem.

Bowl hats.

Here is why eliminating all screen time has changed our four year old daughter. What happens when a child watches TV is that their brain becomes less active than while sleeping. When a child is left to play on their own and use their imagination the creativity centers of the brain light up. This also induces compassion, which is why she plays better with her brother. It creates an upward spiral where the more they use their brain the more confident and independent they feel. This is because they are not relying on an outward source of entertainment and happiness – which is what watching TV is. She also generally feels better because she is more physically active instead of incorporating sedentary screen time into her day several times a day. When my daughter needed quiet time she actually climbed into her brother’s crib and “rested” for about 20 minutes. She has done this several times now and I wonder what her mind is thinking about, processing, dreaming of…

Surfing.

This experience has been an amazing journey. It was easy. I highly recommended you just try it. You will be surprised how little they ask for a movie or a show. The first week we did have a family movie night and watched the classic Rudolf. After the second week we didn’t even need to have a family movie night because they were so engaged in their free play. Today I even got to shower, shave and give myself a pedicure – with little interruption. That would have been impossible a few weeks ago because I would have had to referee at least two fights in that time period. Our life was moving so fast and our kids growing up before our eyes. Now things have slowed down. Our TV still hangs in our living room. Occasionally they would ask for a show and we would say, “We made a mistake. Watching TV is not good for your body or your mind.” Then I would praise my daughter for how good her behavior has been and tell her all of the good changes I have noticed in her. She seems to get it completely. I am winning.

Sharing Nolan’s fishing toys.
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Day 3 of no TV and The Meltdown

Posted - 12 December, 2013

I write this post with a heavy heart. Not because my daughter asked for a movie today, but because of why she asked. Today was the third day of going cold turkey off TV. I needed to figure out how to get our 2 year old to nap without lying him on the couch with the TV on. This method was starting to fail 50% of the time anyways, so I needed a new routine. We tried my bed, his big boy bed and the couch with no TV, but he kept getting up and playing. Then I had an idea. I told him I would put him in his baby crib to nap if he didn’t stay lying down. He said, “But I will cry.” I told him that I would be so happy and so proud of him if he took a nap in his crib that I would give him a present. He took a nap in his crib. I was amazed, especially since he has been sleeping in our bed and out of his crib for over a year now.

He woke up two hours later and immediately asked for his present. Here is where the problem started. His older sister had heard me praising him for taking a nap so she went into her room and lied down. I thought I could quickly sneak him into the living room and give him his present without her noticing. She came out two seconds later and asked, “Where’s my present?” explaining that she had taken a nap too. She did lie down quietly for a while so I couldn’t argue with her. I told her I was happy she took a rest and ran to the Christmas present stash to grab what I could. This is where I made my big mistake and ignited her jealously like I had never seen before. I gave her a present that was not as “big” of a gift as his. He got a huge pirate chest filled with awesome stuff and she only got a little Minnie mouse doll. It’s not that I meant to set myself up like this, she actually had been asking for a new Minnie doll so I thought I would win. I was wrong.

“I hate my brother so much! I want my Minnie doll to have real sand too! I hate having a brother! I want him to die! I want the trash truck to come and take him away!” She is crying as she is saying all this and I just held her and wanted to cry too. This was the most intense she had ever verbalized her jealously toward her brother – though she is 4 now and has a bigger vocabulary. She ran to her bed to cry and I followed her in, held her and said that it’s ok to be mad. A few minutes later she asked to watch a movie. I reminded her about our no TV every day deal and she ran off. She climbed into the cabinet where we keep the DVD’s and picked one out. She knows how to put a movie on herself and was ignoring my requests for her to stop. Quickly I thought of a way out and told her she could go play with her friend next door. She threw the movie down and ran outside.

I had some time to process what had just happened while they played at the neighbors. I know that yesterday it seemed like a stretch to blame TV for my daughters out of control jealously toward her little brother. But today it was pretty clear. Often when she had a problem she would – and we would – medicate with a dose of TV. This not only gave her zero opportunities to work out her issues but has clearly made the issue worse. I do feel that I need to say here that our kids really do play well with each other a lot, and do love each other. I just think that this pattern has never had a chance to get resolved and so keeps coming up. Especially recently since my daughter had started school. The TV slowly crept it’s way in before and after, giving her no time to get ready for her day or process what had happened at school. Then her brother would be right there in her face, ready to play since she had been gone. Only she was not having it.

I was thinking this evening after the kids went to bed about unresolved issues. Is this why teenagers are so horrible? If they are having problems in the toddler years, and you never resolve those problems, then how can it get any better for the years of their childhood to come? I want to have a good relationship with my daughter and realize we have damage to repair. It is because of TV? Yes. But not because it makes the brain less active (even though it does.) In our case it is because it gave our daughter little time to process her intense emotions. She has a lot of very intense moments, with lots of crying, and lots of anger. We really just didn’t know what to do with her. We thought a little TV when she came home from school would help her “relax.” Now I see that every minute of her day needs to be filled with active, imaginative play. It is in their play that they process the world. There is so much that they don’t understand and that is overwhelming for them. For gods sake turn off the TV and let them digest their day.

This whole experience has taught me so many things I never even considered before.

  • I will never again put my child in front of the TV to get a break from them. They feel this energetic “abandonment” and you will pay the price later.
  • Doctors and parenting books will tell you that it is normal for toddlers to have multiple breakdowns and tantrums per day. I think this is only when they are allowed to watch TV a lot.
  • This morning there was no fight to get dressed and ready for school. We were out the door, on time, lunches made – no fighting. The first peaceful stress-free school day in weeks.
  • Bed time last night was even better. No pajama fights or bath struggles and extra time to read books before bed.
  • The kids enjoy playing with each other and haven’t had a single fight over a toy in three days.
  • We are working to resolve a long time issue of jealously and will gain the skills to address bigger, tougher issues in the future.
  • The kids are sleeping better because their brain is not overstimulated by the light of screens and because their daily play is deeper, more creative and more physical.
  • Are we ever going to let our kids watch movies again? Of course. Family movie night, new Disney releases in the theatre, a special treat when playing at grandma’s house.
  • I am extremely fortunate that this has all happened when my kids are 2 and 4. My son has had barely any TV time compared to his sister, and I feel like I saved him.
  • Because our daughter is 4 and not 5 or 6 we feel it is easier to break the habit while she is still so little. We know that screen time is going to be a big part of her life eventually, just not now.

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liz-mad

It started gradually. When my daughter was 2 years old she watched her first movie – Sleeping Beauty. Her brother was born a few weeks earlier and the television soon became a critical component to our survival. Our daughter was intensely jealous of her brother. She was amazing at hiding it and allowing her love for him to keep her rage at bay, but she was extremely angered by his existence. This was a very subtle attitude that only I noticed, but gradually grew into a huge problem. When her brother was first born everyone thought she was so good because she was so sweet and gentle to him. By 3.5 her fits of rage were so intense I could actually hear her teeth grinding while she clenched her fists and threw punches at him. Two years later she would act out and beat up her brother to no end.

I wasn’t making matters any better because I was constantly separating them. I would put Yo Gabba Gabba on for her at night so I could sneak into the nursery and nurse him to sleep uninterrupted. Then I would put her to bed. We would put the TV on first thing in the morning just to catch a few extra hours of sleep after being up all night with the newborn, and so that she wouldn’t wake him up. He always went to bed early and always slept in. She would go to bed later and get up earlier. There was even a period of time when we were still adjusting to a second child and we put our first in front of the TV to eat meals, locked into the highchair. Looking back I can’t even remember the reason why this was necessary, but at the time it was.

We were like most parents who had two kids less than two years apart – in a state of total survival. Fast forward two years. My kids are now 2 and 4. Recently, my daughter started getting really intense about TV, as is her personality, and demanding that a movie be put on five times a day. Lets just say that I would give in 50% of the time, which for my sake was an enormous task. It recently got out of control. Then I read an article by my new favorite childcare expert, Janet Lansbury, http://www.janetlansbury.com/about/. It’s not that I hadn’t read about what TV does to a child’s brain before, but life is about timing. Here is the article: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2012/07/how-to-break-your-toddlers-tv-habit/.

We are currently on day 2 of no TV. My daughter usually suffers from daily meltdowns, tantrums, fights, crying spells and personal “injuries.” She has not cried or had any behavior other than pleasantly going about her day for two days now. Her jealously no longer rears it’s ugly head. The most amazing part is that she is completely “on board” as my husband said. We followed the cold turkey method mentioned in the above article and our daughter completely gets it. We told her that we made a mistake, and that TV was neither good for her body or her mind and we are not going to watch it every day anymore. She has been completely fine with it. She even said today that she doesn’t like movies anyway. I still can’t believe it. If you even knew the fight she put up for three solid days when we took away pacifiers cold turkey at 2 1/4 years old… brutal!

As cute as these faces are, they are not happy because they are hijacked by TV.

I looked at her this evening playing nicely with her toys and I remembered what a sweet angelic kind girl she is. I looked back over the past two years and I honestly think TV brought out the monster in our daughter. We filled all of her spare time with TV and she had no room to process her feelings about her new sibling or the changes going on in her life and routine. They say that having a baby is like dropping a bomb on your marriage. For your first child, having a sibling is no different, only it affects their relationship to their parents and this new tiny person they are supposed to love. How can we let any kind of bonding process between siblings happen when we are separating them and having the television babysit while we take care of the newborn?

I know it has only been two days but I am not turning back. On day one my husband got up with them as usual and made snowmen with colored construction paper. On morning two he just sat them on the couch with their milk like always only no TV and they didn’t even care at all that the TV wasn’t on. It still hangs in our living room like always. I thought the morning would be the hardest adjustment period because they had only been given the option to watch TV, but it hasn’t been hard at all. I told my daughter after the first day that she could come into bed with me and cuddle and drink her milk if she needed to – and she didn’t even need to.

I never thought we would be able to go cold turkey. I knew that TV first thing in the morning is the worst possible thing you can do to your child (see http://www.janetlansbury.com/2012/07/how-to-break-your-toddlers-tv-habit/) So I thought I would try and come up with a new morning routine and only let her watch TV when her brother naps (another problem in itself.) The first day they were all playing so well I just lied down and rested and they kept playing. So no nap for her brother since the routine was to distract his sister with TV so as not to wake him – but he just went to bed early that night. They both did actually. Exhausted from all that creative, imaginative, inspired, uninterrupted play. The best part is that now when my daughter plays with her dolls she actually comes up with her own narrative instead of just re-enacting scenes from her movies.

I can’t wait to see what day 3 is like…

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