Watch T.V. With Your Kids — And Not Feel Guilty About It

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I’m always humbled into a moment of silence when a parent tells me, “We don’t have a television.” I think, Wow, no fallback plan when you’re craving a moment of silence with every cell of your body; Enduring kids’ inevitable comparisons to friends’ families who do have on-screen entertainment.

Jill Nagle is a family mediator who co-writes Awake Parent Perspectives, an online weekly newsletter at Frustrated with toddler tantrums? Not sure if you’re raising them right? Feeling disconnected from your partner? Subscribe to today!

I also admire them for being part of a committed cadre of people who have taken a huge step to find alternatives to prefabricated images, to stimulate their kids’ imaginations.

I am not one of those people.

Maybe I will be when I grow up.

In the meantime, purity (such as being 100% free of TV) feels like a luxury to me, or else a supreme effort I’m not usually up for. Incremental choices do count, and can be incredibly powerful. I breastfed most, not all of the time. I eat meat only occasionally, sparing the cows and the planet more than my palate alone would choose.

Similarly, every household with a TV (and I daresay that’s most) gets to make choices about when the TV gets turned on, what gets watched, and what (if any) kind of interactions adults and kids have around the content.

Soon, I’ll be changing my living situation and getting to decide whether the TV comes with me, but for now, it lives, in my bedroom, no less. I don’t find it invasive because, well, it doesn’t get much use.

Here’s what I’ve come up with for how to make TV use a conscious decision:

1. Get clear with yourself. Why do you want a television? What purpose does the television serve in your life? For me, it’s a way to have a temporary, occasional escape into what we call “entertainment.” I enjoy this, and think most humans need some form of this.

I’m a screenwriter, and use the television to research films. I also want to be able to have a way for my son to unwind every now and then that he enjoys, especially when he’s not feeling well.

2. Choose time limits with/for young people. My son and I have what we call “Monday night at the movies.” This is the one time during the week where he can watch whatever he wants for an hour. Even better if you can give a choice: “Would you like Tuesday afternoons, or Saturday mornings?” (I forgot to do this-maybe you’ll remember.)

Some families like to have a daily limit, others have weekly limits, but whatever you choose, it really helps kids to be consistent all the way around. Young people get confused about the rules-and more tempted to try to bend them-when the adults in the house are on different pages.

Other parents I’ve talked to have said having a consistently-enforced TV time has virtually eliminated all struggles about television. In fact, I got this idea from one of them (thank you, Kate!)

3. Interact with the content. This is something I’ve been doing with Cainan ever since he could talk. We started with books. We’d look at a character’s face, and I’d ask, “What is s/he feeling?”

I’d heard enough stereotypes (and seen enough examples) of men failing to notice or tune into others’ feelings that I figured I’d nurture this capacity early on whenever possible.

Also, no matter how carefully we screen the content of books, television, or heck, life experiences, things will always seep through to our beloved children that we wish hadn’t. These can be opportunities to look at the situation together and develop a nuanced response that can support our children to deal with all kinds of situations when we’re not there.

Now, when Cainan and I watch television together, (usually recorded episodes of The Magic School Bus, or videos rather than live TV), I’ll ask, “What do you make of that?” “How do you think Liz felt after that?” or “Why do you think they decided to do that?” This also teaches him to use his deductive reasoning skills to figure out the story line.

If your child watches a show without you, you can always have these kinds of conversations afterwards. People of all ages love to talk about stories.

4. Cultivate alternatives to television. For example, play music for your kids, and when they get old enough, let them choose and play whatever they want. Make space for them to dance, relax, or play in whatever way the music inspires them to do. This is a great way for them to unwind and get into an altered state without the complete zone-out of mental activity that television produces. Other examples might include a walk outside, games, arts and crafts, or a cooking project. Reality check for overwhelmed parents: “Arts and crafts” can consist of pens and scrap paper, or newspaper, glue and pebbles!

One thing that helps me (and Cainan) deal with transition time from school to home is to have something in mind to do when he walks in the door, even if it’s as simple as tossing a ball back and forth for ten minutes.

So, I’m curious, how do you use, or not use, television at home? What results have you noticed? How do you feel about all that?



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