Saturday, August 13, 2011

Parenting With the TV (And Trying to Make My Peace With It)

My daughter is just six weeks old.

As to be expected with a newborn, at our house we’ve been doing nothing but adjusting. I’m adjusting to having two children who need my attention, my son is adjusting to having to share the attention, my husband is adjusting to that while I look the same – just not pregnant and just not back to my normal size yet – I am still recovering in terms of stamina, energy level, and hormones. Alas, in our adjustment phase, we’ve adopted some coping mechanisms, mainly, more scheduled nanny time for my son (so I can sleep and stare in awe at my baby), more scheduled house cleaner time, more laundry, more take-out, more field trips with my son and consequently, more museum trips and memberships, more playground trips, more ice cream & popsicles (not so much baby related, but heat wave and sanity related), and the one I hate the most: more television and movies.

I know. I know. Some say an hour of television a day for a child almost three years old is fine, not harmful and even normal (I have to question if this is just normal for Americans who seem to take pride in their television viewing habits considering that in 51% of American homes, the TV is on most the time). Some say television can be educational, just look at Sesame Street and what it’s done to have kids learning their numbers and letters. Others say that when TV habits begin too young, it contributes to ADHD, and other behavior issues as well as impacts later cognitive development. I understand this has studies and statistics to back this research up and I can get the connection. Yet I am in the generation whose mothers interacted with their children on average fifteen minutes a day and all of us learned to read from the TV, not an actual person. Some of us do have issues, but for the most part we’re functioning successful adults. That said, I would rather my children learn to read from the people in their lives.

Still others say kids don’t really learn from television or Sesame Street, but from interactions with people. Though I prefer this viewpoint, I don’t really want to engage in this part of the argument, if only because I can see the validity in all the views. Yes, my son learned the majority of his letters, numbers, shapes, and colors from the New York subways, books, and interactions with my husband and me. And him learning the song where they count to 12 that has played on Sesame Street since I watched it thirty years ago certainly didn’t hurt anything.

So why do I hate the TV? And why – much to the horror of some friends and family – do we not actually own one? Partly because I’ve read the studies on how often TV replaces reading, talking to other people, emotional development or relationship skills, and exercise of any kind. I’ve also read that it contributes to poor eating habits and obesity, and can disturb sleep habits as well as contribute to night terrors (big surprise – I get night terrors after watching almost anything on TV if only because I get scared about what is passing as entertainment). Mostly because I hate the magnetic like quality of the TV, how it absorbs even the smartest of us and abducts us as if it were an actual alien – even though most the programming (including what some stations insist is news) is of such poor quality it insults the intelligence of the average lab rat. Once when my husband was traveling for work, he called from his cable TV stocked hotel room before bed to say good night. “I just spent two hours watching the dumbest movie ever,” he said. Sadly, I had to ask: “It took you two hours to figure out it was the dumbest movie ever?” He’s (usually) a smart guy. His defense? “Well, you know. It was the TV.”

Several people I know admit the same, that when they’re in front of the TV, they get sucked in no matter how poor quality the show is, and next thing they know, they’ve lost three hours of their life and feel like slugs.

It’s the slug after-effect I’ve noticed with my two year old. Because we don’t own a physical TV, we do watch the occasional TV shows we like (West Wing, Mad Men, PBS’s Sherlock) on our computers or iPad (thanks to Netflix and the library). We also watch our fair share of movies. My son watches the older Sesame Street episodes (I can’t stand the newer ones. Sesame Street sadly too has fallen victim to the dumbing down and princess-ing up trend), Wallace & Gromit, Kipper, Pingu the Penguin and occasionally, Shaun the Sheep. After a short Wallace & Gromit skit, my son has turned into a slug. A boy who usually is self-directed at play and can entertain himself an hour with his trains suddenly is left bored and restless in the presence of his toys. Before the TV comes out, we can spend an hour in bed reading through the stack of books fresh from our library visit. After the TV, forget it. We’ll still read the books before bed, but an hour is out of the question. Before any TV watching, my son is a low maintenance kid who is creative, happy, and makes fantastic conversation, often better conversation than most people I’ve worked with. After the TV, he can be whiny and more physical in terms of hitting and kicking, even if he wasn’t watching anything violent.

So why has the TV become one of my postpartum coping mechanisms? Because I am recovering. I usually do have the energy for a post-nap late afternoon playground trip, or the mental and emotional energy for a game of pretend grocery shopping and making coffee, but after giving birth a month ago, I don’t. And while we do play some, we also hit the Witching Hour (what we call that hour when fatigue and hunger hit at the same time) when I really need to get (or call for) dinner on the table and the TV seems the path of least resistance given I’m still expanding my multitasking abilities to handle my new expanded circus until my husband gets home from work to help parent. Or today, my son had a fever, and my husband was working late, and the TV keeps him quiet and resting as he sits, drinks his water and eats pineapple popsicles one after the other (homemade – not processed or over-sugared, so I swear I’m not contributing to the toddler obesity statistics).

The first few weeks postpartum, I admit, I felt a lot of guilt about the TV watching, because I don’t want it to be an everyday thing. While there are some merits to it, I hate having to rely on it. I want my son – and now daughter – to use their time in more useful and creative ways; I want them to engage in experiences and personal interactions, not passively watch the activities of others. I want them to be self-directed, not wait around to be entertained. When it’s not an everyday thing, and I tuck my son in at night, he falls asleep easily with that satisfied sigh of another fun, active and full day behind him. I love that.

Still, while I am fortunate enough to have a newborn who sleeps at night, so I sleep as well, I am still tired, and I had to make my peace with the TV just for the sake of recovering, much like I did last winter during the snow storms that would never end. After so many days of finger painting, flour play, and fort building, a creative parent can only do so much if only because you need a break, a shower, a phone call to a friend, a cup of coffee with no one asking you for something for five minutes. I rationalize, that this TV thing is not a life habit, just a circumstance related habit. Last winter, when the weather improved and we naturally started getting out more and having our own non-televised adventures, TV weaning happened without a thought. Knowing this reassures me that while it feels like a dependency (because when we need it, we really need it), it’s just another coping mechanism for the moment. So I hope.


TenderHeartMom said... [Reply to comment]

I just posted about this on my blog since I'm 9 months pregnant and am exhausted chasing my toddler. I still am keeping my hour limit, but also hate reaching it. I usually limit tv to 15 min at a time. I am hoping once we are settled with the newborn I can wean ourselves off the tv back to no tv other then maybe an 15 min-1/2 hour when the weather is horrible

Amy Phoenix said... [Reply to comment]

Thank you for sharing this!

I have went round and round and round with screen time. With my oldest (now almost 11) I did use the TV as reprieve when I had a new baby - and to get things done. I found this to be disasterous later on - and even now it still plays out with other screens like the computer and DSi.

It's not that TV or screen time (computer/DSi/whatever) is inherently evil (although it can certainly be distracting and consuming, which is why we turn it on when we feel we need a break). It is how we use it that determines our experience - and our child's.

To find a balance with what everyone in the family wants we do several things - and are still working on a balance with screen time. I work from home and take online college courses so I use the computer daily. I work to do that in small chunks at a time so I am modeling the ability to unplug. I am not so into the TV and we don't have cable, but do enjoy DVDs from time to time.

For little kids instead of moving to screen time if I am exhausted, now I encourage quiet play with blocks, toys, books (with or without CD), whatever they can quietly use without my direct supervision, etc. I choose to stop seeing TV as a reprieve and instead as something I would prefer to use as a way to observe and interact with the kids. This is a big switch and totally flips the idea of TV as babysitter on its head!

Another part is instead of sitting them down to keep busy while I tend to house chores, bring them along or encourage side by side participation.

Sounds like we are on a similar page with making peace with TV and screen time. For me it is about how I view and use it in our lives - and working from a place of integrity with that. All a process. Much love to you as you walk the journey...

Inder-ific said... [Reply to comment]

You do what you gotta do. It takes a village to raise a child ... but most of us don't have a village, so we do the best we can. I understand the recommendations for television time, and I myself grew up largely without a TV in the house ... but I depend on Thomas and Friends to get me through the dinner prep time. It's hard! There is so much pressure on moms to do the right thing all the time. Sometimes, television is the better of two evils (in my case, the other option would be leaving my toddler to fend for himself, get in trouble, and then have me scold him, so, yeah).

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