Screen Time

she made her own tv

"Mama," he asked, "what is it you don't like about TV? What do you have against it?"

"Goodness," said Mama. "I don't have anything against TV. I like it. What I'm against is the TV habit - sitting in front of it day after day like old stumps waiting for dry rot to set in."

~ Mama Bear, The Berenstain Bears and Too Much TV by Stan and Jan Berenstain

Luckily I soon discovered that the biggest treat you could give these middle-class Finsbury Park children was to plonk them in front of the telly, because they weren't allowed to watch telly at home. There was as much puritanism around television in those days (early Eighties) as there is around, say, recycling or food additives now. But David could say, and often did say, with the authority born of his media-studies research, that it was positively good for children to watch television. The consequence was that our daughters, who were allowed to watch as much television as they liked, rarely bothered to, while their friends sat glued to our box.

~ Page 105 of An Education by Lynn Barber

"That which you resist persists."

~ A wise neighbor

I despise the phrase "screen time" about as much as I despise the phrase "play date", but they are part of a parent's vocabulary and easily identify various components of our children's lives. I've been brewing a post on screen time for some time now, and seeing as how this is National TV Turn Off Week, it seems the appropriate time to share my ideas on TV/screen time. Not that you necessarily care about my position on this topic, but mostly because writing about this topic will help me better sort out my position. And maybe my kids will read this post one day and understand me a little better.

We don't have a TV. We got rid of our TV a few years ago, but gave up cable and all TV reception about six years ago when I realized the wrong impression TV was making on my young impressionable family. We were grocery shopping one day when Avery, age 3 at the time, asked me to buy her some Yoplait yogurt - because it would make her "skinny" she said as she ran her hands down her waist and over her hips. I can only guess she got this idea from watching commercials. We pulled the plug then and there.

like mother, like daughter

Yet saying that we don't have TV, and therefore implying that we don't watch TV, feels dishonest. We have three computers, and we can and do watch TV shows online. Fortunately, we are exposed to far fewer commercials this way, but when we sit down in front of the laptop to watch 30 Rock on Hulu, we are, in effect, watching TV.

Like Mama Bear, I am not opposed to watching TV, but I am opposed to watching too much TV. Personally, I'd rather do something else with my down time, and more to the point, I'd rather my children do something more productive with their time than stare at a screen. I recently read Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese (the book has absolutely nothing to do with TV except that reading it was an excellent alternative to watching TV), and this excerpt really hit home:

"I marveled at his gift for distancing himself from what was going on by dancing, or by drawing the motorcycle, or playing with prime numbers. He had so many ways of climbing into the tree house in his head, escaping the madness below, and pulling the ladder up behind him; I was envious." page 245

A "tree house" in one's head, a place to escape and entertain oneself. No batteries, no cables, no limits - the mind as the ultimate portable device. This is exactly what I want for my children - that they cultivate a tree house of their own. Some time in front of the screen can surely inspire the building of one's tree house, but too much time, I fear, will make the tree house a less desirable destination.

I've long admired the Waldorf families I know who completely abstain from the screen (well, at least their children abstain), and I admit I've judged the families I know who put TVs in their children's rooms, complete with cable and DVD players (sorry! it's just one of my pet peeves). As for my own family, I've come to realize we are most comfortable somewhere in the middle. Our children don't have constant access to our computers, but they also don't have absolute time constraints either. Some days they want to watch episode after episode of shows they've discovered online, and sometimes I let them (I do it too, as evidenced by my recent three day marathon viewing of the first season of Nurse Jackie). Other days the computers go into hiding and I simply redirect them when they ask for some screen time. Last night, we all piled into bed and watched several music videos, but a few nights before, when George asked if Aidan wanted to watch an episode on Hulu, and I countered that we could instead read a few chapters of a book, Aidan chose the book.


I've tried completely removing screen time from our lives, only to find that doing so made screen time even more enticing to my children. I've also experimented with the radical unschooling approach of unlimited screen time, only to find that I wanted to pull my hair out shortly after the experiment began. The theory that children will eventually tire of the screen and voluntarily walk away from it is a theory that holds no water in my experience. Finding a balanced view of screen time for our family has involved a lot of give and take, vacillating between two extremes, and constant readjustment.

Our family is not participating in this week's National TV Turn Off week. Instead we'll keep doing what we've been doing the last few years. We'll watch a few episodes of our favorite shows on Hulu, we'll play a few games (online and board), we'll exchange emails, we'll go for walks, we'll read, we'll draw, we'll dance, we'll play with friends, we'll watch our chickens, we'll garden, we'll watch a movie from Netflix, we'll make messes in the kitchen, we'll do a few science experiments, we'll go to the park. We'll continue building our tree houses and watch out for dry rot on our old stumps. Most importantly, we'll maintain the balanced view of screen time we've created for our own family. After all, if it's not broke, don't fix it.

(I feel compelled to add that the only way I was able to sit and write this post today was by allowing my children screen time. Some days it's the only way I get any time to myself. Just sayin'.)


  1. Thank you for putting your thoughts to words; I think I am of the same thought about "screen time", and you've said it all so well. All in moderation and consciousness. Our children are 15 & 5, so we as parents must fluxuate to serve everyone.


  2. Wow, glad to know it's National TV Turn Off week! We started a show last night, thinking it was an hour, turned out it was 2 and I was so upset after that I had spent 2 hours sitting there! I could have knitted, but was pretty tired. I might not have been so tired if I'd just been knitting! By the way, we bought the Farkle game and played on the ship with Michelle and Robert - lots of fun!

  3. This describes my philosophy very aptly as well. I do wish there were less tension involved, but I suppose it is part of my job description to maintain gentle pressure, steering them toward the better things in life but allowing room for certain indulgences -- lest I be a hypocrite, right?

    I agree with you about neither extreme working well for the overwhelming majority of families, including ours. But I find that if I limit them, I also need to provide plenty of appealing alternatives. Not easy to compete with the lure of the flashing lights!

  4. I mentioned this briefly in my post today, but we're not participating, either. Our kids watch TV with us in the evenings before bedtime - usually a game show or two (we've all learned an awful lot from Jeopardy, and the questions on Cash Cab are challenging enough for the kids to struggle with but simple enough that we can explain answers quickly), maybe some Mythbusters. They watch a couple of hours on weekend mornings. They're on the computer maybe an hour once or twice a week. They get video game time for a bit on the weekends. Perhaps one afternoon a week, they watch a movie from our DVD stash or streaming Netflix. Of course, this is all in addition to daily reading and regular family board gaming.

    I think we do a fair job of managing 'screen time.' I thought briefly about participating in the TV Turn Off, as our oldest's teacher suggested, but let it go. Why add fuel to a fight we're not having? The kids are used to the routine, and this is one speed bump I don't feel like introducing.

  5. Ever since we let go of TV *rules*, there has been less TV watched.

    They realized they could watch it whenever they wanted so the *enticement* wasn't there anymore. It just became another tool in their lives for information, or sometimes for just vegging out when needed.

    I must admit it did take about two weeks of straight TV watching in the very beginning but I was determined to wait it out.

    One thing I did notice though, whenever I offered them something to do with me or do something together vs the TV , they always chose doing something with people.

    Another thing my kids notice is that their friends who have TV restrictions want to just watch TV when they come to our house instead of playing.


  6. We have always been cable-less. We have one tv that comes on for pbs specials, movies, and (ahem) basketball. Or severe weather. I despise tv watching as a pastime. I also despise internet-browsing as a pastime, even though I fall prey to this vice myself. Our little one has movies on the weekend, maybe computer games, but as a rule, none during the week. I'm turning my computer off more and more. But I know that my views are in the VERY distinct minority. I do realize that if I declare tv/screen time totally off limits there will be massive rebellion later. It's a fine line.

  7. wow, this is a really excellent perspective - having some waldorf teacher-training and a two year old, we've been adamantly tv-free. but i know eventually things will change and i so appreciate your perspective. thank you for sharing your experience!

  8. Great post. I especially like the last line when you admit that sometimes the only way you get time to yourself is with a little screen help.

  9. Wow, I had chills thinking about your 3-year-old running her hands over her hips, wanting to be "skinny." Icky.

    We try to limit "screen time" for our 4-year-old, with the result that it's the most requested activity, until recently. I'm not sure what changed- her baby sister is old enough to play now, and so they do. It's warm enough to go outside, so they do. Since she gets up a good 30-60 minutes before the baby, she was allowed to start a video for herself for the past few months (we don't have any channels), but couldn't watch any one video more than once in a week. Last week she announced she couldn't watch ANY more videos because she'd seen them all...and hasn't asked once since. Videos have been an alone thing for her, either while I'm teaching piano or when the baby is asleep, and she's decided she'd rather be with us! Now, when the baby is old enough to want to watch movies, we'll see what happens :)

  10. i enjoyed reading this. we have a tv. a few actually. i could easily give it up but my husband feels differently. he grew up eating dinner in front of the tv every night with his family. all eating off tv tables lined up in a row. We do not do that (thank goodness). anyhow. we compromise.

  11. We gave up cable when my daughter was 3 also but then got it again a few years later and now don't have it again.

    Our two enjoy "renting" movies from the library...just this last week they watched Pollyanna and The Secret Garden. Love both of those :)

    We also tried the unlimiting tv time and whoa nelly, it was all they wanted to do! We are at a happy medium I feel right now.

    My two rarely even play on the computer, lately they are too busy doing other things...lots of it outdoors which I love.

    I try to have music playing much of the day and that really helps, the want to watch something really lessons I have noticed.


  12. Your thoughts are exactly mine. I completely agree that when you take something completely away it becomes most desirous! I am cable-less and for the most part tv-less, but I do host a Grey's Anatomy party every week and watch some shows online.

  13. I think I live under a rock because I've never heard the phrase "screen time". Honestly, we don't limit TV watching in any way, except if there is something else they should be doing at that time - BUT my kids aren't big TV watchers. There aren't very many shows that the like to watch. They would much rather be outside playing than inside watching TV. With the nice weather we've been having, they go out as soon as they wake up and only come in if they're hungry or thirsty. I'm lucky in that Alex & Ava play very well together and Lily is consumed with reading. I can say that they never see me lounging around watching TV (unless I'm folding clothes or sewing, which isn't exactly lounging)!!

  14. Since we have gotten rid of the TV, my kids have been far less materialistic and this past Christmas was the first time I have not had to fend off requests for toys they saw in commercials.

    Before we killed the satelite, I observed the kids playing with the tv on in the background, and when that one commercial came on ("you will lose weight") it was several volumes louder than the program that was on and the kids would stop playing to watch the commercial. When it was over, they'd go back to playing again. That was the final straw for me.

    Since getting rid of the satelite, we save over $700 per year and for a family on a very tight budget, that's a lot of money!

  15. What a thoughtful post. I appreciate your looking for a middle way - the extremes don't work for me/us either. And I appreciate your honesty that sometimes a mama has to use TV even though it's not a great solution! We just do our bests...

  16. We have tv. Several, actually. And cable. The man package on one of the sets. The Lawman requires it. And, if that's all he needs then so be it. There are worse things he could ask for. We have 2 teenage girls. We all have a favorite show. And that's about all we watch. I'd say we average about 4 hours of tv time per week with the exception of popping in a family movie. We eat dinner at the table w/out the tv. We have conversations instead. We've found our happy medium and that is what every family should do. It's not a one answer for all discussion. Enjoyed your perspective. Thanks for sharing.

  17. Very well said. I've always viewed the TV as a tool -- not a babysitter, and we've been beatten over the head about how children learn from a vast aray of sources. Gosh, imagine only having one?

    I prefer well rounded people to ones who have only one side. If offering an education from several sources accomplishes this, then for me it's Job Done.

  18. i love how you volunteer these missals about your personal feelings/approaches to important things. it gets me thinking, gives me good ideas, and usually reminds me to give myself a break! great camouflage btw. :)

  19. What a fabulous post - we very much share the same views on tv time... we have no cable and we don't watch tv shows online... very often, in fact our kiddos never do. But we watch our fair share of movies, we feel it's a good "fix" for all of us.

    And although it may be a strong opinion of mine - most children I know, even children of dear friends of mine, watch WAY. TOO. MUCH. television.

  20. I love that you are championing the 'happy medium'. We live a similar TV life except that we have cable (our computers just don't seem to have enough ummphh to get through a whole program without having some sort of issue :( ) The less I focus on the TV the less my kids focus on it. They rarely have a problem with me saying no to TV which is so lovely. I know that this may change as they get older, but for now I'm thankful. Thanks for the great post!

  21. what a thoughtful post.
    the story of your daughter and the yogurt brought tears to my eyes. advertising sucks
    **big sigh***
    tv isn't an issue for us yet, my boys are 2 1/2 and 8 months, so they don't ask for it because we've never had it out.
    i hope to stay relaxed about it and open to the idea of some tv time, but I really don't like tv.
    again, thank you for your thoughtful words.

  22. So glad you put your thoughts into words....

    I have similar views about TV. I have BIG issues with advertising and as such my children don't watch commercial TV (here in Australia we have an excellent free to air commercial free government TV station that has a good selection of TV shows for kids). But we do use TV, in moderation, with supervision, for entertainment and information.... and I am ok with that.

    Sometimes balance is not easy to achieve but I think you've found yours on this subject

  23. our kids are at a waldorf school but we still have tv. i think a little is better than totally denying them and it turning into a big deal. also i am bad and love nurse jackie but they are NOT allowed to watch that - no no no!

    i made the chimichurri sauce and am linking back to you on that post. i am going to sow my whole back yard in cilantro and next time will multiply the recipe by 4!

  24. We are also somewhere in between. We only have dial up internet and it is primarily for our business. But we let our two teenage sons use it to check their facebook (I can't believe I just admitted that) and if they need to do some limited research. They go to the library with me on Thursdays where I am the librarian where they get four hours of highspeed wireless. Otherwise at home, we have a Video player for an occasional movie or use our oldest son's Laptop for a DVD about once per week.
    I, too, worry about them wanting the screen soo much if we completely limit it.
    Warm wishes, Tonya

  25. Thanks for the post, its something we have been thinking about a lot lately too. We have a similar situation - no TV but we do watch on the computer. One thing I've been wrestling with is how to let the kids see enough of it so they know what it is and can process it appropriately, but not go overboard. I suspect its a constant project.

  26. aheh. yeah. we are currently plowing through 5 seasons of Weeds via our computer. oh the wonders of netflix "instant play" shows and movies. I'm with you on the tv front, though we do have one. No cable, just good ol' reception, which allows us exactly 3 channels. Luckily, one of them happens to be PBS, which cranks out kids shows for most of the day. For those times when,say, mama needs to write a blog post, right? I laughed out loud reading your 3 year old's yogurt comment. I can just picture it... ah. modern marketing.

  27. I'm late to the party, as usual, but had to comment on such a thought-provoking post.

    I'm a big believer in balance too. It can be harder that way, because you are constantly having to negotiate, rather then just having hard-and-fast rules that don't need to be revisited.

    TV has never really been an issue around here--the kids never got in the habit. They'll watch it occasionally. But computer time has always been a much bigger issue. I struggled with it for years with my oldest--he *really* wanted to use it to play games. I didn't want to completely deny him, but we had to constantly negotiate terms we both felt comfortable with.

    Still, it was worth all the effort. If I hadn't let him embrace his love of technology, he wouldn't have learned to use the computer as a tool as he has. And he wouldn't have developed his skills with filmmaking, and the future for himself that he has...

    Balance is good.

    The treehouse metaphor is just gorgeous. As are the photos in this post. :-)

  28. Great post, Molly! I love to hear how other families handle television and screen time. It's really all about being conscious of it and doing what works for you. My pet peeve is when I drive through the neighborhood at dinner time and see a television on in every house. It's really a combination of annoyance and deep sadness.

    We do have a television--two, actually-- one in our living room and one in my bedroom. Both are in armoires that close and we have found that out of sight is out of mind in our house. We watch a movie together as a family on most Friday evenings in the winter months and about once a month during the nice weather months in New England. It seems to be just the right formula for us because my kids never, and I mean never, ask to watch the television.

    We cancelled the cable a year and a half ago to try to curb our own evening habit of collapsing on the couch and it worked for a while. Then we renewed our Netflix subscription and fell into regular movie watching. From there it was a slippery slope back to network tv. I'm hoping as the summer months roll in we can get back to those quiet evenings.

  29. Such a great post, thanks for sharing. I'm new to this whole tension. I was raised in the 80's and watched a ton of TV, I loved - love watching TV. BUt now I have a two year old and don't want her to fall into the habit of watching TV - becasue it is a habit and it can be a bad one (I think). We'vve not allowed her any TV - but we do watch TV or a movie when she is asleep. But the computer is more challenging, it's always on, and now that she has discovered videos on YouTube - well, let's just say she likes them! I need to lear to find a good balance, becasue I know that I don't want either extreme, and neither will work. Thanks again for the thought provoking post!

  30. I don't have children (yet - I am pregnant!) but this is exactly what my husband and I do.

    Internet TV and DVDs only, no cable or even a real TV! The lack of commercials alone is AMAZING. It always takes me aback when we're watching 'real TV' somewhere and the commercials NEVER END.

    I listen to NPR podcasts or watch Hulu while I cook - it's wonderful. :)

  31. Good for you!

    When I was a kid I had an allotted amount of time to watch tv. I got an hour after school, before doing chores and homework. Sometimes we watched a program in the evenings, but usually not.

    Kids played outside, they used their imaginations, and we read. We read a lot.

    As an adult, I have to say that television holds little draw (especially network).

    Hubby and I watch the occasional show, which right now consists of one (due to end in a week). We do watch movies on dvd, but that's not a constant thing either.

    And I have to say that most people we know don't get it. How can we go without tv?

    I guess it's all in what you're used to, and what else you have to fill your life.


Sewing Crafts


email: mollydunham@sbcglobal.net
Share |