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I had a stunning realization a few days ago: my boys have watched almost no TV this month. Today is the 27th. On the 8th, Ezra (age 12), lost TV privileges for the month, a consequence that HE suggested for a rather egregious offense. Little Brother was not banned from screen time, but has only watched a show ONCE (with Daddy on a cuddly rainy afternoon).
If you had told me five years ago that this would be the case, I would have laughed, cried, and then probably said something like HOW IS THAT EVEN POSSIBLE?!?!
I am writing this as a mom whose children’s first five years were ruled by screen time. Like…2-5 hours a day screen time. So please, PLEASE know that I am writing this from a heart of love, compassion, and understanding that THE STRUGGLE IS REAL. I am not Mommy McJudgy Pants. And the few times I may put those pants on, the one I judge most is myself.
When my boys were younger, I read a lot of blog posts about screen time, from the “screen time is the devil” to “screen time hurts your kids’ brains” to “all those studies are baloney” to “just embrace the screen time!” to “you deserve a break.” With each blog post I would find shared on social media, my reaction was either heaping piles of guilt upon myself or a sigh of relief that I wasn’t totally ruining my kids – at least not where screens were involved.
I really don’t want to join in any of those conversations. All I hope to do is share my experiences and give a little bit of practical advice.
Reducing screen time is hard. But sometimes hard things are good.
It’s easy to throw a “JUST DO IT!” at a fellow mom without any compassion. Each mom is going to have their own unique circumstances. Some moms have one extroverted child (who wants to engage ALL DAY LONG) who need a break to make dinner or make it through the day. Some moms have younger children who need to be occupied while older children are homeschooling. Some moms have four under four (my bestie) and spent years nursing or pregnant or both and have their hands MORE than full.
Saying “no” to a show will mean saying “yes” to inconvenience, noise, chaos, whining, complaining, and tears. It also means saying yes to engaging with your kids when you are exhausted. It means pure selflessness. I’m not saying that letting your kids watch TV is inherently selfish. But it could be, if you allow it to be. Choosing something that involves yourself instead of a screen will be selfless (especially for us introverts). But just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.
Again, I’m not judging you, and there’s a time and a place for shows. But when you get in a habit of giving in every time you feel like you are at the end of your rope, you get in the habit of using screens to cope instead of developing parts of yourself that need to grow.
Screens will trap you in a loop.
When you are used to using screens to distract and entertain your kids, you and your kids will get used to it. When you get used to it, you will come to rely on it. The more you rely on it, the harder it will be to not use it. This is addiction 101. No, I’m not saying you are addicted. I’m saying you might be too comfortable. It’s hard to stop because stopping is hard when you are used to something. Doing something else is hard because you are not used to it. You have to practice doing something else.
You can engage a different loop.
I really feel like I’m failing here to communicate what I’m thinking without judgment. So if you take one thing away from this blog post, it’s this:
EVERY TIME YOU SAY NO TO SCREEN TIME, IT GETS EASIER TO SAY NO TO SCREEN TIME. START TODAY.
Every time you say no to screens, you and your children will be forced to find another way.
That may be finding an alternative source to occupy your child’s (or children’s) time. That alternative source might be YOU. That’s the hard part.
That may be finding an alternative source to occupy your child’s (or children’s) time. That alternative source might be THEM. That’s the hard part.
When YOU are forced to do something besides screens, it’s painful at first. Screens are SO much easier than reading to your kids, playing a board game, doing puzzles, allowing them to cook or clean with you, or…my very least favorite…playing WITH them. But each time you say no to screens and force yourself to engage with your kids, you are given an opportunity to PRACTICE the skills of engaging with your children and finding things that work for your particular motherhood dynamic.
When kids are forced to do something BESIDES screens, it’s painful at first. Screens are SO much easier than reading, pretending, building, and engaging with their siblings. But each time you say no to screens and force this upon them, they are given an opportunity to PRACTICE the skills of self-engagement.
The more you say no, the more practice you get, and the easier it all becomes. The easier it becomes, the less you NEED screen time. The less you NEED screen time, the less you and your kids turn to screen time. The less screen time you have, the more practice you get. And the cycle goes on and on.
Reducing screen time takes time
Your kids will not go from watching 3-5 hours of TV today to going a month without TV overnight. I really started trying to reduce my kids’ screen time in earnest when we started homeschooling. That was June of 2019. It’s now April of 2023. That’s almost four years. Every time you say no may feel like you are the salmon swimming upstream. But these choices build upon one another. Over time, you will see the results.
Reducing screen time is easier the older your children get. But it’s still important to start today.
Older children have a lot more skills to do things other than watch TV. They can read. They have the fine motor skills to draw, cut, staple, tape, and paint. They can build with LEGO or K’Nex. Toddlers can’t do these things. This is why it’s important to start reducing screen time and engaging that positive loop starting now. The more practice they get on their fine and gross motor skills, the more quickly these skills will develop, and the more they will be able to keep themselves occupied.
Older children also have longer attention spans. If there’s anything I understand from firsthand experiences, it’s small attention spans.
So start small. End the show one episode earlier. Pick up a picture book first thing in the morning and let your child look at it rather than turning on PBS Kids right away. Take a walk around the block. Or build a block tower.
Again, each time you say no, you are both learning skills that will pay HUGE dividends in the future.
This whole revelation came to me when a dear friend sent me a picture of Facebook messenger of a garage for cars made out of cardboard boxes to show Little Brother.
My response was negative.
“No I just yesterday purged four more boxes from his room. Lol. It’s like I’m running a hotel for homeless boxes.”
True story. Every time a cardboard box enters our home (which is a lot, because, Amazon Prime), Little Brother ends up turning it into something: a home or bed for a Beanie Baby, a garage for cars, a “Hot Wheels Set,” a secret agent badge, etc. His room is constantly littered with boxes to the point that I can’t walk through his room without tripping over them.
This was my dear friend’s encouraging response:
“Love it. But yes I feel for you with the mess BuT just think of the great imagination [LB] and Ezra have! So many kids that age are stuck in front of a tv or worse yet walking around with their nose in the iPhone”
That was when I had the realization of how little screen time they have had this month. I felt very undeserving of her sweet words due to how many countless hours of TV my kids have had over the years. But the other thing I took away from it was that she recognized their great imaginations – something we have worked VERY HARD to cultivate. See the above point about positive loops.
Now, instead of bemoaning how many hours of TV my kids have watched, I’m bemoaning how many creative projects I’m tripping over. What a wonderful problem to have!
Okay I hear you, but HOW?!?!?!
This was the part I never could grasp when my kids were toddlers and I was at the end of my rope. And I wish I could tell you it’s simple. But it’s not.
So, my top advice is this:
- Just say no
- Start now
- Start small
- Persist, even when it’s miserable
Okay, but how….
There’s several things that have helped.
Books (physical books, audiobooks, & reading aloud):
If I could go back in time and change ONE and only one thing about my past, I would go back to my children’s toddler years and replace as much TV as I could possibly stand with reading aloud to my kids.
The benefits of reading aloud are unparalleled. MUCH has been written about this by authors far more eloquent than I. Let me direct you to Sarah McKenzie, author of The Read-Aloud Family, host of The Read Aloud Revival podcast, and blogger at Read Aloud Revival. Sarah McKenzie has probably been THE MOST influential author on my life, reshaping my view of my family and homeschooling in general.
Sally Clarkson is another author who encourages a house full of books, art, and music. Her book, Awaking Wonder, was particularly inspiring for me. I found it a bit idyllic at times (and proabably would have found it impossible if not laughable when I was mothering toddlers), but at my children’s current ages and stages, I find it gave me something beautiful to aspire to.
“Picturing my children’s hearts as treasure chests where they could gather stories, ideas, ideals, habits, appetites, truth, and knowledge to draw from the rest of their lives, I sought to fill the space in their hearts with all that was good, beautiful, and true.”
~Sally Clarkson, Awaking Wonder
TIP: Audiobooks in particular can be incredibly helpful with toddlers, preschoolers, and pre-readers – especially when you need them occupied to do something important like cooking dinner. Look for stories that have turn page signals so your pre-reading children can follow along with the stories as they listen.
If you don’t want to pay for individual audiobooks on Audible, try a subscription to Scribd where countless audiobooks, e-books, and even educational pdfs are at your fingertips for a monthly cost of around $10. It costs less than Audible, and the books are included! (Get 60 days free here by using my referral link.)
TIP: Encourage your older children to read to your younger. Bribery is 100% acceptable. (At one point I paid Ezra 10 cents for every book he read to Little Brother.) This keeps both children occupied, gives your older child reading practice, and encourages bonding.
TIP: If you are in a supportive church community, reach out older ladies whose children are grown. I have three different women from my church who have come to my house to read books to my children so I could get work done.
You can also download audiobooks read by my mom here: One unique way for kids to stay connected to long-distance grandparents (Grandma Jeannie’s Audio Library)
Open-ended building toys
If you are going to buy toys for your kids, buy open-ended building materials. These will inspire creativity more than toys that have one set purpose.
TIP: buy used, because those usually come without instructions, forcing kiddos to come up with their own creations.
TIP: allow children to play with building toys while listening to audiobooks
Here’s a list of open-ended toys that my boys play with all the time:
K’Nex – I wrote a blog post ALL about K’Nex and how they are wonderful entertainment for ADHD kids. You can read about that here: K’Nex: the one toy that keeps my ADHD kid focused for HOURS
Traditional building blocks
Open-ended pretend play toys
Costumes, pretend play objects (tool kits, doctor supplies, food, etc), dress up, HATS. My kids are always suprising me with incredible pretend play ideas. Sometimes they are inspired by something as simple as a hat I brought home from Goodwill or part of a costume I found at a consignment store.
In 2020, Russell’s grandmother died. It took quite a while to prepare her house for an estate sale. In the mean time, my mother-in-law gave us first pick at random junk she had collected over the years. My kids came home with calculators, hats (have I mentioned the hats?), old telephones, briefcases, file boxes for secret treasures, and so much more.
None of these things I would have considered as toys or bought them at the store for play, but they are (by far) some of the most used items in our home. My favorite hand-me-down-from-great-grandma was two sets of metal chains. The bigger of the two chains was used for Ezra to play The Ghost of Christmas Past, and then became a permanent part of our boys’ “Base” (the open area under our deck) when they cut the lattice and used the chain to turn it into a drawbridge. The smaller set of chains is currently rigged up in their base as part of some sort of secret messaging system.
Sticker books & art supplies
Embrace the mess. Better yet, use those 25,375 markers on the floor to work on teaching your children how to pick up after themselves.
Sticker books and sticker mosaic books have historically been incredibly reliable for keeping my children occupied, particularly while I’m reading aloud – to the point that we don’t call it “Read Aloud Time,” we call it “Stickers & Reading.”
If you have children (like mine) who get easily bored and thrive on novelty, Dover Little Sticker Books are an inexpensive option for giving your kiddo something NEW that will buy you a few minutes of peace.
Stencils are great for getting kids interested in creating drawings before they have the confidence to draw things on their own.
Blank comic books and rolled sheet paper are wonderful for kids who want to make “scenes.” Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth to get my boys to use a coloring book, but if I tape a 5 foot roll of paper to the floor and give them some markers and stickers, they will be occupied for a long time. It’s science. Possibly also magic.
Get your kids outdoors.
Like reading aloud, the benefits of getting kids into nature cannot be overstated.
I find this to be probably the hardest of all of these things for myself – especially when kids were little and required parental superstition to…not die when they played outside. Due to my extreme environmental allergies, my irresistable-to-mosquitos aura, and my general aversion to wearing anything other than pajamas, I reaaaally was awful at getting my toddlers and preschoolers outdoors.
Now that they are old enough to go outside on their own, it’s a lot easier.
For more on this topic, I recommend the following resources:
- Get the Kids Outside
- Rain or Shine Mamma
- 1000 Hours Outside
- Balanced and Barefoot (the book) and accompanying site Timbernook
Include your children in contributing to the household (aka CHORES)
Chores probably deserves its own blog post (it’s on the list in my head). I could give the exact same advice I did above for how to get your kids to do chores:
- Start now
- Start small
- Persist, even when it’s miserable
There’s countless times each day I have to get on my children’s case for playing around with each other instead of doing their chores. They are responsible for making their own lunch, and sometimes it will take them 45 minutes just to get lunch on the table because they are so distracted by whatever fantasyland in which they are living.
But you know what they are also not doing? Watching TV. They are also bonding, pretending, imagining, and working on social interactions (with each other at least) that go on to serve them when it’s actually time to GO PLAY.
Think of reducing screen time as a small part in a greater shift in your family’s culture
I took a break from writing this post today and spent probably close to two hours sorting through photos from the last three years to add to this post. As I sorted through photos I realized that all of these things are just small things in a greater shift in our family’s culture.
Hosting monthly potlucks
Participating in living history (like hosting our Moravian Love Feast)
Taking special trips (like our trips to Colonial Williamsburg, Patrick Henry’s Red Hill, and Fort Dobbs)
Cooking and baking together
Dipping our toes in organized sports
Family game nights
All of these things have shifted the tracks away from survival mode and onto new tracks of thriving in a family culture that works for us. Our family culture will NOT look like yours, I promise. You may value things far differently than we do, and that’s ok.
Yesterday, I told the boys that they could play outside after school. Instead, they were in and out for a period of about four hours, leaving each other secret agent notes (in rhyme) in dead drops and sending each other on scavenger hunts. I never did find out what the final prize was. All I know is that they were occupied for HOURS, having a blast, and engaging with each other in a positive way.
And I guess I want that for you too. I want you to lie in bed at night and think about the fun things your kids have done, the books they have read, the “plays” they have played, the adventures they have taken, and the projects they have created – rather than lying in bed at night feeling guilty for how much screen time they have watched.
I want other moms to have these AHA moments where they realized it’s been almost a month since their kids have even asked to watch a show because they are so busy doing other things.
I want to see other kids thriving the way kids should thrive – through hands on learning, adventures, books, pretend play, creativity, art, building, and spending time together.
Please please please – let me repeat myself. I don’t want this post to make you feel guilty. Rather, I hope to inspire you to picture a future that looks a little bit different than your present. I hope to encourage you because for so long, TV was how I – how our entire family – coped with our extreme needs. It’s how we got through our days. So if we can get to this point, I think almost anyone else can.
Please give yourself grace too. This month (while wonderful) isn’t 100% the norm. We still utilize screen time for school, bonding, and just plain fun. Daddy LOVES to cuddle with his boys on the couch and watch shows with them. Screen time is undeniably part of our family culture too. It’s just not the primary thing anymore.