Like many parents of young children, my husband and I make limited use of the TV babysitter so that we can get chores done or have a shower. When my son was a toddler I got pretty good at putting finishing touches on lectures during one showing of an “educational” baby video (including the promotional blurb at the end of the 20 minute show, just to give me an extra few minutes). I felt pretty guilty about it at the time, especially because the video instructed me to watch with my baby and point things out to him while we happily watched together. However, I had no illusions that these classical music and spinning toy programs were going to make my son smarter. They were simply entertainment, and with a limited budget for childcare, I needed any extra snippets of time I could get.
A recent NY Times blog by Lisa Belkin reported on a study about babies and television viewing. Her piece helped assuage any lingering guilt I may have felt about my kids’ TV viewing in their toddler years. I probably wasn’t doing them any harm by sitting them in front of the TV in small doses, but I wasn’t offering them a head-start in language abilities either.
As our children have gotten older we’ve continued to limit their “screen” (DVDs or online videogames) time to an average of about an hour per day (many days they’ll have none, then we’ll have a family movie night and watch a couple of hours at a time). Moderation seems to work for our family, and since we get no TV reception and have no cable or satellite hook-up, it’s fairly easy to stick with the limits. And of course we try to monitor the content. Animated movies are very popular at our house. My four-year-old daughter (who early on got bored with the baby videos and wanted the stuff her older brother was watching), chooses her favorites to bring home from the library every week, and most of her picks center around princes and princesses. Sometimes I worry less about the time spent watching the DVDs and more about the message coming across in these seemingly innocuous fairy tales. I cringe at the attention to beauty and ball gowns, wondering what my kids are getting out of this.
However, a suppertime conversation with my children last night reassured me that they take these videos for what they are—fantasy and fun. I’m the one who’s taking them too seriously. My seven-year-old son wanted to know why all fairy tales had happy endings. He just didn’t think the happy endings were very realistic. And continuing to rant, he said he didn’t understand why princesses in movies always wear their dresses off their shoulders. “They think they look so pretty, but they’re ridiculous!” he exclaimed. Both children agreed that Mulan was the coolest movie princess was because she was tough and saved so many people. Then my daughter added, “I like Belle [from Beauty and the Beast]—she’s smart. And I like her dresses off her shoulders.”
We’ve chosen to keep a little screen time in our kids’ lives for now, ever vigilant of content and time. So why did my husband and I resort to cutting off our own TV connections? It wasn’t because we were concerned about our children’s viewing habits. As humans we’re visual creatures, and it’s not just the children who get sucked in. My husband and I weren’t very good at self-limitation. After the kids went to bed it was far more tempting to watch TV than to talk to each other, work on writing projects, or read a book. And did we worry about content? Not really. When we found ourselves watching curling or were lured into staying up late by the “news at eleven” teaser, we knew it was time to restrict our screen time too. We’re all better off now with our animated family movies and limited doses of princesses in strapless gowns.