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Change that Channel! Moving towards a screen-free lifestyle with kids

The American Academy of Pediatrics has updated its position on screen time and babies. New research upholds the AAP’s 1999 recommendation that babies under the age of two watch no TV, and adds to it a warning that even “secondhand TV” (that would be me letting the ladies of The View talk amongst themselves in the background while my kids are within earshot) can have harmful effects on infants’ development.

As soon as the news hit the wire, the blogosphere responded in a festival of ridicule. Bloggers accused the AAP of fear-mongering and urged parents to lighten up already – Elmo is not going to permanently damage your baby.

I happen to agree with that last statement. Annoying though they may be, licensed characters are not going to turn your potential genius into a screen-addicted vegetable. I also happen to be an enthusiastic consumer of TV and screen-based media myself. Yet I have chosen to keep screens including TV, videos, and those handy little iDevices out of the daily routines of my one- and three-year-old.

The reasons behind my choice have nothing to do with what is bad (or not so bad, as many parents would argue) about television programming for young kids, or about the potential harm (or not) in plopping a couple of diapered bottoms in front of Curious George for an hour. My kids are screen-free, because of what we gain by removing TV as an option on our menu of daily activities:

I get to say “YES” more. I’m a mom. Saying “no” is part of the gig. No, you can’t have another cookie. No, you can’t give your brother a haircut. I’ve tried to create a home environment where I get to say “yes” as much as possible. That means buying (mostly) food that the kids can snack on anytime, child-proofing so that they are safe to play and explore without my having to act as referee, and keeping screen-time out of the daily routine. They never ask to watch, because it’s never been an option. I don’t have to say no. It’s that simple.

Boredom is a good barometer. Don’t get the wrong impression: I don’t spend every minute engaging in educational play with my children. On the contrary – they play independently the majority of the time we’re home while I do dishes, catch up on work, or talk to a friend on the phone. Not having TV as an option to keep them occupied has given me a natural sense for when they have reached their independent play limit and need some focused attention (and by “natural sense” I mean big, flashing warning signs of imminent meltdowns, which may include whining, leg-pulling, and minor property destruction). When we get to that point, we break from what we’re doing, read a book or two, and get re-engaged in a new activity. I think the experience of being bored – and of finding ways to get un-bored – is good for them and good for me, too, as I navigate the fine line between giving my kids space to play and ignoring them altogether.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. We have a clear and pretty short list of scenarios in which we break our no-screens rule. Family Movie Night, which happens once a week or so; travel and vacations, during which the iPad may as well have its own plane ticket (it’s that important to our overall sanity); and anytime one of the kids is sick. (Bonus: When the baby is sick, the preschooler still gets to watch TV!) Because we don’t allow screen-time in our normal routine, these exceptions are that much sweeter for all of us. The kids look forward to movie night all week, and can go on a screen-time bender during vacation (which gives Mommy a break, too). When life returns to normal, we resume our no-screens lifestyle with relatively minor fuss and adjustment.

Out of sight, out of mind. If you don’t have ice cream in the freezer, you can’t sneak a bite or two every time you open the door. Similarly, if you don’t know what channel the kids’ shows are on and they aren’t stored on your DVR, it’s a lot harder to cave to temptation. The longer I’ve been screen-free with the kids, the easier it’s become for the simple reason that I don’t know what’s on, when it’s on, or how to find it. It would take me longer to actually find something for them to watch than it would to redirect their squirrely-ness into a new game or activity.

Everyone seems to have an opinion on whether or not TV and videos are ruining our babies’ brains, but no one seems to be talking about the benefits of a screen-free home. I wish more of the discussion would center around what families can gain by limiting screen time and how those who are looking to reduce their kids’ time in front of the TV can shift to a screen-free lifestyle.

Have you found ways to limit TV with your kids? Have you opted out altogether?

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