“My Toddler Watches All the TV She Wants and I Think It’s Making Her Smarter” originally appeared on Medium and The Fatherly Forum and was reprinted with permission.
Every morning at 7:30, my 2-year-old throws her backpack on like an old pro and marches confidently out of the house. She goes to school all day until about 4:30 PM. I’m not there to see it, but according to her teachers and the astounding amount of “artwork” she brings home, Iris is busy.
I’m a teacher. I go to school all day, too. And, I’m better equipped than she to articulate that at the end of a long day, I am tired. I am so tired. I’ve worked hard, and I simply want to shut the f**k up and watch an unreasonable amount of TV in bed at 7 PM.
Iris expresses a similar sentiment by grabbing the remote, pointing it at the TV, and saying “I want Tiger!” over and over until I concede. Unless there’s a meal to eat or a gorgeous day outside that demands our attention, I generally capitulate.
The shame! The shame!
Oh, we tried to keep her safe from the dangers of television. For 11 months, we staunchly honored the recommendations of both the AAP and every mommy blog out there and kept it off. It wasn’t until an 11-hour stretch from Marfa, Texas to Phoenix last December that I caved and sent her spiraling into a Yo Gabba Gabba! coma. It was magic. She calmly and willingly sat in that backwards-facing car seat for 11 hours thanks to DJ Lance and the festive, acid-trip of a world that is Yo Gabba Gabba! I’ll admit it — I used to judge people who had TVs built into their minivans. Not anymore, people. Not anymore.
Yo Gabba Gabba! was the gateway drug. After the seal was broken, we started to relax on our TV policy. It was especially helpful at 5 AM every single morning when she woke up ready to party. Mommy and Daddy weren’t feeling it, but those crazy folks in Gabba-land certainly were!
Frozen came next. At first, she would only sit for about 30 minutes at a time, but quickly moved on to the whole shebang. She called it “Rorush” and she could. not. get. enough. This movie about ice really does have some sort of subliminal, L. Ron Hubbard, kid juju shit going on. With Iris sprawled out on her bean bag chair under Elsa’s spell, I was finally able to cook an actual meal or clean up a portion of the house or fold one of the hundreds of weekly loads of laundry. We justified it, despite still feeling guilty.
And don’t even get me started on the goings on at my parents’ house where Iris would watch this culty-weird movie called Wee Sing on repeat for like six hours straight. I raised objections initially, but there’s no reasoning with the woman who raised you when it comes to taking care of your offspring, especially when she’s doing you the favor of babysitting. There was no stopping this train.
Look, last week I signed her up for gymnastics. She’s 2. She won’t remember it. This is insane. I believe that this is insane. But, this is what it is to be a parent: we go to all of the lengths to ensure that our children have a positive and fulfilling life experience.
When Iris was 2 weeks old, we learned that she had a permanent hearing loss. That alone was traumatic enough, but then the audiologist handed us a fat packet with all sorts of information on how children with hearing loss inevitably fail. Our child would fall behind socially, emotionally, and academically. She would be depressed, alienated, possibly even suicidal.
This wasn’t going to work for us. We were determined to give her an equal opportunity to thrive. This meant early intervention and lots of hard work. At 5 weeks old, Iris started speech therapy. She was the youngest client our speech therapist ever had. At 6 weeks old, she got her first pair of hearing aids. We did regular infant/parent speech therapy sessions, verbal exercises and language reinforcement at home, countless audiology appointments, listening checks, and hearing aids during all waking hours. This proved to be quite the challenge for a baby who relates to the world by putting everything in her mouth. So, I took to Etsy. I bought her dozens of colorful, patterned pilot hats. It became her signature look.
At 18-months-old, Iris tested on a 27-month speech level. (This is 2 years and 3 months, and I’m sorry I just broke that down in months. I hate it when people do that, too.) This is an incredible feat for a child with hearing loss, which is why I don’t feel guilty shamelessly bragging about it on the Internet. That packet was bullshit. She’s clearly not falling behind, despite her TV habit. And there’s just so much other shit to worry about, so many battles to fight every day. I don’t have room for this one.
Iris’ favorite phrase these days is “I do it.” It takes us 30 minutes to get out of the house because she insists on picking out her clothes by herself, putting on her shoes and socks by herself, getting in her car seat by herself. She wants to do it all by herself. And while this fosters acute moments of exhaustion and the blood-boiling frustration of constantly negotiating with an individual who has not yet developed the mechanics of rational thought, I genuinely love this about her. I love that she is already so determined, that she already has the desire to be self-sufficient.
She does lots of things by herself. She climbs stairs and ladders, drinks out of a cup, says “please” and “thank you,” throws away her trash, takes her hearing aids out before bath time. Like any young child living in the world today, she can navigate an iPhone. She loves it just as much as we all do. And, who can blame her? She’s only human.
This week, she learned how to operate the ON/OFF button on the remote control. She hasn’t yet mastered the Roku where the majority of her stories reside, but it’s only a matter of time. And, it’s okay. Here’s the craziest part— she uses that OFF button. Saturday, she watched an episode of Daniel Tiger, then turned the TV off and announced, “Let’s go music class, mommy,” before running to her room to get her gold shoes.
A few days ago, she was running a fever and generally lethargic, so we snuggled on the couch, watched a show about lions, and growled like mama lions and baby lions. After a while, she got bored and moved on to her ABC matching game. Next, we collaborated on a painting at her easel. Then, stickers. This is what my Montessori child does. She chooses something to do or work on, then moves on to something else that interests her, and I give her the power to make those decisions. What else is she able to control as a 2-year-old?
TV is not the Antichrist. It’s not slowing her down, rotting her brain, or causing her any harm. It’s just one of the many things she loves and chooses to do. She loves singing, drawing, dancing, jumping on the trampoline, hiding and seeking, making shapes with play-dough, shooting her basketball, working on puzzles, reading books, cooking with mommy, eating the icing off cupcakes, throwing epic temper tantrums, taking care of her “babies,” painting at her easel, going to music class, alerting me to red lights and green lights in the car, riding her bicycle, walking the dog, playing her harmonica, and going to the park.
She also loves Princess Sofia, Daniel Tiger, Angelina Ballerina, Olaf, Ariel, Elmo, Thomas the Train, Mickey Mouse, and Barney. She loves The Princess Bride and Astro Boy and Inside Out. She loves watching gymnastics on YouTube. She usually tells us exactly what she wants to watch using her words. She uses lots of words. My hard of hearing, TV-watching child talks incessantly. I’m not saying TV is the reason, but it’s certainly not a deterrent.
In fact, I’m pretty sure it fosters critical thinking skills. Today, while watching Inside Out, she kept telling me that Joy and Sadness “need to get to quarters.” (Headquarters is what she meant, but the point is that she understood the basis of the conflict and the characters’ overall motivation.) I’d also argue that the too-much-TV she watches builds character. For instance, in the scene where Elsa’s and Anna’s parents drown at sea (sorry for the spoiler!), she always cups her hands over her mouth and says, “Oh no!” before her face turns sad. She feels real feelings for these cartoon people. She has empathy for the newly orphaned sisters, and empathy is a good thing.
This weekend, I had been sick for close to 10 days. Iris was also sick. She had pink eye, was running a fever, and had thrown up four times the night before. We literally ran out of clean sheets. It looked like a crime scene. My mom came over the next day to help, so I was able to rest for a little while on the couch. As I closed my eyes, Iris came over to me, gently stroked my hair, tried to stick her pacifier in my mouth and whispered “night night, Mama.” Today, I came home after a long day, and she told me to lay my head in her lap. This is a good kid. She is going to be just fine.
Recently, I was excited to see all the headlines that the AAP had lightened up on their screen-time guidelines. It used to be no screen-time whatsoever for children under 2. However, the new recommendations still feel vague and preserve the underlying tone that screens are inherently “bad” for children. Listen, I agree that a kid probably shouldn’t be propped alone in front of a TV for hours on end because variety, but let’s all take a moment to acknowledge that screwing up our kids is an inevitable part of raising them, so if the AAP is correct, just add TV to the list.
So, enough with the sanctimonious anti-TV crusade. No more lying about how much TV your kid actually watches; no more feeling like you’re confessing to some heinous crime. All of our kids watch way more g*ddamn TV than any of us are willing to admit, so let’s all just come out of the shadows and talk about it openly! Being a person is hard. And, we’re all just doing the best we can. Let’s plop our kids in front of the TV and have grownup playdates where we drink too many bottles of wine because we deserve it. They won’t remember it, and hopefully, neither will we. Doesn’t that sound like fun?
We all watched too much TV as kids and (most of us) turned out fine. But, it’s a different time now. Parents are so involved in every aspect of our child’s growth and development. Can’t we just have this one thing? Can’t she watch her stories in peace while I peruse the Internet for a bunch of shit that doesn’t matter? It’s a win-win.
TV is fine. My kid is fine. And, so is yours.
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