You Can Do It! 4 Steps For a Successful Screen Time Diet for Toddlers

Screen-Time DietWhen I wrote about cutting down my toddlers’ screen time, I didn’t realize just how many other parents are in the exact same boat. Friends emailed me, the comments trickled in on Facebook and even my editor wanted to know how we did it! (Hence this post.) How often do we see and hear bout the damaging effects of “too much screen time?” That murky distinction (how much is too much?) is one that we’ve tangoed with in our own home.

Personally, I’m not all caught up in what the “experts” have to say because, if I were, my kids would have had zero screen time until after they were 2 years old and very little every day thereafter. And well, that’s just a preposterous idea to me.

We enjoy movies as a family. My kids love them some learning apps and (gasp!) even a little bit of mindless gaming. Granted, we didn’t allow the gaming part until very recently, with Wyndham, who’s 4. Up until recently, he honestly had no interest in anything other than some of his choice shows and learning apps, anyway… perhaps because we have control over what gets downloaded onto the iPad, so there’s only so much choice for the little guy.

Abby, on the other hand, isn’t as drawn to the screen as her big bro, so the battle to whittle down their screen time has been the most challenging with Wyndham.

The problem has never been about plopping our kids in front of a screen for hours and hours. We just don’t engage with our kids that way. But there have been times when one movie turns into two, and it was starting to happen more frequently with a lot of wide-eyed desperation and highly emotional dramatics when he couldn’t have free access to a screen. We noticed a trend — perhaps even an addiction, if you will — and we didn’t feel good about it.

Was there a way to reduce their screen time in a way that the loud, hysterical dramatics would stop revolving around cut-off times and programming? This is the question I kept asking myself, based on the belief that my son was starting to draw a little too much pleasure and joy in his young life in the sole form of a screen. I saw less desire to play outside and engage in free and creative play. He was starting to ask for a screen ALL. THE. TIME. And his sister was starting to catch on and mimic this behavior.

So, enough was enough. It was time for a diet! It wasn’t easy and it definitely got worse before it got better, but we’re out of the woods now, and I think (knock on wood) we have our little boy back — and he doesn’t have to reach for a screen first to experience joy.

Here’s what worked for us:

1. Just Say No

“No” is the word that toddlers hate to hear. What’s important to remember here is that there is no magical way to avoid the meltdowns. It did me well to remember that Wyndham’s displays of frustration, sadness and anger were due, in part, to our own slacking in the healthy balance of screen time department. We had to establish new rules that felt right for us, that worked for our family. We used to lean heavily on Netflix in the mornings and it became more of a hindrance than a help. So, we designed a three-week elimination diet, if you will, that started with us going cold-turkey, no screens and saying no A LOT. There were lots of tears and lots of discussion but no negotiating. We know there’s a fine line in parenting. So often, discussing rules with toddlers gets labeled as “negotiating” with one’s toddler — and I’m not a fan of it.  Yes, saying “No” was painful to our ears and our hearts when it would have been so much easier to say “Yes.” But I’m OK with explaining things to my kids when they are upset, especially since I was a part of the problem to begin with.

2. It’s a Process

When I say we went cold turkey, I mean it. No screen time of any form for a whole week. This may not sound long, but let me tell you, it was excruciating at times — for all involved. Week two involved no screen time during the week at all and one hour (or the equivalent to one movie) on Saturdays and Sundays. Week two went way better than week one and we were starting to see the light. It was during this time that Trev and I discussed what our long-term ideals were when it came to screen time, whether it was something we felt we needed to be consistent with, or if we could go back to being laid-back about it. We (eventually) came to a compromise that we both feel good about. No screen time in the mornings before school, three days a week of screen time after school or in the evenings for 45 to 90 minutes, and 45 to 90 minutes on Saturdays or Sundays. Are we going to stick to this? As closely as we can. It may not be for everyone, but for now, these rules are necessary for our family.

3. Distraction Is Key

Mornings were the hardest, and it was totally our fault. The kids were so used to watching their shows that it was hard to create a new routine without the screen. So often, when it comes to disciplining our kids or changing the rules (or even trying to establish some), I’ve found that distracting them is a big help. Whether it be with an arts and craft activity, stories or dress-up, just something, anything to steer the attention away from what they can’t have or do in that moment. It usually works. For us, in the mornings, music and books have been our saviors. We go from cuddling in bed with books instead of screens to stumbling out into the living room for music and breakfast. Wyndham is a HUGE music lover and quite enjoys playing DJ (meaning he’s picking music to play from the iPad). Two of their favorites right now are Lorde and the Frozen soundtrack. Music has replaced TV in the mornings, and now the fight is over what we listen to. Joy.

4. Be the Example

It would be more than a tad bit hypocritical if I were nose in my phone over coffee, yet not allowing my kids to have a screen in the morning. What’s good for them is good for me. (Confession: I peek at my email or FB in the bathroom.) It has always been a goal of ours to keep our faces away from a screen when we’re around our kids, so this hasn’t been too hard.

The Bottom Line

We don’t want to be whipping out a smartphone or a tablet in a restaurant to gain some peace anymore. We don’t want a screen to hold that much power, to be a defining tool in how we parent in any scenario, in or out of the home. We want our kids to learn to be a part of what’s going, to engage with us, even if it means things are a little gong-show now and then. This is the stage we’re in, isn’t it? The gong-show (toddler) years. I also want the flexibility to be able to hand my kid a screen when I’m overwhelmed, tired and in need of some quiet or adult conversation — without feeling guilty. We’re constantly walking these fine lines, and ultimately, I think we give ourselves boundaries and rules just as often as we are give them to our kids! In essence, we’re parenting ourselves a little bit, too.

Click here to learn more about what the Mayo Clinic has to say about children and TV.


More Babbles From Selena…

Selena is a crafty, culinary mom. Regular writer here and on Disney Baby. Part-time mischief maker, all-time geek.  Elsewhere on the Internets… via her humble beginnings, mastering in general mayhem: le petit rêve

Article Posted 3 years Ago

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