In this world of Baby Einsteins and Netflix for Kids, Philomena and Zelie have never watched a t.v. show or movie before. They’ve never played with an interactive book or game on a tablet. They don’t know children’s digital entertainment exists, and while screens could definitely occupy them during the day, not letting the girls have screentime has made our lives much easier in the long run.
Now I know television and tablet usage is a hot-button parenting topic that tends to put people on edge. Please know from that start that I’m not criticizing those who have made screens work for their family. Every family and child is different and has different needs. (I also know screens can be a really amazing tool for children with disabilities to learn and communicate).
Please know that today I’m simply sharing our family’s reasons for not giving little kids access to t.v., tablets, or cell phones, and not seeking to detract from those who have made other choices.
Ethan and I decided from the start to go the “screen-free” route just based on our own personal experiences with electronic devices, as well as seeing numerous people we know, both young and old, who have had really obsessive relationships with screens. Deep down I figured by the time baby number two came around we’d give up and use the t.v. out of desperation, but it’s turned out that no screens actually works so well for us. Here’s why.
Firstly, screens are addicting. I know I struggle as a fully grown woman with a completely developed brain to not constantly look at a phone. Ahhhhh, the sweet swipe while scrolling through a feed – it’s so satisfying and distracting…. and it can also be a real problem to manage. Sometimes Ethan will ask I take the day off from the internet and it’s always eye opening how often I reach for electronics without thinking, and how much more I tend to get done when I don’t have access to them.
If I can’t hardly control myself, then I certainly can’t expect Philomena or Zelie to say, “Well mom, I’ve had 30 minutes of Netflix. I think I’ll go find some shaker eggs and a stuffed animal now.”
We all know it’s much more likely for a child to be upset at the end of screen time, nagging for more time to watch or play, if not fully melting down. I know this is often the case because I constantly experienced it myself as a kid, and saw it all the time when needing to enforce parent’s t.v. limits as a babysitter. Because of the way screens hyper stimulate the brain, it is hard for kids to stop watching/playing on them.
Knowing Philomena’s personality in particular, I am positive that if she had access to t.v. shows at this age, it would be a 24/7 “Mommy, lets watch a show” circus. Seriously, it’s just easier at this young age where she has little self-control to not have this super stimulating, addicting activity in our midst.
I never have to deal with kids whining for me to turn on the t.v., begging for my phone to play games the second they have a moment of downtime, or melting down because screen time is up.
Even scarier than just being addicted to screens, the Society for Neuroscience has found evidence that heavy use of screens literally rewires children’s brains, making them more prone to ADHD, as well as requiring more and more stimulation to get the brain’s attention. This latter find is very interesting to me because I do see a trend in children I interact with who get lots of screen time… they want to be entertained and don’t seem as capable of busying themselves independently.
I am not a circus master. Before I really considered what Janet Lansbury had to say on entertaining your toddler, I felt like if I wasn’t constantly coming up with stuff for Philomena that I was failing her. Now that I’ve learned to trust the girls to be able to handle being “bored” sometimes, and to creatively fill those gaps with free play, I do not consider it to be my responsibility to constantly entertain them. Because they’re not getting consistent stimulation from screens, they don’t need to seek it out from me every moment when the screens are turned off.
A phrase I read and loved while sifting through parenting materials when I was first pregnant with Philomena was, “Active toys make passive children and passive toys make active children.”
A child will likely never find passive toys nearly as satisfying or exciting if they always have lots of light up gadget toys that do all of the fun stuff and they get to just sit back and be entertained. The more stimulation a kid gets from screens, often the more dependent upon others for stimulation they become, and I know I don’t have the time or patience to constantly be my kids’ ringmaster when the television is turned off.
I think most parents consider using screens as the obvious solution to their need for a well-deserved break, but that often they’re making it harder in the long run to get to a moment of peace, especially with little kids. As time goes on many children are more dependent upon either the screen or the parent for stimulation once they are used to this gloriously mind-numbing entertainment. Soon what made it possible to have a freeing break can easily create a cycle of dependence upon screens for the parent to ever get anything done, and that doesn’t sound freeing to me.
Now of course my girls are not these completely creative, independent, well-behaved little beings that I just check in with rarely because we don’t use screens… definitely not. Philomena and Zelie are high energy, and definitely can get into trouble. There are times I’d love to throw on a show and just walk away, but I know, especially with Philomena, that would start a cycle that will be more pain in the long run.
However, because they don’t know the alternative of just staring at a screen exists, my girls do come up with stuff to do on their own a lot of the time. They love to look at books, run around inside or out, and play with our awesome open-ended toy setup that I talked about here.
Like I talked about in my post about the gift of a slow childhood, they come up with all kinds of games and activities around the house like “washing” dishes, rigging up pretend cars, play cooking with my pots and pans, and endlessly “shopping” in my pantry. They don’t suffer a bit from not getting to watch anything, and I think their imaginations only benefit.
I believe not using screens lets the girls be more present and soak up experiences more. When we go to a restaurant (like I talked about here) they enjoy a walk around when they’re getting antsy, or coloring with the crayons and sheets our hostess leaves, but otherwise they just love the experience of being there – talking, eating our food, and pointing out what interesting things we see around the restaurant. We aren’t frantically whipping out a game on a tablet or phone at the table because that’s what they’re used to.
It’s the same in the car – lately neither girl even wants a book when we’re driving around. They just like looking out the window, talking about what things we see, playing silly games where they mimic sounds the other one makes, and singing along to our favorite kid’s cd.
I feel like they’re able to just be a little more, and we need more of that in this world.
Mommy, I Want That!
Ahhhh, consumerism. Seriously, kids love the stuff they see on commercials and walking into the store to find their favorite t.v. show characters on every trinket, household good, toy, or article of clothing imaginable.
But even though Philomena recognizes Thomas the Train Engine from her books when we’re out shopping, she doesn’t seem to have this captivating urge to have all the things that I felt as a little kid with branded stuff. While I realize this could just be her personality, as well as her age, I suspect part of this is because she isn’t so fully immersed in these characters’ worlds via screens like I was.
Stop! What About All The Educational Shows And Games Out There?! Your Kids Aren’t Learning All They Could Be!
You’re right, there are a TON of awesome educational shows, documentaries, and games out there. And one day, when my kids are of school age, I’ll gladly let them watch and play with those things. I am sure we’ll really enjoy shows about animals and cultures and how the world works and letting Math Blasters help with fractions one day. (Is Math Blasters even a thing anymore?)
But you know what else? Mozart didn’t have Little Einsteins teaching him to recognize a cello from a violin when he was two and he was still Mozart. Learning and sometimes even brilliance will come, and we don’t need three year olds doing rote memorization from these shows to become smarter…
Little kids’ brains need free play and open-ended activity to grow, learn to problem solve, and be creative without adult’s agendas now. This will help them tackle actual bookwork of their school years later.
There are some fascinating studies examined in the book Einstein Didn’t Use Flashcards which argue that all of this baby-genius busy work doesn’t have a lasting impact on children. By the fourth grade, any boost in intelligence in children who memorized so much from these educational shows and games has leveled out with their peers. Studies show the children whose early years were formed by free play actually tend to score higher and enjoy learning and reading more than their baby-genius-show–watching counterparts.
So while I know my girls are missing out on memorizing stuff from educational shows and tablet games now… the science shows this really has little to no impact on their later intelligence, plus we get all of the aforementioned benefits of keeping the screens off.
One Day They’ll Watch
Like I said at the beginning of this post… one day my girls will get screen time. Whether we homeschool or send them to private school, computers are a big part of education now. I know they’ll do research, take typing classes, write papers, and do all kinds of homework on screens.
Outside of their education, I also really look forward to sharing certain screentime activities with my girls. I dream of occasional Friday night movies with my big kids once the little ones are tucked in to bed. I know we will all enjoy so many movies and shows I’ve loved based on great literary works, our Faith, and examining this fascinating world around us.
But at this moment with just little kids, no screens is working out so well for our family, and now you know why.
Disclosure: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites