The last thing you’re going to catch me doing is provoking parental guilt. So, I’m going to assume you’ve heard all about the hazards of TV for infants and toddlers: potential language delays, obesity, ADHD, and aggression are all things we’d like to prevent in our children if we can. But it doesn’t surprise me that parents ignore the research (and the American Academy of Pediatrics advisory) and turn on the TV for children under 2 anyway. How can we blame a mom or dad for wanting to read a whole sentence in the newspaper, cook dinner, talk on the phone uninterrupted, have a few minutes of privacy in the bathroom, or just get a few well-deserved moments of peace?
It baffles me that the experts give warnings and criticisms, but nobody offers parents viable alternatives to using TV as a babysitter. Thank you very much American Academy of Pediatrics, ASHA (American Speech-Language-Hearing-Association) and many others, but telling us it’s wiser to spend time talking to our babies, reading, singing and playing peek-a-boo isn’t addressing our issue. Most of us are well aware that we need to spend lots of time and energy interacting with our babies physically and socially. We also need a BREAK once in awhile. It’s a little insulting to me when experts say, “no, no, NO!” and then give advice that ignores the reason most parents use TV in the first place.
The good news is that there is another option, and it addresses the needs of both parent and child. Babies thrive, parents can take breaks, and when we are with our child we get to “do less and enjoy more.” It is simple enough that I was able to do it with three children (and I’m no martyr or genius), and I will never understand (apart from the fact there’s no money to be made) why it is such a well guarded secret.
The trap parents fall into is the vicious cycle of using screen time to occupy a baby. That creates the very same problem we are using TV to solve — a child who does not entertain himself. Babies who spend time ‘watching’ unlearn what they are born ready and eager to do — what parents need them to do — daydream, explore, experiment, create play independently.
Although initiating thoughts and activities comes naturally to infants, extended periods of independent playtime don’t happen unless we cultivate them. This means establishing one or two safe, enclosed play areas for a baby (outdoors is wonderful if possible), and then encouraging him to routinely spend his “alert time” (between sleep, feedings and diaper changes) in these soon familiar environments. We can watch and enjoy our baby, “floor sit” and eventually leave him to work or relax nearby, while he spends time learning from the safe objects and toys he chooses. In my experience, these rooms (or sections of rooms) are treasured by children way beyond the age they need them for safety. A child’s play space becomes the comfortable, therapeutic, and imaginative place where dreams are born.
Eventually, most of us will introduce our children to movies and TV. My advice: wait as long as you can, and then use it sparingly. Personally, I couldn’t bear the option of TV time because of the added pressure of trying to control it (to the already long list of toddler power struggles). It worked better for me to avoid it entirely until after the age of 3.
Exhaust the use of crayons, blocks, dolls and dollhouses, puzzles, shape sorters, play-doh, balls, books, wheel toys, sidewalk chalk (one of the best inventions ever), Legos, etc., before resorting to movies and TV. When children who are adept at occupying themselves seem bored, they are often on the verge of an idea for a new activity. Sometimes they need more of our attention, or a nap.
If you need entertainment for an afternoon lull and music isn’t engaging enough, try books on tape (or CD) before considering TV or videos. There is usually a good selection at the library. They don’t interfere with a child’s listening and learning skills the way TV does. They stimulate imagination rather than zoning a child out, and they aren’t as disturbing or scary as movies. The ones that come with books are great, too, and you can show your child how to turn the page when they hear the “ding”.
If we can postpone the use of TV (or break the habit in the early years), our child has opportunities to develop the neural pathways needed to be a good listener and learner, gross and fine motor skills, problem solving abilities, creativity and a strong sense of self.
We are all bound to make many parenting mistakes, but the love of inner-directed play, creative thought and solitude will be lifelong gifts that neither you nor your child will ever regret.
Please enjoy this inspirational video of 15 month old Joey demonstrating self-reliance, persistance, focus, ingenuity, inner-directedness and much more — SELF-DIRECTED, INDEPENDENT PLAY AT ITS BEST.
I share much more about fostering creative, independent play in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting and I share my gift ideas for encouraging self-directed play HERE.
Dr. Jane Healy’s books Endangered Minds and Your Child’s Growing Mind: Brain Development and Learning From Birth to Adolescence examine in detail the effects of TV and video use on brain development.
Please feel free to share your frustrations and successes with the TV issue!
(Photo by texasgurl.)