My 4-year-old daughter loves watching TV, especially those fucking YouTube channels where adults with creepy hands and voices unbox and play with toys. To me, these are just like watching one long commercial for overpriced plastic crap.
However, there is evidently some science behind her addiction. She would beg me every day to turn on these shows, along with an endless list of Netflix kids’ fare. And while I certainly didn’t let her veg out all day, my screen time limits were fairly relaxed. And yes, I regularly used the television as my babysitter to get shit done without her and her 2-year-old brother underfoot.
Then a month ago, I made a rookie parenting mistake — in anger, I doled out an unrealistic, extreme punishment: I took away TV forever.
It was early evening, and I was throwing dinner together. My daughter was glued to her favorite YouTube channel, mesmerized by plastic Elsa and Anna lounging poolside with their Play-Doh accessories. I told her, “Five more minutes, and TV goes off.” She agreed — until that five minutes was up. Then, when I dared to push the Off button on the remote, she completely lost her shit. And when my 4-year-old loses her shit at dinnertime, the chances are good that I’m going to lose mine as well.
“That’s it. You’re done. No more TV. Ever.”
Wide-eyed, she started to cry.
“When can I earn it back? Tomorrow?”
“Nope. You can’t. TV is gone. Forever.”
And the worst part? I was so convincing in my delivery, she actually believed me. For a few days, she asked half-heartedly to watch something on Netflix, but soon realized I wasn’t giving in (look, I’m stubborn and somehow convinced myself that this was a battle I was going to win).
That was a month ago. For 30 days, my kids haven’t watched a single kids’ show or YouTube video at home. And no one is more surprised than me that I have no plans to shorten “forever” anytime soon.
Now, lest anyone thinks that going screen-free has transformed my home into some sort of blissful, ideal childhood utopia, I’ll shut that delusion down right now. The last four weeks have been long. And loud. Oh, so loud. Some hours I’ve survived without screens by pure grit (and maybe a glass of wine or two). The television comes with a volume control and a pause button. My children do not.
The kids’ fighting has reached an (honestly impressive if it wasn’t so annoying) extreme level. With no TV to keep them occupied, they have endless hours to bicker over who gets to close the front door, who gets the first frozen waffle in the morning, and who gets to play with the discarded infant toy in the bottom of the toy box that no one has laid eyes on for a year and a half. The hair pulling, shoving, screaming, biting, and crying is about to send me over the edge. Dealing with a 2- and 4-year-old’s constant battles should really be classified as some sort of psychological torture.
And the mess. Everyone knows that kids’ crap breeds in the night and multiplies exponentially, but with no TV to break up the mess-making? The state of my house is out of control. Everywhere, there are scraps of discarded craft projects, dress-up clothes, and cardboard boxes that were once turned into castles, but now just litter the living room. Also, with the loss of my digital babysitter, I have more hours in the day I have to be “on.” It’s exhausting.
So why in the hell am I not backing down, even with stricter screen-time limits? Why is forever going to at least mean a few more weeks or months with no television in my home? Because despite the noise, the fighting, and the mess, I’m seeing the benefits of my children living screen-free, and I like them.
First, we are reading more. A ton more. Whereas before, we’d read two to three books at bedtime, we are now reading throughout the day. My 2-year old, who never showed much interest in books, is now constantly begging my husband and me to read to him. We have made a trip to the library part of our weekly routine, and we are easily plowing through 20 books a week, and many of those books we are reading multiple times.
Also, the creativity and imaginative play has ramped up in our home. Yes, it’s loud. Yes, it’s messy. But it’s also incredibly cute, and I love witnessing their little brains at work. The kids are playing outside, building pirate ships and princess castles on the swing set, and coming in dirty and sweaty. Extra-long bubble baths have become routine, and they are going to sleep more easily and staying asleep longer at night.
Selfishly, even though I’m wiped out at the end of the day, I am also feeling relieved of the mom guilt I had on days when I let the kids veg just a little too long in front of the TV. Logically, I know there’s nothing inherently wrong with screen time, and I shouldn’t feel guilty about it, but I often do. Completely cutting out a source of my guilt, however temporary it may be, has truly been freeing.
“Forever” certainly won’t mean forever, and I know kids’ TV will be a part of our lives again someday. But for now, the screen-free life is working for all of us. And the silver lining is perhaps my daughter will completely forget about those creepy YouTube toy videos. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.