My colleagues here at Common Sense Media decided it would be hilarious if they tortured me with a week without television. I'm the TV editor, so I watch a lot, and while I'm judicious in my selections for my kids, I admit that they watch a lot, too. But I'm always up for a challenge, so with the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood's annual Screen-Free Week coming up April 18-24, I've taken the bait. One week, no screens. For entertainment at least -- I'll still be online for work, checking weather, monitoring my bank balance -- but otherwise, nothing.
I'm a little freaked out.
It's not like I can't handle cutting back on my new obsession with The Killing. That's what the DVR is for. My main challenge will be figuring out how to amuse my kids when I have things that need to get done. Like taking a shower, paying bills, folding laundry, cooking dinner. Somehow, just knowing I have TV in my back pocket, even if I don't use it, makes those moments when my 4-year-old is cranky and hungry and dinner is still 20 minutes away much easier to bear. Without that escape hatch, will I survive without tearing my hair out? And maybe the bigger question: Will my kids survive?
Even though I've come to rely on television as a cheap babysitter, I also recognize that plenty of studies show that kids with less exposure to TV and other screens are healthier, more creative, and do better in school. So I'm willing to give this experiment a shot with hopes that it can shake our family out of a rut. Maybe it will inspire some more positive family time. Maybe we'll plant a garden, put on a play, get more exercise. Or maybe I'll collapse in exhaustion halfway through and give up.
Stay tuned as I post my progress throughout the week -- beginning Saturday, April 16, and culminating in my big "lessons learned" post on Thursday, April 21 -- to find out.
The first morning of our TV-free week didn't go exactly as planned. Despite extensive preparations -- including several new books from the library, audio books, kid-friendly podcasts, art projects, and bowls of cereal set out the night before -- my husband and I still didn't get the sleeping-in time that comes with Saturday morning cartoons.
While the kids' initial reaction to screen-free week had been filled with mournful sobs and emphatic declarations of "That's a bad plan!" -- they soon built up excitement around the idea. I think that might have had something to do with how early they woke up.
6:14 a.m. As I stumbled through the dining room to hook up the iPod for my son, my daughter was already engrossed in a book. "I love reading!" she said. If the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood had been there filming a reality show, this would have been their golden moment.
6:17 a.m. Back in bed, the covers pulled over my head, when my son -- who's 4 -- comes in to ask for help putting his headphones on. He puts the Pinky Dinky Doo podcast on and goes back to the living room, this time leaving the door open so my husband and I can hear everything the kids say to each other.
6:32 a.m. My daughter comes in for help with her finger-knitting project. She can't get the yarn tied around her finger. I help. She leaves.
6:33 a.m. She comes back in because she's forgotten how exactly to finger knit. I show her how to wrap the yarn around her finger and pull one loop over the other. She gets the hang of it but decides she wants to sit on top of me while she finishes her project. My husband and I urge her to go back to her room. She protests. We insist, etc.
6:40 a.m. My daughter finally leaves the room. I pull the covers back over my head. I drift off.
6:45 a.m. My son comes in to get help opening up the CD case for one of the audio books. He leaves.
6:46 a.m. He comes back in to ask which book goes with the CD. I tell him. He leaves. The morning continues like this, though we eventually get a blissful 20 minutes of peace when both kids are building a spider web of yarn in their bedroom. But since my son has left our bedroom door open, we can hear every word they say to each other, including arguments. Still, it's better than nothing.
7:11 a.m. I finally get up. There's only so much choppy sleep I can handle before it feels like absolute torture.
My husband and I definitely miss the more peaceful TV-filled Saturday morning. But seeing the kids so excited about books and creative projects is rewarding. Also, this experience may have inspired my son to quit a bad habit. He's been saying "weird" non-stop -- about everything from what we serve for breakfast to pretty much anything his sister says. But this morning he tells me this is also "weird-free week."
With the rest of the day filled with out-of-the-house plans, we don't miss the TV much. Our next challenge will be how we deal with the early evening, when my husband and I often use the TV to deflect any pre-dinner meltdowns.
Day Two -- High-Intensity Parenting
4:19 p.m. Sunday afternoon has been the toughest so far -- and it's only day two of our TV-free week. My husband awoke early with the kids to let me sleep in a bit, and by 4 o'clock, he's discovered that no TV means a lot more hands-on parenting. And he's been a busy man: drawing with one kid or another, digging in the garden with our daughter, wrestling laundry and dishes in between it all while I video chat with the grandparents and do the grocery shopping.
At this point in the weekend, we could all use some downtime. Yes, it would be nice if the kids could find things to occupy themselves quietly, but it's not a sure thing like TV is. When we turn on Word Girl or Sid the Science Kid on a normal Sunday afternoon, my husband and I both exhale a giant breath that we've been holding in for what feels like two days.
Here's the thing: My kids couldn't care less that it's screen-free week, it's us parents who are suffering. I'm sure if we threw the TV out the window, we'd eventually fall into a workable rhythm, but honestly, I'm not sure the sacrifice is worth it. What's 30 minutes of a vocabulary-building superhero going to do to our kids besides make their parents happier?
Out of desperation, I review the TV-alternatives offered by the supporters of Screen-Free Week. But alas, they're no help. Here are their suggestions, among others, for what to do instead of watching TV:
Walk the dog.
Put on a play.
Ride a bike.
Play a board game.
Visit a park.
Now, these are all great activities to do with kids, but we do these things already (well, except for the dog walking...). It's not like we're sitting home with the television on wondering, "What else could we be doing right now?" Actually, if the kids are watching TV, we're either:
Taking a shower.
Cleaning the kitchen.
Managing our finances.
For parents, a weekend with no TV is no less busy, just more stressful. On the positive side, I'm happy to have found some great podcasts (the audio version of Pinky Dinky Doo) and audio books for the kids that I'm sure we'll use even when our screen-free experiment is over.
In other news, my son's "weird-free week" is going surprisingly well. He's slipped a few times, but I think he feels bolstered by our family experiment to do his own self-improvement, and that - knowing how hard that can be - makes me proud.
Tomorrow we'll find out what it's like to get ready for work without the electronic babysitter.
Day Three -- Why Do We Watch TV?
Whew ! Now that the weekend's over, I predict smooth sailing for the rest of our Screen-Free Week. We don't watch that much TV on weekdays. Compared to the national average of 34 hours per week of TV viewing (for adults) and 7.5 hours of screen time per day for kids (over 8), we're on the very low end of the scale.
Today -- day 3 -- we were able to get ready for work and school with only minor adjustments to the morning routine. And my daughter has already adapted to TV-free mornings by tearing through her new library books (new favorite: Mouse and Mole). While we appreciate WordGirl for her dictionary-decoding efforts, consistent reading is by far a better vocab-builder.
This experiment has been an excellent excuse to really analyze how and why we use television in our family. With our kids at 4 and 6 years old, we acknowledge that TV watching is purely a parenting choice. The kids -- as much as they may adore H.R. Pufnstuf, Jake and the Never Land Pirates, and Kiki's Delivery Service -- would much rather be engaging directly with us, or with a book, or with a pile of clay. We let them watch TV because it makes life easier for us, plain and simple.
As the kids get older, I'm sure they'll ask to watch the shows their friends are watching. But part of the benefit of this experience is that they're learning how to occupy themselves without constant parent attention. I predict we will struggle with balance, but I'm confident that we'll find it.
After our grueling weekend, I'm more than ever a proponent of media in moderation. Teaching our kids -- and ourselves -- how to understand and regulate our engagement with TV (and Facebook, texting, and Angry Birds, for that matter) has been a valuable lesson.
Tomorrow I'll round up some of the great tips from readers on ways to limit TV, plus I'll update you on how many chapter books my daughter has read since this project began. (Three so far!)
Day Four -- Your Tips for Reducing TV Time
If there's one thing I've learned in my seven years of parenting, it's to plan ahead. Before our family embarked upon our screen-free week, I laid in supplies like we were time traveling to Little House on the Prairie land. There was a trip to the library to check out exciting new books. I bought a new puzzle, and we talked extensively about what else we would be doing instead of watching TV. While this kind of planning might seem like just another chore for the to-do list, I've learned that there's a big payoff -- not just to keep kids away from screens, but to spark new energy in the house.
One effective tool to keep the kids busy is a "nothing to do" list, which you can post right on the TV. When you hear "I'm bored," you don't have to scramble for ideas -- just point kids to the list.
Since my TV-Free Mom diary started, we've received tons of practical ideas that can help your family move away from the TV and toward active, engaging activities. And from the sound of your comments, a lot of you are raising kids who are more interested in reading, writing, acting, and the arts than becoming couch potatoes. With so much collective knowledge in the comments, I thought I'd summarize some of the great ideas everyone has offered.
Use the DVR
There are at least three key ways that using a digital video recorder helps limit TV: You can control commercials, you can be picky about what you watch, and you can manage your kids' time more efficiently.
Some of the main complaints we hear from parents about kids' media consumption is about managing ads and other messages of consumerism. With the DVR, parents and kids are in control of whether or not they watch commercials. Teach kids what commercials are and why we want to limit their influence in our lives. Then teach them how to fast forward.
By programming the DVR to record programs you approve for your kids, you're more in control of what kids watch. You may need some downtime and want to plunk the kids in front of the TV, but you don't want to be at the mercy of the programming schedule. And teach kids to be picky, too.
One of the greatest things about the DVR is that it makes watching a TV show a finite experience. As one parent contributor said, it's harder to pull kids away from a show once it's started. Recorded shows end when they're done. And if a show's not done and the TV needs to go off, say "record it," and watch kids' protests disappear.
Build your own TV lineup
A surprising number of you have given up TV altogether. But that doesn't mean that television and movies are necessarily out of your life. You use other methods to watch media and have more control over what you bring into your house. You use YouTube and Netflix, you rent videos, you buy shows or movies from iTunes and watch them on your computer. Good for you for taking an active role in choosing what you and your kids watch!
Configure your home to reflect your values
If you want TV to be in the background of your family's life, then put it in the background. Living rooms across the country (and, increasingly, the world) use the television as the focal point. One parent contributor keeps her family's TV in the basement, which means it's not on her family's daily radar. You can also keep it behind a media cabinet door or under a decorative cloth. And you can take the next step and put all media devices (cell phones, laptops, iPods) in an out-of-the-way location if they interfere with your family's interactions.
Thanks again for all your fabulous ideas and encouragement throughout this week. While I'm fairly certain we won't become a screen-free family, I've found this project super helpful to really see our family's patterns around screen use. And your comments and suggestions have been enormously helpful.
Tomorrow, the continuing adventures of "weird-free" week. (And my daughter's still working on her latest chapter book, but she read at least four "preschool" books last night -- including at the dinner table!)
Day Five -- The Role Model Is Me
It's the final days of our family's endeavor in TV-free living, and I've become a little philosophical. At every turn, when I've wanted to escape into TV land or even mindlessly check Facebook, I've had to examine my own screen-dependent habits and think about the effect that my behavior has on my kids.
Last night, I caved a little -- but then I recovered. I didn't have my book handy when I was waiting to pick up my kids from school, so I tapped the Facebook icon on my phone. Just two minutes of status updates relieved the boredom. Sure, I could have been pondering existence or marveling at the setting sun or meditating, but with just a few minutes to kill, it was easier to check up on my friends' latest adventures.
But later, as I was cleaning the kitchen and craving my usual dose of trashy TV, I thought better of it. I usually watch a show on my laptop as I load the dishwasher and pack the next day's lunches. It can make the drudgery fly by. But I knew the kids would be able to hear the video from their bedroom, and I didn't want them to know I'd slipped.
As difficult as these moments are, I know how important it is to be a good role model for my kids. If I ask them to not eat candy all the time, I need to purge the Starbursts from my purse. If I tell them to use the crosswalk, I need to stop jaywalking. These lessons have come gradually as my kids have grown and have sped up as they become more aware of the world. Lately, I've even started paying closer attention to the speed limit, since the kids finally understand what those highway signs mean.
The whole point of this experiment was to become more mindful of our TV habits. But along with that, I've learned just how much my example impacts my kids. I'm definitely going to continue my efforts to model the kind of behavior I want to see, whether that means banishing the cell phone when I'm in the driver's seat or keeping the TV off until the kids are solidly snoozing. Leading by example -- what a concept. And something to ponder the next time I'm caught waiting for school to let out.
The Last Day -- Lessons Learned
On this final day of my family's screen-free week, I'm looking back over the last six days with a mixture of pride, relief, and the kind of wisdom only achieved by doing something hard. If you're thinking about ways to take back control over your family's TV time, maybe some of the lessons I've learned can help. Here they are, in no particular order:
It's good to take a hard look at your family's media habits. Whatever your personal philosophy around TV use, it's always worthwhile to examine the why, when, how, where, and who. This practice can help you realign your habits with your values or even reconcile values with practicalities.
The way technology is used in the house is ultimately up to the parents. My kids are still young, so their habits are still moldable. They don't care whether the TV is off as long as something is engaging them -- whether it's a book, a parent, or a ball. (My daughter's assessment of screen-free week: "excellent!") When I turn the TV on for my kids, I'm making a choice about how they're spending their time.
My kids are watching -- and learning -- from my habits. If I constantly check my email on my phone, sit in front of my laptop all weekend, and turn on the TV the second the kids are in bed, that's what they'll learn to do, too. If I mix movies with museums, Angry Birds with novels, and email with face-to-face conversation, they'll follow my lead.
TV and other screens can be fun, educational, and enlightening-- in moderation. You probably saw this conclusion coming from a mile away: A balanced approach to media use is best for my family. Each of my family members has a favorite show, a favorite movie, a favorite app. We get a lot of pleasure out of watching and playing with technology. And as long as we mix and match our activities and interests, we'll be just fine.
Get rid of the guilt. When my kids were younger, I'd feel so guilty about plopping them in front of the TV when it was time to make dinner. I thought I should be involving them in the food prep, encouraging creative play, letting them run around outside. But after many attempts -- and many failures -- I realized what we all needed when we got home was some downtime. With the TV on, I was able to fix healthy food and keep my sanity. And then we were able to turn off the TV and eat together as a family. Now, I don't feel guilty for the Saturday morning cartoons that let my husband and me get a little extra rest on the weekends.
Phew! Don't tell anyone, but tomorrow I'm calling in sick to work and plan to spend the whole day catching up on my shows. OK, not really. But I am looking forward to putting a little more balance back into our lives. This has been fun, and hopefully it's inspired some of you to try out your own experiment. If you do, please tell us all about it.