Can we talk about television for a minute?

I kind of avoid the topic of television and screen time when I can because, whoa, do people have OPINIONS. And it’s hard not to feel attacked or judged for your choices of how you use screens or television in your home and with your children.

And I promise, I don’t care a bit if your children watch 23.5 hours of television a day or if you don’t even own a television or anything with a screen and your children roam free on your 75 acres of organic grass. Or, where you likely fall, somewhere between those two extremes.

Every family gets to choose what’s a good fit for them. If that’s a show during breakfast or two episodes of something while you make dinner or an hour of computer time each afternoon or cartoons on the weekend, I love seeing how other families make it work.

But I get SO many questions about how much screen time or television we do in our home, that I wanted to share a little bit about what it looks like for our family.

Screen time in our house is pretty low. But not for the reasons you might think

You know I can’t say anything briefly, but here’s the very brief version and then I’ll tell you ten thousand times more than you actually cared about.

The short answer is that aside from traveling and a weekend family movie, our children have almost no regular screen time.

And it’s not because I think screen-time and tv for kids is evil.

It’s because I am too. darn. lazy. to deal with my children watching screens.

Sure, they’ll be really quiet and absorbed for 30 minutes, but then when the show is over, all they want to do is watch another show and if I don’t let them, it’s like they’ve forgotten everything fun they ever did in their entire life.

Books aren’t fun. Playing in the backyard isn’t fun. Going over to see if a friend can play is too much work.

I feel like, when they watch a show or play on one of the screens, I pay for that 30-60 minutes of peace for the rest of the day, if not for a couple of days, and the only cure is either more television or suffering through crabby children who only want screens for a day or two.

It’s 100x easier for me to just not have television as part of the equation to begin with.

As it is, they basically never ask to watch a show or play on the tablets (maybe once a month or less). I don’t think it even really occurs to them.

They make elaborate craft projects, they jump on the trampoline, they play mommy tigers in the basement (I have no idea what this even means, but it happens all the time), we go to the park, they read together on the couch or play games.

(Does this mean they never bicker or roll around on the carpet whining about how they can’t think of anything to do? Also 100x no).

It DOES means that when I occasionally desperately need no interruptions (say, if I have a business phone call), an episode of Sophia the First is so novel that I am basically guaranteed they will be happy campers until I can hang up.

When we travel, we bring along our three tablets and they all are DELIGHTED to watch episodes of Doc McStuffins or play Toca Boca games on a long road-trip, although even then after an hour or two, they ask if we can listen to an audiobooks or play some game together.

Part of this, I’m sure, is because I personally don’t care that much about television, movies or shows.

Going to see a movie is never one of my go-to outings (which is why we are the only people on the planet who still haven’t seen The Greatest Showman), and even if I really like a show, like This Is Us, I never actually end up choosing it when I have free time so I get many episodes behind very quickly.

Bart LOVES movies and shows, so we often do watch an episode of something together before bed. He also is the ringleader of Friday movie nights, picking children’s movies for us to watch as a family after pizza (and if I’m gone, I know they’ll for sure watch a good amount of television or movies).

And I certainly LOVE some shows, like White Collar (do not even get me started on how much I love this show) or our current fave, Hawaii Five-O, but television and movies aren’t my entertainment of choice usually, so it’s not top of mind for me when my children need entertaining.

Not to mention that I personally find turning on the TV, navigating Netflix or Hulu or Amazon video just. . . .kind of a lot. This makes me sound very tech-unsavvy and maybe that’s true. I just find the whole thing very annoying and tedious and usually not worth the effort.

I also do not like the television as background noise at all. Too much noise makes me feel antsy and since I grew up in a pretty non-television watching house (we owned one tiny little 16-inch television with an attached VCR and no channels at all), that background noise feels intrusive and annoying to me. I know some people have a hard time with the silence of a house if they grew up with a television going all the time, so I think it’s just what you are used to.

We have three tablets that the girls use constantly to listen to audiobooks, but unless we are traveling, they rarely use them for anything else (Ella used Duolingo for about 4 straight months before bed learning Spanish, but then got out of the habit). They know that if they do play games on them during quiet time, they’ll lose them for a week, so they are very good about only using them for audiobooks.

Theoretically, I’d like to have them have some educational apps to play with from time to time, but I haven’t spent the time to research those yet (if you have suggestions, I’d love to hear!).

And Ella has school access to computer programs for practicing academic skills, but usually in the afternoons, they just want to play together after being at school all day and I’m not about to stop them.

Of course, my biggest issue is controlling my OWN screen time use.

I’m lucky to have a job I love love love and could happily work on around the clock, but it means my phone or laptop are always calling to me, and it’s a constant battle to resist the siren song of those screens.

I want to be a good example to my children of using technology wisely and as a tool, rather than an addiction or a crutch. Somedays I’m awesome. More days, I constantly have to remind myself to put down the phone or close my laptop and be present and focused.

As they get older, I know they’ll need more practice balancing screens and non-screen life, but right now, I’m happy with them building a foundation of habits and interests that don’t involve those. I hope it will be easier for them to be wise with phones or computers or televisions of their own when they’re already used to a life that is full without those.

I’m always interested in how other families handle technology with their children, from the very youngest babies to tweens and teens. I’d love to hear what works for your family!

Screen time is always a hot button among parents, but we have found what screen time method works for our family.

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  1. Our TV is only connected to the DVD player, so there are no channels. I have 8, 5, and 3 year old boys (and a 4-month baby girl, who is not relevant to this discussion 🙂 and the only regular show they watch is an episode of some old TV show at night after they pick up, put on jammies, and brush their teeth. It’s my bribe to get them to do these things. They watched all of the original Transformers, then Rescue Rangers, and are currently working through Duck Tales. So basically, they’re watching the things I watched in the 80s and 90s (on Netflix DVDs). And then occasionally they’ll watch a full length movie (also from my childhood–the original Disney Jungle Book, Robin Hood, etc.) so my husband and I can hide in the bedroom with the baby and a cocktail. That’s our “date.”

    I limit it this way both for the reason you mentioned–watching stuff makes them want to watch more stuff and I don’t feel the whining is worth it–but also my three boys are so highly energetic that letting them sit to watch something for longer than half an hour means they will EXPLODE when it’s over. So if I want that hour of quiet, I have to be prepared for an hour of hysteria. I am usually not willing to make that trade-off .:-)

  2. Your way is a bit similar to how we do it too , except that our children know for a fact that they (usually) get one show right when we get home while I’m making supper on weekdays – and one show ONLY, and on weekends they get two or three (at most – no more) in one sitting during the afternoon. They don’t ask for more, and they know they only get them at those very specific times so it really cuts down on the whining when it’s over and also stimulates their creativity to find other things to do. Like you, I can’t stand having the TV on as background noise and we don’t have cable (only Netflix) so I think that makes us a lot more intentional about having it on too.
    OH, and also, I LOVED White Collar thanks to you and haven’t found a show to replace it yet!! I spend 95% of my leisure time reading and TV just doesn’t cut it for me anymore but I’d love to have something to enjoy with my husband more frequently. I think we’re going to start the newest season of Suits this week.

  3. My kids are older, so grain of salt, but we have pretty strict time limits because otherwise they’d do it all day, but they are rule followers and for the most part they don’t complain as long as they know their time ahead of time. So “play on the computer for 1 hour” is all they get and that’s fine. We also let them play video games together whenever because they are pretty active gamers (they jump all over the place, etc) so I’m less worried about sedentary play and if they are together, they are doing all the important stuff to me – cooperative play, activity, etc.

  4. I love hearing how other people manage screen time. I grew up in a house without cable. We were only allowed to watch tv on the weekends. Without cable we were pretty limited. We also had a certain amount of time for the entire weekend that we had to budget. We usually watched a family movie on Sunday evening, so you wanted to make sure you had enough “tv time” left to participate. My kids have a similar tv watching schedule. My kids are 6,3, and 1. The one year old doesn’t watch any tv. I am very strict about no tv/screen time before 2 years old. With my oldest it was easier to go beyond 2 because there wasn’t anyone else watching tv.
    I would love to get to a place where we only do a family movie on Friday night. I agree that screen time makes them so grumpy after they have to turn it off. I just like that on Saturday morning they know that all of their chores have to be done and then they can turn on the tv and watch something on Netflix. It gives me a little extra time to sleep in.

  5. The bit I struggle with is wanting them to have some academic screen time. I’d love for them to know some coding basics, how to type, some fun math practice, etc. So, in theory, they get 30 minutes of “smart” screen time on school nights and 60 minutes of “fun” screen time on non-school nights. In practice they get a lot more because they game the system by doing their screen time separately and then watching their brother’s screen time. Also, if I need to put on a show for Emmy while I make dinner they’ll plunk down and watch Princess Sofia. Which boggles my mind because they have ZERO interest in Sofia but it’s like they literally don’t know how to NOT watch a screen that’s on.

  6. I also have young children, and oh man, the WHINING when it comes to turning off the screen is the most active deterrent to frequent screentime, 110% agreement. Although with my oldest, we’re working on the whining via saying things like ‘that tone of voice was absolutely unacceptable, and is the REASON you cannot do X thing you were whining for. In 20 minutes, see if you can ask again, and we can consider the request.’ And then sometimes the answer is yes and sometimes no, but whining is the guarantee that I will not even consider the request for 20 minutes, PERIOD. So far, there’s been some improvement, but whining is the bane of my life.

    In practical terms: I’m not a TV person. Given the choice between a mediocre book or an excellent TV show, I’ll pretty much always pick the book. It’s how I work. So my husband and I each have tablets, and usually, evenings, we can be found in front of the fireplace while I read and he watches a show at the other end of the couch (and gives me a foot rub, because I married well) . Occasionally (… maybe once or twice a week) my oldest gets 1-2 episodes of a TV show, either when I desperately need to get something done (dinner, and the baby is one a hip, and the 4-year-old is desperate for attention, and I can’t wrangle… 1 episode is a band-aid) or because she’s exhausted and can’t slow down enough to rest a bit and a half-hour on the couch gives her the energy to deal with the day.

    That said, I focus more on the quality of the TV watched. For my 4-year-old, I recommend SuperWhy, Netflix’s Llama Llama, and the occasional Dora and *cringe* Paw Patrol, which, while ridiculous, is not actively objectionable. I have a short fuse for gendered nonsense, violence, and passive-aggressive social nonsense I don’t want modeled in my house (don’t get me started on Arthur and Franklin… lord, the nonsense whining and social aggression is not something I want repeated!) so we tend to aim the kids at shows we don’t object to and then control quantity.

  7. Oh, this is perfect timing. Yesterday I declared that we’re going to take a week off of screen time entirely for just the reasons you said. I’m tired of the whining when it’s time to turn it off and I hate how much I let them just keep watching because I enjoy the quiet/don’t want to have the fight. So, we’ve got some activities lined up; I’m going to try to have paper and markers out on the table when my oldest gets home from school so she can chill out with that instead of a show… I hope it goes well. I haven’t told anyone else this, but I would really love to finish the week and say “you all were so much nicer to each other this week! Let’s keep it turned off!”

  8. I’ve got older kids so it’s a bit different. My kids get 20 minutes of fun time on the iPad every day, after they get chores and homework done. If they don’t get them done before dinner or bed they lose that time. My 3 younger kids get almost no tv during the week. We’re too busy after school with homework, chores and after school programs. My older 2 usually have 30 or 40 minutes to watch something after the little kids go to bed. They all get to watch a movie on Friday nights when we go out for date night and we usually have a movie night with the cousins after Sunday dinner.

  9. We give our kids 2 guaranteed screen time evenings per week. It used to be a midweek night and a weekend night. But then I got called to YW, kids started having activity days, cub scouts, and sports so we switched it to 2 weekend nights. Technically it’s Fri and Sun, but we sometimes watch a family movie on Sat nights and frequently have friends over for games on Sundays instead of movies. We actually do the same things for desserts. We don’t typically do desserts outside if Fri and Sun. It just cuts down on the asking because I just respond with “is it movie/dessert night? Then you already know the answer.” My youngest does get 1 show in the afternoons but it’s less a request and more a necessity as she is giving up naps…but still needs a short one almost daily. So I have to wake her up and letting her relax on the couch to an episode of something helps make that wake up transition easier. Then we go pick up big kids from school and screens are forgotten. Also, they only get screen time on the allotted days IF all their chores are done first, including the weekly big cleanup of the disastrous toy room. But it makes them super motivated to clean and finish their chores so that when 6:30 rolls around…they are able to start instantly.

  10. We’re similar, my 2 and 6 year old almost no screen time. When we travel we bring two old iPhones with some games/audiobooks/music. But other than that they occasionally do cosmic kids yoga on YouTube (they only have the attention span for the 20 minute ones)….or 1-2 times per month when I’m desperate they get an episode of Daniel tiger or Sesame Street.

  11. Our kids watch an episode of something at breakfast, and at lunch after school. This is only because Em gets so stressed out eating at the table (something about choking 1,000 times and needing the heimlich daily for about 10 months), so when Derek isn’t at home to help me through mealtime, I let the kids eat in front of the TV so that she’s more relaxed and it makes her eat better, and less screaming and throwing. Obviously it’s a habit we hope to break in the next year or so, but it’s what works well for us right now. Also, I think that our kids are really good about the transition from screens to no screens, which is really helpful. They’re good to play with toys all afternoon once they get home from school and eat lunch, so I very rarely go through phases where I want to burn all the electronics (although those moments do happen sometimes!)

  12. Well, I can’t say it works exactly, because I’m not super thrilled with the routine we are currently in, but for the winter when it’s been too cold to go outside a lot of days (and we go out in the cold a lot, but it’s been too cold/windy even for us in our northern-ish home!) and with a toddler whose sleep is erratic (last night was even worse than usual, waking up 3 — or was it 4 times? ::YAWN::) we are in the habit of morning cartoons. I am like a zombie most mornings and it’s probably become an average of about an hour and a half. I want to reduce that to just one episode of something (at most) as the weather here warms up. The past two summers, we had the habit of getting ready and getting out first thing before the day got too hot, so it was easy to just not have TV be a part of the day at all — and then when the weather turned frigid that time window was what got filled in with TV. The one thing that does work with this routine is having a set time of day rather than a number of minutes, episodes, etc. — so if its not that window in the morning, the answer is just simply no for the rest of the day, so no negotiating and he usually doesn’t even ask.

    I know daily life with kids is never as idyllic as it sounds in a blog post, but I do just love the idea of your girls playing together! With only one child right now, I struggle with me being the desired playmate all the time — which of course, I can’t be. So TV is a little bit of a break for me and we are also working on encouraging independent play and getting him involved with helping around the house — it’s amazing how exciting he thinks helping with laundry is at the moment — I KNOW that won’t last though LOL

  13. This is why we are soul sisters. I could’ve written this word for word. It is SO much easier for me to just not turn anything on at all than to deal with turning it off (and also, why is it so annoying to turn everything on? It takes about 20 seconds but for some reason, the physical act of turning everything on is an active deterrent for me). And we just saw The Greatest Showman 3 days ago. ?

  14. I LOVE hearing how other families deal with this! We just have one 4 year old. We do family movie night every (or most) Fridays. He sometimes gets a show or two or Saturday/Sunday morning (since we grew up watching Saturday morning cartoon and Sundays that’s a distraction when we want to sleep longer…). Then maybe one other 30 minute show during the week. Usually when I want to get something done or finish a book…hahahaha. He does get more screen time when we travel long distances.
    My husband is much more likely to watch something than me, I’d usually rather read. Or at least work on a puzzle while watching. Other than watching something with my husband, I can’t really just sit in front of the tv. He built a DVR computer for us which is WONDERFUL for time shifting things to when they work for us. So I can keep up on This is Us and Grey’s Anatomy (which is not great but I’ve been watching forever) but watch them when works for me, or have a few build up before I catch up. I probably wouldn’t watch much tv otherwise! And still don’t besides when we are watching something together!
    (And we rarely go to movies, the drive-in 4-5 times in the summer and we’ve been seeing the new Star Wars movies, but that’s basically it since we’ve been parents. And not much more before then.)

  15. Ours is pretty limited, too, for the same reasons you mentioned. We have no tablets, and neither Eric nor I have things on our phones (besides the camera) that our kids would want to play with. With that said, Ike (7) uses the laptop for PianoMarvel and a site called Lexia, which he has access to because of school. Felix (5) is enrolled in a program called UpStart, so he does 20 minutes five days a week. Sometimes more, if he feels like it, but he rarely does. I have just introduced Trixie (2.5) to some cartoons on YouTube that she can watch while I do her hair, and I kind of regret it. Now she begs to watch them all the time, and it’s so exhausting! I love that I can get her to just sit down and be still for doing hair, but I’m not sure if it’s worth it. Also, on my work-at-home days, when only Felix and the baby are home, I tend to let Felix watch whatever he wants all day. It’s not my favorite, but it’s easier than listening to him complain about being bored.

  16. It really is a pain. I know people who decided no shows on school days and I’ve toyed with the idea, for the reason you said it just turns into this hassle. But I’m just living the hassle still! My 2 oldest (especially my son) are BUSY and LOUD, high energy. And I’m totally opposite, so I get desperate for the house to be still at certain times. My fault is when one show rolls into another and another…so my goal is to at least figure something out so they have clear expectations of what and when and how long. I’m a movie/show junkie myself so…I guess that doesn’t help. Other than tv, we have no screen issues. They never use our phones and computer just for homework, and we own no tablets. Part of me would like a tablet to do audio books like you do, maybe one day I don’t know. But for now, like you, I have to moderate my own screen time!

  17. I wish we had less screen time. And we’re moving soon, so I’m hoping we can get into a better routine. We don’t have a TV, just watch things through the computer, and I got an program (FocusMe) that allows me to turn on limits and then the show automatically turns off when their time is up. And they almost never complain when the program shuts them off. When I try to limit them, they whine for one more. They know that the computer does not understand whining.

  18. So happy to read this! I thought I was so weird for having a negative opinion about tv time. Honestly, it causes my kids (4, 3, 1, although not as much with the youngest) to whine and theh forget how to play! It’s insane. I’m not saying screens are bad, and maybe it’s just my kids, but I have to monitor it in my house. My oldest (4) would park her booty and watch tv all day long if she had her choice, and I just don’t think that’s healthy! Or even appropriate for me to allow as a mom, because I’m here to teach boundaries and balance, right? Thanks for sharing!

  19. I’m so glad to find someone else that loves White Collar. It is my favorite show ever! Have you seen Chuck? It’s a very close second, maybe a tie actually.

  20. My mom showed me this Nature Valley ad a few weeks ago and it is SPOT ON as to why our kids get very little screen time. There’s just so much more to childhood, and it’s my job to make sure they love being outside, creative play, reading, etc.

    That being said, I see 1-2 movies in the theater/year and I am obsessed with the Greatest Showman! So you’re definitely missing out there.

  21. I have a 6 year old and 4 year old (and a baby). The 6 year old never once had a problem with me turning off the TV, or with handing my phone back if I let her play a game in a waiting room. But the 4 year old I have noticed has a tremendous problem with screens. If I let her play a game in a waiting room, she’ll cry for a week to play it again. When the TV is on she will scream when I turn it off (this morning she actually body blocked the remotes). Unfortunately, due to having a baby, she has gotten way too much TV time because I could keep her busy during a very rough pregnancy and early baby months (I’m talking like 1.5-2 hrs a day, which sounds awful to me but I realize is normal and fine for a lot of people). I did what I had to do, but I am paying for it now. Also, Netflix’s feature where they automatically play the next episode is both wonderful if I had to doze on the couch after being up all night, and horrible if I told her only one more episode. So right now, we are working with breaking the habit. The 6 year old gets almost no tv time because she’s in full day kindergarten and just wants to play when she gets home, but Miss Four Year Old has got a serious problem. I have been debating just telling her no TV for a whole week and seeing what happens. It’ll be hard for a few days for her but she’ll probably recover fine. My husband watches zero tv and I watch very very little when I’m not couch-bound from pregnancy or newborn nursing, so it does help that they see us busy or reading.

  22. ugh i can’t even tell you how much i love white collar. also how much i love sophia the first…. probably more than my 2.5-year-old. we let her watch movies when she is sick (which ends up being enough screen time to last years), and she gets to watch a show or two if i need her to stay in one spot and be safe, since i know there’ s no way she’ll get off the couch.

    and i totally second someone else’s comment: Chuck! such an awesome show!

  23. I am so with you. We so rarely watch tv because I haaaaate the drama of turning it off. My husband is working a more normal shift, so having a parent on play duty (4yrs and 10 mo) makes dinner possible with minimal noise. However, when he’s on shift work or deployed, my oldest would definitely get way more- usually in the form of a show (Magic School Bus, Sesame Street, half of a movie, or nature documentaries, lol) after quiet time and while I made dinner. I do love a good show myself, but I only watch tv after the kiddos go to bed, so no one is the wiser. 😉

  24. I love your non-judgemental approach. Its so refreshing.

    My kids are older 9 and 11. I find i need very strict rules (our household isnt like this usually), but if its flexible it turns into a daily battle. We have agreed on 15 mins each a day IF they walk home from school (1/2 hour exercise) watching tv or playing games on the tablet. Weekends they get 2 hrs to manage as they choose after they have tidied their rooms.

    We usually watch a family movie on the weekend as well.

    This works brilliantly for our family.

    We had no screen time until they were 6 and 8.

  25. LOVE this!! We have 4 daughters too….very similar in age to yours actually. And I feel very similarly…and we run things very much the same as you. I’m so thankful I don’t love tv that much…so it annoys me enough to never have it on much at all for them. And like you, my girls rarely ask at all.

  26. I’m wildly glad to see that im not the only one that’s noticed screen time can lead to grouchy kids. Knowing this has 100% changed how we use screen time and with a 3 year old and a 2 year old and a newborn and a large amount of shift parenting that means a lot of solo parenting, I definitely try and use screen time as a tool like when I need to make dinner or baby needs a lot of attention.

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