Goodbye screen time, hello awesome kid

September 13 | Guest post by Elka Karl
Photos by Elka.
My husband and I freely cop to having used television as a coping method. As two working parents with up to three hours of commute time each per day, free time to clean the house, cook meals, or attempt a conversation is seriously lacking. So, for about a half hour on weekday mornings and around half hour to 45 minutes in the evening on those days, we'd turn on the Roku and let our three-year-old kiddo watch Wonder Pets, '60s-era Spider-Man, or any other variety of parental-approved idiot box entertainment while we powered through chores and tried to plot out each day.

We were miserable.

Not only that, but our genuinely nice kid was becoming something of a little monster. Every time we told him that it was time to shut off the TV, Uli would throw a mini tantrum, crying and collapsing on the sofa or the floor. In the mornings, he'd ask us to watch TV or the iPad as soon as he woke up. After preschool, the first words out of his mouth were "I want to watch Spider-Man."

Four months ago, I told my husband that we needed to cut out all screen time during the week. While he understood the merits of the proposal, he balked at the logistics, telling me that there was no way that he could handle morning routine alone without television (to accommodate preschool hours we stagger our work schedules, with one parent leaving an hour or two before the other). I disagreed, and, being the bull-headed lady that I am, waited him out until he agreed to a screen-free weekday existence on a trial basis.

To prepare for the transition, I devised a series of "Mystery Boxes" for each day of the week. These boxes were stacked on the table each morning, and Uli got to choose one for each morning. Inside, I placed a project or special toy that would keep him occupied while Dad showered and fixed breakfast. One morning it was a Spider-Man puzzle, the next colored pencils and pictures I'd drawn for him to color. All of the toys or projects were sourced from forgotten objects in his toy box or from our craft and art supplies. His favorite Mystery Box item, though, was an old digital camera that he used to snap the most unflattering photos that have ever existed of myself and his father.

We only used the Mystery Boxes for about two weeks, and after that Uli was able to play in a more self-directed and creative manner than he ever was able to when he had weekday screen time. We were actually shocked by how quickly he adjusted to the no-tv-during-the-week proclamation. His teachers at school also noticed a difference, telling us that Uli was more engaged than he had been previously — a side benefit we hadn't expected.

During the weekends, Uli gets to watch an hour or two of programming, either as morning cartoons or as a matinée in the movie theater (the kid can house a box of popcorn like no one's business). If he uses the iPad, it's for alphabet or numbers games, which he really loves. And in August, Uli and I took our first long plane trip without the iPad — including one fourteen-hour travel day. His dad had loaded a nine-year-old iPod with Uli's favorite songs, which amused him for most of the plane trip, and in the airport, he did relay races in the terminal. It was a really successful experiment, and we have no plans to use the iPad again for travel.

Alternative to TV: taking photos of cows.

But the real change, of course, has been in his parents. We plan regular weeknight excursions, such as family swim at the Y a few times a week, hikes, playdates, or playground time. Another huge change has been actively involving Uli in chore time. He's three-and-a-half years old now, which means he's more than capable of helping to clean the house, water the garden, make dinner, or walk the dog (with our assistance, of course). And like all kids, Uli really values his role as a helper.

This isn't a situation that will work for all families, and lord knows I would never judge other families who do let their kids watch tv. I get it. But for our kid, his behavior when he was on daily television (and it did feel like he was "on" it, that's how drug like it came across, behavior-wise) was unhealthy. Other kids do fine with daily doses of tv, but for our kiddo, it wasn't compatible with an active, vibrant early childhood. We may have lost screen time in our house, but what we've discovered — a healthy, thriving, engaged kiddo — has been invaluable.