Care and Feeding

How Can I Get My Husband to Turn Off the TV and Play With Our Kids?

A man sits on a couch holding a remote in his hand. A boy sits next to him, looking at a cellphone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by LightFieldStudios/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Sladics/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a stay-at-home mom of two girls, aged 4 and almost 2. My husband and I have radically different approaches to media use. If it were up to me, anything with a screen would be kept out of the house, but I realize that this is impossible and impractical. I try to have a screen on only when there’s a purpose for it, and to keep them mostly off around the kids. Sometimes, my oldest will get to play games on a tablet; we may also have a movie on while I work on the house or cook meals.

My husband is the opposite—there is always a screen or TV on when he’s home. He uses TV to relax after work and on the weekends. After Dad gets home in the evening, I will often walk into a room to find my husband watching TV, my 4-year-old watching YouTube on the computer, and my littlest watching videos on a cellphone. There will also be at least two TVs on upstairs in the meantime.

The noise drives me nuts, but I’m also worried about the effect it has on my kids. I encourage them to play with toys when Dad is at work, only to get whining about being bored from my oldest and cries of YouTube! from my youngest. My husband says I make things hard on myself by limiting screens and sees no harm in letting them watch. I understand an electronic babysitter as a necessary parenting tool—I don’t agree with it always, but I don’t judge if you need 30 minutes of Dora for sanity. I’m also aware of multiple studies that show heavy screen time is linked to some problems with focusing in children and the background noise is disruptive to babies’ play.

I know my kids can function without screens, but I believe it’s a parenting crutch for my husband. Whenever the kids start getting rowdy, or even wander into the same room with him, he hands the kids a tablet, puts on YouTube or changes the channel to cartoons. I refrain from saying anything and turn it off when I can. I have asked my husband to take my kids out to the park or out to ride bikes when he’s home, but he’s tired from working and makes me feel like a nag. I don’t want to get into a huge fight but I also don’t want to raise my kids this way. I want them to play with their toys, draw, read, and go outside! I also want their dad out there with them. Am I being unreasonable, and how do I broach this subject productively?

—Please Just Turn It Off

Dear PJTIO,

I don’t think anything you say here is unreasonable. You acknowledge that screens are so helpful—when you’ve been cooped up on a cold winter’s day, when one kid is under the weather, when you need the kids to be distracted while you shower or cook. But you plead, essentially, for moderation.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommendations for young kids and their exposure to media. There are days it’s just not possible to stick to one hour or less, but it’s also true that toddlers can be distracted by almost anything and that one of the pleasures of having children is, you know, interacting with them.

I think you need to share the AAP recommendations with your husband and discuss a whole new familial strategy around screens. Your husband’s overreliance on screens is complicating your life when you’re on solo parent duty. It’s cheating the kids and himself out of some of life’s simplest pleasures. Also, it’s just so noisy and distracting; I can feel myself getting a headache at the scene you describe.

Most important here is the example your husband sets. I understand the desire to decompress after a long day at the office, but this is also the end of your workday. As a partner and parent, it’s his responsibility to step up. I’m not saying he needs to get involved in complicated dress-up and imaginative games, but just switching on a bunch of devices is not helping.

Is he sporty? Maybe he can throw the little one in the jogging stroller and the big one on the scooter for a spin around the neighborhood. Is he crafty? Maybe a standing date with watercolors and crayons. Could early evenings be the time the three of them work in the garden, or walk to check the mail, or take a regular stroll to the nearby playground, even for 10 minutes? If your husband doesn’t have the energy for much more than child minding, could he sit and supervise while the kids play Legos or Magna-Tiles or whatever they find most diverting? Could they all listen to a kids’ podcast or audiobook and zone out while playing instead of watching television?

Can he at least attempt a new routine, one that doesn’t rely on screens, and see how that feels? He may well discover that he finds this relaxing and also that he gets the satisfaction of being present as a parent and a partner.

Again, I don’t think you’re calling for a wholesale ban on screens—maybe the whole family can have a special Friday evening hour of television!—and your conversation might be more productive if you are clear about that but still stress the need to develop a more thoughtful screen time policy. Good luck.

• If you missed Monday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 14-year-old daughter who is smart, engaged, and curious about the world (which I love). She is out and proud (which I also love), and very invested in LGBTQIA issues. But I am struggling with how to help her navigate middle and, next year, high school, among kids who aren’t as invested as she is, and who are sometimes outright hostile.

My kid sometimes comes home upset over a comment made to her or another person at school. Often, she overhears a conversation she isn’t a part of and inserts herself to correct the speakers. To be fair, what she’s interrupting sounds like terrible behavior—there’s still a sizable cohort of teenagers who think using the words fag or gay as an insult is acceptable. But of course, her interjection then makes her a target.

She’s been told she’s going to hell for being an atheist and bisexual and has been pejoratively labeled a social justice warrior. On the one hand, I’m proud that I have a kid who says something when others are acting badly. On the other hand, I wish that sometimes she would let things go. For example, in a situation where two boys are having a private conversation and not targeting anyone else, it seems like maybe my kid could learn not to eavesdrop and correct their language?

I’m also worried because I have observed her reacting angrily to innocent situations —for example, she was furious when her little brother said gay couples couldn’t have children, but he was just trying to figure out how his rudimentary birds and bees knowledge applied to a couple we know. If she’s reacting similarly at school, I can see why her classmates might become defensive. I guess what it boils down to is that my kid has good intentions and is often correct to be bothered by others’ behavior, but she is addressing it in a manner that’s ineffective and leaves her upset. Do you have any advice on how I can guide her either to address issues more constructively, or to learn how to pick her battles?

—Proud but Worried

Dear PbW,

Your kid sounds great—a confident young person with real convictions. But she needs to learn how to productively channel her beliefs, and the difference between taking a principled stand and being a scold.

This is a complicated distinction, because of course, she’s not wrong to speak up if she hears someone using a slur. One way of thinking about it is from a perspective of safety and respect. She hopefully has no reason to worry about the former among her peers, but she cannot be in the habit of correcting strangers, because it might simply not be safe. And as your example shows, sometimes she’s not heard the whole context and might be speaking out of turn herself.

I think you should encourage her toward activism with a specific goal. She could join (or inaugurate!) a gay-straight alliance at school, or devote her time to a structured attempt at change. I think you can stress to her that this is about earning the respect of peers and honoring that she might not always have the moral high ground. It sounds like she has what it takes to be a real leader but that she needs to learn the difference between leading by criticism and leading by example. Just address it in those terms, and be prepared for a tough conversation—the collision between her idealism and your adult pragmatism. I think you can probably steer her toward a more productive way of being a moral citizen and hopefully make this fraught time of life go a little more smoothly.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 8-year-old daughter has a friend, M., who lives down the street. This girl is the youngest of four; her mom has told me that with a house full of teenagers, she has adopted an “open door” policy—everyone is welcome into her home, and they should help themselves to anything they have to offer. My two children have spent some time playing at their house and M.’s mom chuckled while telling me about my youngest opening their fridge to have a peek or taking an apple off the table. So clearly my kids feel comfortable at their home.

Recently, M. has been playing over at my home more. Although there may be an open door policy at her house, I am uncomfortable with that policy at mine. I am very introverted and do not necessarily like friends over. If she were over just a few times a week I think I would get over it, but she is at my house all the time: every day after school and weekends too. She will invite herself over for lunch and although I am annoyed I also feel like it’s petty to tell her she needs to eat at home (I have to feed my kids anyway). M. and my kids are forever in my fridge and pantry. One day her older sister came over after school too and was making sandwiches for the whole gang!

I am having a hard time adopting this friendly open-door vibe. I feel resentful and annoyed when she is here and eats at my house. But I feel petty about it because I know that when my kids are at her house they are welcome to whatever they want. Am I being unreasonable? Should I just relax and let them eat the entire jar of Nutella with a spoon? I want my home to feel welcoming so why does this kid hanging around bug me so much? She’s a nice kid and she and my daughter play great together, so why does this give me so much anxiety?

— Not an Open Door

Dear NaOD,

Every family has the right to determine its own way of doing things. M.’s mom’s open-door policy works for her; the same won’t work for you, clearly. Rather than be upset about this, just understand that you are different people and your households will be run differently.

I do not think you need to “relax”; personally, I wouldn’t want any kid (even my own!) eating our Nutella out of the jar with a spoon. What you do need, I think, is clear parameters for the kids to follow. This way you can say to them, “In our house, you need to ask a grown-up before going in the pantry,” or “Our family eats lunch together, you should go home now and you can all play more later this afternoon,” and the kids will know how to proceed.

You might feel there is an inequity here, but I don’t. Your kids are invited to take an apple in her house; you don’t need to reciprocate in kind. Just be clear about the rules of the household. If the kids do not honor those, that is a different conversation, but I think you need to begin there. Your letter suggests you might feel like you’re being overly sensitive, but I would counter that you don’t need to explain your rules for living to anyone else. Good luck!

Dear Care and Feeding,

We’ve started using M&Ms to potty-train our son (“One for No. 1, two for No. 2”). He will do anything for an M&M! My husband has begun promising M&Ms for things like getting into the stroller, putting on his coat, etc. I refuse to give them for anything but potty training, and feel like my husband is setting himself (also me!) up for some serious long-term trouble, instead of just insisting that our kid put on his coat. I’ve mentioned to my husband that I think this strategy is unwise and unfair to me, but he keeps on doling out M&Ms like they’re going out of style. Is this just a parenting strategy difference? My husband is otherwise a truly awesome dad.

—One M&M Too Many

Dear OMMTM,

When potty training, I also bribed my older son with M&Ms. It’s actually one of my favorite memories; we had a little glass jar full of them, and I’d show them to him, and he’d get so excited he quickly mastered the art of the potty. Then one day, he finished all the candy in the jar and that was that. He never asked for an M&M again. Amazing what you can get away with when you’re negotiating with a 3-year old.

Mastering the art of the potty is complicated, and clearly a reward system works for many parents. To me, the M&M was an acknowledgment that the kid has to figure out a lot—how to listen to his body and be patient with the whole disruptive routine of visiting the bathroom rather than just peeing in a diaper while playing. But by 3, your kid has already mastered some of the business of his life—putting on a coat, or following parental instructions. He shouldn’t need to be rewarded for that stuff, and I wonder if introducing a reward into a business he’s already mastered is just confusing.

I think you’re right; this is a bad precedent to set, unless you intend to start stocking up on candy at Costco. The treat can be a helpful motivator to master a complicated task, but no person should expect a reward for completing all the business of being alive. Never mind that getting a treat for every little thing makes the candy less special; it’s just a wage, then, and I don’t think you want to be in a situation where your kid respects parental authority only when he’s been remunerated. Your husband might think that’s a big leap, but I think it’s worth thinking through this more. Be careful!

—Rumaan

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