Screen Time is Slate’s pop-up blog about children’s TV, everywhere kids see it.
I grew up without a TV at a time when it was still possible for parents to raise kids screen-free without acting like insufferable prigs about it. Although Jerry Mander published his sweeping anti-TV polemic Four Arguments For the Elimination of Television the same year I was born, my parents don’t remember their decision to raise us without TV as being much of a political one. “As anyone can see, time is a zero-sum game,” my mom wrote me when I asked her how she and my dad decided not to get a set. “When one is watching, one is not reading, listening to music, having meaningful conversations, etc.” They declined my aunt’s offer of a TV as a wedding present and asked her for a sewing machine instead. When they started having kids five years later, they saw no need to add TV to the household.
It worked. We read, spent time outside, and sat for hours at the dinner table (especially as we got older and more patient). My parents’ friends and family generally believed in sending kids outside to play, so the no-TV decision didn’t stand out much in their circle. We drove to Colorado and back twice in the family Oldsmobile with no DVD players or tablets. Some kids at school made fun of us (“Are you Amish?”), and I wished I knew popular shows like Unsolved Mysteries so I’d have an easier time making conversation with people in my class, but I was generally happy to binge The Babysitters’ Club instead. (Just because a kid reads doesn’t mean she’ll read quality!)
So I’m convinced, from personal experience, that a happy screen-free childhood is possible. Now, my husband and I want to keep our 10-month-old daughter screen-free. This is a task that’s going to be much harder for us than it was for my parents. Sure, there’s the question of practicality: Screens are in everyone’s pockets now. And the advent of the internet means there’s a whole universe of tempting content, far more alluring than Muppet Babies, that simply didn’t exist when I was a kid. But it’s also a personal challenge, because the potential for parental self-righteousness has ballooned in the 40 years between my birth and my daughter’s. I don’t want screen-free parenting to turn me into a monster.
The screen-free parenting Facebook groups I follow are full of advice, encouragement, and nightmarish levels of smug self-congratulation. Just let an unsuspecting newbie suggest that going screen-free might present difficulties! He’ll instantly be bombarded with stories of just how perfect other screen-free kids are. “Yesterday at the park,” one mom posted in response to a question about whether screen-free kids could feel socially isolated, “my son was asked what his favorite show was by a kid we didn’t know. He simply said ‘I don’t watch anything. Want to be a St. Bernard with me?’ ” Aww, so wholesome, unlike kids who watch TV and never imagine anything! The children of the people in these groups are calm, helpful, social, and polite: total paragons of virtue. Their moms seem happy to spend endless hours dreaming up leaf-collection projects and filling sensory tables with new kinds of sand. In another group, one person posted a picture of her two kids parked in front of a fish tank, watching the fish eat their food. “Before school ‘screen time,’ ” the caption read.
And while I find myself imagining the Jennifer Lawrence OK gif when I read these absurd posts from these absurd parents, I can absolutely see myself climbing aboard the same high horses they’re riding. My sanctimoniousness surfaces when I start to follow a system that I delight in that makes me feel as though I’ve cracked the code. It’s happened to me in the past with Anusara yoga and American studies. This whole-hearted love of a system can be dangerous, because when I’ve found the right way to do something, it’s easy to think everyone else should do it the same way as me.
And going screen-free feels so right for our vision for J’s life! We want her to go outside a lot. We want her to play independently. We want her to learn from watching us do things around the house (this is the Waldorf idea of daily life as the child’s “curriculum”). We want her to sleep well. We want her to be excited by life, and to feel flow, which is difficult when you’re overwhelmed by the kinds of choices and inputs screens offer. We want her to enjoy being around other people—watching their faces, hearing their voices. Eventually, we want her to like to read. All of these things seem like they’ll happen more often if screens aren’t even a possibility.
And, if I’m being honest, I don’t want to fight with her over the iPad. What is it about kids begging for screen time that is so grating to my ears? They sound out of control, driven by primeval desires. Adults are better at hiding or justifying their addictions to the internet; kids shamelessly panhandling for screen time remind me just how compulsive the human-screen interface can become. I know the way I feel when I get off the internet after a good run on Twitter or am pulled away from Netflix mid-Riverdale binge. If I were a kid I’d be crying for the iPad, too.
And when I hear other kids begging to watch a show, how will I be able to avoid giving their parents the side-eye? I remember how it feels to have sanctimony directed my way. I’m not an attachment parent; I give J formula, and did a modified form of sleep training. During early parenthood, when we were making decisions around those issues, I would sink into the internet for hours looking for advice, emerging in a panic because there was no way I could do what everyone on a random BabyCenter comment thread was insisting was the “only” way to raise a baby. The last thing I want is to be responsible for panicking someone else that way.
I must also remember that because of the circumstances of our lives, remaining screen-free when J is around is much easier for us than it might be for those other people whose choices I’ll be judging. When she was very small, and I was on maternity leave, she seemed to spend most of her waking hours feeding, and I had a lot of trouble not looking at my phone around her. (My god, the boredom of those sweet early days.) Now that she’s bright and curious, I don’t dare. But I also don’t find the loss of screens too difficult to bear.
My husband and I both work full-time, and get plenty of contact with the internet during the day. J is an only child, and will remain one, so there is no older sibling to muddy the issue of what’s allowed, or younger one who needs a lot of parent-diverting care. We live in a small town where commuting is minimal, so there are no long car or subway rides that would be so much easier with a DVD player. We have J in a preschool run by a caregiver who is even more of a screen-free partisan than we are. And in truth, there are only a few hours per weekday in which we must eliminate screens from our own lives to keep J away from them. She goes to bed at 7 every night (something else I believe in strongly … sanctimoniously, you might say); after she’s down, we can watch all the Cavs games we want. On the weekends, it feels good to bend our lives away from the virtual world and toward the real one. I sneak a few hours of internet during her naps, and come back ready to take her to the farmer’s market or into the woods, where she can mess around with pinecones and get all that good pine sap on her hands. (Sensory table curation, here I come.)
But here’s the biggest caveat of all: She’s only 10 months old. When she no longer naps, how will we get downtime? What will I do when she’s begging to see a movie her friends at school are talking about? (I’ll probably take her because I don’t totally hate fun.) Will we buy her a Kindle, or install new bookcases to handle the influx of trashy kids’ series fiction, like my parents did? Will I picket her school when her first-grade class watches a movie instead of going out to recess on a rainy day? Parents plan; God laughs.