Let me preface this discussion by confessing that I am someone who dearly loves TV, in moderation. No one’s more excited about the imminent return of “Mad Men” and “Project Runway” than me, and people who constantly brag about how they don’t own a television drive me a little crazy. (That’s fine – it’s a free country and all that – but please stop trying to dazzle me with your cultural transcendence.)
That having been said, Joe and I made the choice to keep the television in our living room turned off, with occasional exceptions, whenever Lily was awake during her first two years. As far as she knew, the TV was this strange machine that occasionally showed people playing football, basketball, baseball, or hockey.
The reason for this choice was two-fold: one, babies staring at TV screens always seem creepy to me, the way they just zone out completely (you know, like us, but smaller); and two, I’d read that keeping kids away from TV during their first two years might provide a more solid foundation for a child’s ability to focus later in life. So although Joe and I may have simply passed this capacity onto Lily genetically, anyway (we’re both pretty hardcore focus-ers), it was relatively easy not to have the television on around her.
She didn’t yearn for what she didn’t know about, after all. (Lily did see a few short Sesame Street videos on YouTube occasionally, in the months leading up to her second birthday, but we tried to keep that to a minimum, too.)
After she turned two, I lingered in our TV-less existence for a bit longer. But then one morning, when I was alone with Lily, I asked if she’d like to see Elmo (whom she knew of, at a shockingly young age, without having watched ANYTHING). She was tentative at first, only interested in a short segment of “Sesame Street” called “Elmo’s World,” but eventually, as she got used to the idea, she developed a hunger for more.
Which is fine and perfectly understandable, but I didn’t want this new desire to expand beyond our control, either. (Most parenting issues are control-themed, aren’t they?) For a time, she’d get up in the morning, and the first thing out of her mouth would be a request to see TV, and she’d ask for it when we got home from daycare, too. When I turned it off, she’d often get testy and demand more. All this was getting to be too much for me, and I was starting to regret introducing television to her little world at all.
And yet I’ll confess that I hadn’t understood the true allure of television for parents, though, until all this happened. As Lily sat on my lap watching “Sesame Street,” I got to read whole sections of the New York Times – jump pages and all! what a decadent luxury! – for the first time in ages, and it felt glorious. Painfully, whole newspapers have often gone into the recycling bin unread, and here I was, relaxing and soaking it in. Such moments are like the irresistible call of Sirens when you have a toddler.
But Lily’s increasing obsession with television made us see that we had to lay down some ground rules. Fortunately, because she’s in daycare on weekdays, there’s a built-in limit already, but in addition to that, I decided that she had to both be dressed and done with breakfast before watching anything in the morning, and then, she could watch only 30 minutes. (We’d gotten in a bad pattern where she’d put up a huge fight about doing either of those things, and not having any food in her as the morning wore on just added to the disaster.)
In the evening, she’s also limited to 30 minutes. But fortunately, with it being summer, we can often lure her outside to play or engage in other things. Sometimes, she watches nothing all day; usually, she sees some television at either the start or the end of the day. But she’s been much better behaved of late, and she seems to have absorbed our rules, so they’re working out well.
We always warn her when there’s five minutes left, and that seems to be part of the key, too. The times she freaks out most is when a change she’s not expecting comes her way. Toddlers need lead-up time.
And let’s not forget that there are some benefits, besides the fact that simply seeing Elmo and Abby and the rest give her pleasure. She now walks around our house saying words like “metamorphosis” and “camoflauge” because she heard them on “Sesame Street.” And one day, after watching a segment about Abby losing her freckles, we were walking to daycare and Lily brought up a particular part of the story, indicating to me that she was still thinking about how the narrative unfolded.
Dorky as it sounds, that was a great moment for me. As a writer, I spend my days trying to report about things by way of telling stories, and watching Lily start to piece together how storytelling works makes me feel as though, in some abstract way, we’re growing ever closer.