My wife and I are both the youngest among our siblings — my wife is the youngest of three sisters, and I have an elder sister as well. So when we got married in early 2017, our sisters all had toddlers. And like many couples with no kids, we were quick to judge them when we saw our 3-yr old nephew frantically swiping to Fruit Ninja on an iPad or our 4-yr old niece watching Barbie videos on Youtube.
However, once you become a parent you realize that parenting is far from easy — much less when you’re spending all your time at home, still trying to get “work” done, and you have a two-year-old son, all in a small-ish Hong Kong home.
That’s the predicament my wife and I ended up in in 2020. We’d never had our son any screen time — nothing to be proud of really since he only turned two in December. For the majority of 2020, he wasn’t even two — the “recommended” lower limit for when a kid should be exposed to any screen time at all.
But we all know, 2020 wasn’t a year of “normalcy.”
We were quite good with the no-screen-time routine while we were working from home because our son knew, even while he played with the helper, we were only a room away working on our laptops. So, he’d be happy in that comfort, and we wouldn’t feel too guilty about leaving him in the hands of our helper.
Trouble came when things got better here in Hong Kong, around August / September and we could go back to work. We felt guilty leaving him alone with the helper all day and so wanted to compensate for it when we got home from work.
But kids at that age demand a lot of energy — and that’s one thing you don’t have when you’re back from a long day of work. So, we gave in and chose the easy route — introduced a tiny window of 30 mins every evening when our son would get to watch some “educational” rhymes on TV sitting right in between mum and dad on the living room couch.
This official screen time was in addition to all the incidental time he already got with us doing video calls with family back in India every day when he would practically snatch the phone two minutes into the call and randomly swipe away to glory.
He loved his new TV time and soon had his favorite rhymes and videos, but he started liking it a little too much. The moment we’d ring the doorbell, he’d run to the door — give a gleaming smile saying “mummy daddy” and then lead us straight to the living room couch and cutely say “TV” as if he’d waited for it all day.
However, every time we’d turn off the TV at the 30-minute cut-off, he’d throw a fit and would need a major distraction to get back to normal.
The bigger problem was that we noticed he started taking longer to fall asleep at bedtime and would have random violent crying fits for no reason. So, only about a month into this routine, we ruled out all other causes and figured it was all the overstimulation from the TV time that was leaving him all confused on how to vent all that extra energy.
So, my wife diligently chalked out a plan on how we can completely take away both his new TV time as well as his incidental screen time. To be honest, we were quite surprised by the positive results in practically a week’s time.
Here’s what we did and why we think it worked.
Primary Principle: If you’re taking something away, offer something equally (or more) fun in return
Toddlers aren’t too complex — they exhibit the most basic psychological traits — simple give and take works perfectly well.
So if you want them to give up something they love, you’ve got to replace it with something equally fun. So we diligently sat down and searched for a variety of activities that we could engage him in every evening after work.
So next time when he asked for TV, we were ready to distract him with something novel and fun.
Day 1: Major disruption — The first day away from T.V. was probably going to be the hardest so we decided to get something “new” for him. This could be a toy, book, puzzle, or anything your toddler likes. In our case, our son loves bubbles so we got one of those soap solutions and made bubbles all around the house, and he forgot his TV in the fascination of those little pearls.
Day 2: Some more novelty — We’d ordered a few wooden puzzles for in-flight entertainment for a trip that never happened. So Day 2 was dedicated to doing these new puzzles with all sorts of colored shapes and animals.
Day 3: Series of small activities— You need to remember that with toddlers, each activity has a very short window of novelty. So we would start with the previous day’s activities and add on a new one. So Day 3 was about random stuff — painting an empty tray of eggs, putting lentils through a sieve, and playing with kitchenware. The trick is in doing something for only so long that it doesn’t get boring and ends up reminding the child of the “fun” TV time.
Days 4–7: Educational, longer-term solution — Now was the time to introduce longer-term solutions — you want the learning to continue. So we decided to introduce more books with rhymes and visual stories that would provide the same “educational benefits” of the TV rhymes, but via a healthier mode. By now, our son had also gotten more removed from his TV habit, so these less “fun” but more useful activities worked fine.
As far as the incidental time with our video calls went, we switched to audio-only calls in his presence, and video calls with family were restricted to after his bedtime. We’d of course do the weekend calls so he could see his grandparents, but not long enough for them to become a habit.
The Results: More positive than we’d expected
After just a week of this routine, our son’s expectations had been reset and he’d expect us to engage him in fun activities like reading and puzzles when we got home, vs. his earlier demands of screen time.
By the 3rd or 4th day, the sleep routine had also gotten back to normal with no random fits during bedtime, and he was back to being a calm sleeper.
Moreover, to our surprise, it led to a serious spike in his interest in reading. Now all our son wants is for mom and dad to read out stories to him — sometimes the same ones 4–5 times a day.
And the speed of learning he has shown is immense, thanks to all the reading and his nack for memorizing words and phrases. His top 3 favorites currently are A Squash and a Squeeze, I am a Bunny, and Smelly Socks.
The only thing it took from our end was a bit of a time commitment and planning and ensuring we ourselves completely avoided watching TV or using phones excessively in front of our son. A few less Netflix shows wasn’t a bad price to pay for such a massive benefit!
I think my biggest takeaway from this whole experience was that kids are extremely impressionable at these early ages of 2–5 yrs old but that also means there’s room to undo any bad habits that much more easily.
So, the key lies in figuring out what is the main draw for a kid towards a certain habit and offering them the same in some other more constructive form. In this case, we found out that reading, puzzles, and other activities were just as exciting as TV time, once that change in routine was gradually brought about. This may vary with the child’s age but there are likely always alternatives that will help keep kids screentime-free for longer — at least until they’re forced into a world of “virtual classes” which are beyond our control as parents!
This post was previously published on Medium.
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