Confession… my three year-old son watches TV. I know. Shock horror. Many people (incorrectly) assume that as a children’s media researcher I would ban TV viewing. Pfft! If I did that we would never eat a meal, I would struggle to feed my newborn baby and my home office would be destroyed every time I take a shower (Mr T has just discovered my top desk drawer and has a keen interest in staplers and Post-It notes).
Does my son watch TV every day? No. Is TV the first thing I offer him when he is tired or needing a change of pace? No. Do I always resort to TV when I need to accomplish a ‘child-free’ task like showering or taking a work call? No. But as you’d know first hand, sometimes the TV is a life-saver. Yes, sometimes it makes a great pacifier. There are only so many ‘activity boxes’ I can create that will keep my three-year old entertained on a wet day. There are only so many diggers I can drive one-handed when I am feeding a newborn baby. My Lego repairing skills are somewhat limited and even more impaired, one-handed. Sometimes my son just wants to watch TV (my goodness, as an adult there are times when flaking out in front of TV is bliss).
The problem is that sometimes my son does not want to turn off the TV. We have blatant refusals that often end in pleas of, “Just one more Mummy, puh-lease.”. Then we often have the batting eyes and head tilt as he whispers, “Just one more show…puh-lease?” When I say no the pleas quickly deteriorate into high-pitched whining and are often followed by the ‘cockroach tantrum’. We have been very lucky and have only encountered (survived) a couple of what I call ‘cockroach’ tantrums* in our three years of parenting. *A cockroach tantrum is the one where kids lie on their backs and thrash their arms and legs about. Your otherwise calm and placid child turns into a monster.
The negotiations around turning off the TV have become similar to what you would see in a court-room. As the Mum of a newborn baby I admit that I have given into the pleas and eyelid batting more recently, because I don’t have the stamina or mental energy required to endure the negotiations.
So last week I started to implement some strategies to encourage my son to agree to switch off the TV without the tantrums and negotiations. And so far they are working. So I thought I would share them with you in the hope that they may also work for you.
Three Strategies for Getting Kids to Switch Off the TV–
1. Negotiate or state exactly how many episodes your child will watch before the TV is turned on. And then stick to it. We use episodes because time is still too abstract for Mr T who is three years-old. Then use a token system. We use coloured paddle pop sticks in a glass bottle (see image to the left). After each episode, a paddle pop stick is placed into a bottle. Once all of the paddle pop sticks are in the bottle, the TV is turned off (by my son and not me). Other ideas that work well are milk bottle lids into a bowl or pegs on a piece of cardboard. Pick something that is easy for your child to see and requires them to actively move an object.
2. Before turning on the TV negotiate or state the amount of time your child will spend watching TV. Use an egg timer or timer app to quantify the amount of time. Once the agreed time has elapsed, the TV is switched off. No negotiations required. Children tend not to argue with an arbitrary device like a timer or an app. Two apps that I recommend are Screen Time App and Screen Time by Baby Binks.
3. Create a ‘TV-Free Activity’ bucket filled with alternative play ideas. Ask your child to pull out an idea from the bucket after they have switched off the TV. This is the reward for ‘switching off’. The key to this strategy is filling the bucket with activities that appeal to your child. Ideas include go for a walk, cook, ride your bike, complete a puzzle, use Play dough, play a board game, make a puppet, read a book. Here is a TV-Free Activity Bucket template to download that you can personalise for your child to lure them away from the TV.
Of course, setting a good example yourself also helps. Talk to your children when you are switching off the TV. Make sure TV isn’t the main source of entertainment in your house. When it is not being used turn it off. Your children certainly adopt your media habits so be mindful of the subliminal, yet powerful, messages you are sending them.
If all else fails just saying ‘no’ actually works. Yes there are likely to be tears and possibly even some cockroach tantrums* initially, but if you give a clear and consistent message, children very quickly adopt these media habits. However, when the rules bend and change or if you succumb to the pleas and batting eyelids then often these habits are hard to break.
May I wish you the very best of luck. Parenting certainly isn’t easy. I’d love to know what other tips, ideas or bribes you have used that work, in the comments below. My three strategies are by no means the only things that work and I’d love to hear what else has worked for you.