TV is only for “special occasions” in our house … what about yours?

My mom had lots of systems. I remember chore charts, meal calendars and allowances counted out to the cent. (When you have four kids, it probably was smart not to round up to the nearest dollar, but man, counting out $2.25 and $1.75, etc. every week must have gotten old!) But of all the systems she had, her TV systems were legendary.

There was the era of “TV cards” where we each received an envelope with cards worth 30 minutes. When we watched TV, we were expected to drop a card in the basket on top of the TV. My brother likes to joke that jack.cookingthe only effect of TV cards was that it taught him how to lie. Because my parents were well aware of that, this system soon changed to daily allotments of TV time. I remember the rule being 30 minutes on weekdays and 2 hours on weekends.

Well, not for the first time, I am belatedly seeing the wisdom of my parents. How smart they were to set limits on TV! I’m sure all four of us benefited as a result. I ended up becoming an avid reader. Would this have happened if I’d been allowed to sit in front of the TV as much as I’d wanted?

As a new parent, I remember hearing that TV was not recommended (by the American Academy of Pediatrics) for children under two. I thought that seemed like sound logic, and my husband and I decided this would be our initial guideline. I know many parents allow TV before age two, but I will say, from our experience, when you never turn it on, you don’t miss it.

My oldest child, Jack, attends the Waldorf School of New Orleans. The school encourages families to limit TV. Their rationale is that electronic media hinders imagination. This makes sense to me in two ways. First, if you are watching a lot of TV, you obviously aren’t being called to fill that time with your own imagination. But, there is a second, less obvious, connection. TV and movies can be stifling to some degree. For a young child, they start defining a lot of the world, saying “this” is a princess, “this” is love, etc. How much more thrilling for a child to create their own internal images of life rather than having everything painted for them in black and white (or color for that matter)?

While it might not seem like much harm for a child to think that a princess wears a blue dress, lives in an enormous castle and has mice for friends, the greater principle of allowing a child’s imagination room 014 and time to grow is very appealing to me. But I learned quickly that once TV is introduced, both the child and the parent learn its appeal.

About the time Jack turned two, we started reading books and then showing him the corresponding movies. And yes, we watched Cinderella. He would be enthralled, for about 30 minutes, and then his attention would wane. We don’t have cable, but we do have Netflix. Last summer, alongside the birth of baby sister Cora, Curious George started airing more frequently at our house! The novelty of TV was very high for Jack, and he would sit enthralled for increasingly longer blocks. 30 minutes…45 minutes…even an hour! For this momma, the quietness, the calm, the ability to accomplish things, it was heady!

But the slope started to feel slippery, so, just like my mama, I decided to set clear limits. My husband and I decided to term TV “a special occasion” and let Jack know that this would happen once or twice a week. Well, the words “special occasion” started popping up like mad after that.

Jack: “I think it will be a special occasion when I get up from my nap.”

Jack: “How bout a special occasion when I finish my dinner, momma?”

March.23.2013 043He gradually got the concept. I tend to be the one to dole out the “special occasions.” (These are usually on no-nap afternoons when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the amount that needs to be accomplished.) We’ve been doing this since the fall, and we’ve stuck to it. If he’s already watched TV twice that week (or if it’s Monday and I’m feeling the need to hold on to those “cards”), we pull out books, LEGOs, stickers, trucks, go outside, etc. It forces creativity on my part, and it also forces him to learn to play independently sometimes, especially since this momma still has plenty she needs to get done!

So thank you Mom and Dad for one of many parenting tactics I’m sure I will copy from you!

What is your TV philosophy? What are the rules in your house?


  1. This post REALLY got me thinking. We have no “rules” in our house as it relates to TV, which isn’t to say that our toddler is watching it all the time (being in school from 8-3 means that most of the time he’s not), but TV was our saving grace after the baby was born. The challenge is that I think I am too arbitrary with my “limits.” When I decide it’s been enough or “too pretty to be inside” or the noise is bugging me, I will say “no more,” or “not now.” But having a more predictable system in place would probably help us a lot — for the entire family’s sake. Thanks for pushing my thinking on this!!

    • i agree with ashley- i’m definitely way too relaxed when it comes to limits. as a single mom, it’s tough to get things done at home after work. tv ipad anything- i will take it just to distract my 5yo to get food prepped and served. and ON time. i definitely need to be more creative, and more strict on setting boundaries and limitations rather than what “feels right” at that moment, bec let’s face it he’ll catch on if he got an hour tv/video game one day and 1.5hrs another day. thanks for this great post!

      • forgot to add- growing up i was only allowed tv time on weekends too but i don’t remember any limits. i wasn’t big on reading. in fact i hated it. i was more active playing outside than sitting and reading. but i don’t think it fully affects your later years bec now? i am an avid reader and absolutely love to read.

  2. We also didn’t allow TV at all before our son was 2 years old. Now he’s 8, and we still do not allow any electronics on week nights, no TV, Wii, etc. Weekends only. It works well for us, and our son is an avid reader. He goes through 300-400 page books usually 1-2/week. One of his “homework” assignments is to read for 20 minutes nightly (that will increase to 30 minutes when he’s in third grade) but he typically reads much more than that because he enjoys it!

  3. Growing up, my siblings and I never watched TV. My parents accomplished this by putting the TV in the one room in the house that didn’t have central heat (you had to turn on the heater for that room then wait an hour or so for the room to warm up). Funny tactic, but it worked! We would only watch if the President was giving a speech or something else important like that. I don’t even remember asking my parents if I could watch TV. As a result, I felt a little left out of some conversations at school, but looking back I’m very glad this was how I grew up! I was (and still am) a voracious reader, came up with cute imaginative games with my friends and siblings, and spent a lot of time outside playing and daydreaming.
    My husband and I definitely plan on raising our kids sans TV. Our baby is only a month old, though, so it’s easy now! I’m glad to hear about the temptations to come so I can be better prepared to resist them!

  4. I am very lax with it- I know Andrew watches some tv when he’s at grandma and grandpa’s and I’m ok with that, because he’s only allowed to watch Sprout, PBS, or Disney.. and only certain approved shows. He would rather play outside sometimes.

    We mostly let him watch tv so that we can get something accomplished (like cooking dinner) in the evenings.

    He LOVES the Ipad, though, and I have taken to hiding the Ipad from him and only allowing it for 10-15 minutes in the evenings.

    I’ve found that he would rather play than watch tv anyhow!

  5. Its funny to me when I am at work and someone ask if I saw what happen last night on teen mom or one of the real house wives shows. I usually respond no because I was too busy being a real mom or a real wife. My husband and I hardly ever watch television. We have one TV (which was a wedding gift) in our bedroom. We decided to keep the TV in our bedroom and not the living room because we spend a lot of our time in the living room playing with our son. We do not have cable but we do have Netflix that we mainly watch documentaries on. We do not let our son watch TV as he is only 13 months. Of course when he is older we will let him watch a few things, but it will be limited. It is also quite comical when we have guest over for the first time and they ask if we own a TV, as though it is unheard of to invite someone over and actually expect them to communicate without the background noise of a television.

  6. I was never allowed a TV in my room growing up. I received one as a going away gift for college. We limited TV when Jude was younger, but once he started getting around becoming ultra clingy with me, I confess that I use it as a distraction in the evenings. Most days he’s actively playing though, so I don’t think it in excess. It might not be a bad idea to start limiting the TV time though. Thankfully, summer will do that naturally because he LOVES outside and my mom has a pool.

  7. It’s not something I’ve thought much of because my son has never paid much attention to the tv. I will admit that it’s usually on in the background. I think if he actually paid attention to it then I would set limits. He did start knowing who characters like Elmo and Calloiu were and I wondered how. I was disappointed to learn they watch tv at school if its raining or wet outside 🙁

  8. We probably watch way too much tv in our house. But we’ve been trying to set more limits. I’ve asked our sitter to turn the tv off while Addie is awake during the day. Even if she’s not necessarily paying attention to it, it doesn’t really need to be on at all. I’ve been trying to keep it off when I get home from work in the evenings until after she goes to bed. Some days, we’re great at sticking to our “rules.” Other days, not so much. It’s still a work in progress.

  9. My daughter is 2 and we have tvs on in the house. I don’t know if it’s because they have always been on or because she’s just learned to ignore them, but she knows shows and names of characters but doesn’t typically sit and stare for anything more than 5-10 mins. She plays with her toys and has a super active imagination. Recently she started using her play golf clubs as a sword and saying she was a pirate (argghhh). She even has a DVD player in the car because we go on long trips very often and she chooses her movie. We read to her several times a day and she brings books to us often because she loves them. She also use her Scout (Leap Tag Jr.) that helps her read the words in her books and teaches her letters.
    I just don’t feel the sameway as most do about the TV. But it’s only because I haven’t seen any negative effects in my life or my child. I had TV in my room my whole life and I LOVE to read and write. So does my brother who was raised the same way. While saying this I still don’t believe a child should sit in front of a tv all day every day. I think there should be limits and rules, but just no tv doesn’t seem to be something I need to have in my house.
    Also…I don’t like hearing, no I didn’t watch that show or no my child doesn’t have Tv because I am a REAL Mom or a REAL person. I am a REAL Mom who is actively involved in my child’s life, we play and craft and read. I am REAL Mom who allows her child to watch TV and movies, but we also do Mommy and Me gymnastics and swimming lessons and go to story time and participate in playdates all week.

  10. right now he just watches his bible song dvd’s. They calm him while he eats, sometimes, and allows me to get dressed or do stuff like cook special dishes for holiday get togethers. But most of the time, he’s jumping in his jumper, swinging on the back porch or at the park, reading books with mommy, playing in his play yard with his toys, or out and about in the world(grocery store, book store, etc…) with mommy.


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