Advice on cutting back kids’ TV time

Advice on cutting back kids’ TV time

A reader sends in the following question:

Hey, Dom, just a thought, but do any of your readers have any advice on how to smoothly cut back the amount of TV kids watch? I mean, cold turkey is a possibility, but the difference does disturb the kids’ behavior. I’ve thought of gradually reducing it or making a point of a few days of much outings to distract from a cold turkey approach. Honestly, when I’ve tried the cold turkey approach at home, my 3 year old simply heads straight for my computer, where she knows how to flip to her account and open Disney webpages and would play for hours if I let her and I don’t see how it is much of an improvement - interactive, yes, but still on a screen. I can then turn off my computer and the TV but then, not only am I not thrilled not having my computer accessible, but I wind up with upset, cranky kids. She does play and like to read, but she likes the TV and computer a bit more. I admit being pregnant with off thyroid levels have made me especially tired and impatient to deal with the whole thing, but I thought maybe some of your readers might have some advice?

I don’t have any advice since, as I’ve said, Isabella and Sophia don’t watch TV. Anyone?


  • One alternative that people neglect: using your nifty controls, turn off the color and go to B&W.

    The benefit: B&W TV is clearly identifiable as not real. The commercials that are designed to employ color to whet the budding consumer appetites of children are much less effective. And children get forced to use their imaginations more (this goes doubly so for good radio).

  • Very interesting idea about setting the TV to black and white!  I’m going to mention that to my wife, and give it some thought.  (For the benefit of anyone who wants to try this, I think that on most TVs you can accomplish this by adjusting the “color” control down to zero.)

    Our kids (ages 3 & 5) do watch too much TV, but here are some things we have done that I think have prevented their TV viewing from being completely out of control:

    1.  Set the channel up and down buttons so that when you flip through the channels, the tuner only stops at the channels that you actually want to watch.  (There should be some way to “Skip” or “Add” channels on the TV.)  For example, on our TV, we have only about 12 or 14 channels that are accessible by scanning up and down through the channels.  You can still key in the channel number manually if there is something you really want to watch on another channel, but this cuts down somewhat on the number of times you will accidentally run across inappropriate programming on channels like MTV, BET, Comedy Central, the news channels, etc.  It also cuts down on the amount of kids’ programming that is available, so that I can truthfully (well, maybe stretching the truth just slightly) tell our kids that we don’t get channels like Nickelodeon and Disney on our TV.

    2.  Set up the parental controls to screen out anything rated higher than either TV-G or TV-PG.  Our TV is set to block anything over TV-PG.  If there is something that my wife or I want to watch that has a higher rating, we can still enter the secret code to bypass the blocking temporarily.  But the fact that we do have to enter the code makes us question what we are watching more, thus helping to police our viewing habits.  And of course, this filtering helps to block out some of the more inappropriate stuff for the kids.  (Though you still have to be vigilant about what they watch—even TV-PG shows have plenty of inappropriate material, not to mention the commercials.)

    3.  Don’t let them watch shows that have commercials.  Our general rule, that we follow with only a few exceptions, is that they only get to watch programs on PBS or EWTN, or on a VHS tape or DVD.  (In fact, I would like to set our TV to get only PBS and EWTN, but my wife is not quite ready to go there yet.)

    4.  Never under any circumstance have a TV in any bedroom, especially the kids’ bedrooms.  Have just one TV in a common area of the house (e.g., the living room), so that you are always aware of what the kids are watching.

    5.  Use as a reference before renting or purchasing any movies for the kids on DVD.  Not all kid-oriented films are created equal.

    Those are some of the things that we do.  I hope that one or more of these ideas might be helpful.

  • Unless you plan on having play dates where they can interact with other kids, interactive games in the computer is more stimulating than watching TV – as you’ve observed.  And if you want more physical activity then the Wii games can provide some of that.

  • ummm.
    just one mom’s experience, but if you want to stop T.V., and there are a myriad of good reasons to do so… you have to be absolutely committed and go cold turkey.
    See… It’s more about you than the children.  They WILL whine, drive you nuts, and make you HAVE to step in and spend more quality time with them than you are comfortably up for.  Only your genuine commitment to their physical and mental and spiritual well-being will keep you from the remote control when you need just a wee bit a time, and the culture will encourage you with the sweetest of siren’s songs that this will be just fine for short periods.

    It’s A-o.k. for a wee time that easily and quickly grows to a little more and more time, but always less-than-other-parents so you still feel good about your efforts… that nevertheless suck away brain, family, and creative-thinking time…

    How do I know?  Because I successfully did it with the first three (girls) before I caved with the 4th (a hyperactive, dev. delayed, boy).  And let me tell you, boys, (forgive me, Dominic), are WAY harder to get off the technological train than girls…  I just. got. tired.

    so… we watch more than I’d like, but less than the average pop culture parent, and I’d like to cut it out again due the benefits that are just like Dominic describes.

    But I’m weak.

  • As well as not having a TV in the children’s bedrooms don’t have a computer with internet access in their bedrooms.  Checking out decent films is a good idea.

    A friend of mine has her sister tape certain programmes and my friend then plays the tapes when the children have done their homework, tidied their toys etc.  This is the only TV the children watch.

  • It’s easy to turn on the TV first thing in the morning as one is doing the morning chores, the problem is that it never gets turned off. If you want to reduce TV time, the TV doesn’t go on until later. Much later. This is the same after school, if the TV goes straight on if somehow never gets shut off.

  • I can’t say we are the most successful parents at going completely no television.  There are some steps we have taken though to reducing their television.

    First, we have a television cabinet.  It’s that out of sight/out of mind thing.  It does help.  We used to have a child lock on it until the 2yo (who is now 3yo) would forcibly pull at the doors.  We figured that it was safer to take the lock off, and instead we would turn off the surge protector.  The kid has not figured out that there is a surge protector, but you have to be subtle or else he will figure that out too.

    (And lock up all the movies so that your kid doesn’t try to play them in the toaster or something.  Or they could try to shove it into the VCR/DVD player when the surge protector is off.  It’s called desperation.)

    I also made a huge effort to say to myself, “I am not going to let my kids watch television unless I am sitting down with them.”  The rule was often violated in times of sickness, where the sick party had to just vege out and not talk. 

    The trick after that is to get the kid off of television after having had the opportunity to watch for as much as he or she wanted.  That’s when I start making muffins and pancakes and all that. I get them to help me – which they enjoy.  My kids may be plumper, but at least they are not watching television.

  • Actually, if you want to get really radical with stopping your kids (and yourself and your spouse) from watching TV, the best solution may be just to get rid of the TV—or at least get rid of the TV signal (i.e., cancel your cable or satellite service, and/or disconnect your antenna).  Of course you and your spouse both have to be completely on board with this decision.  grin

    I have a friend who has two daughters somewhere around ages 6 and 8.  When they moved to a new house a couple of years ago, they just never unpacked and set up the TV at their new house.  My friend said it’s still in a box in their basement.  I have a lot of admiration for that.

    I’m not sure if I would be willing to go as far as completely getting rid of the TV, but I would eventually like to eliminate the broadcast channels entirely on our TV (by unplugging and cancelling our cable service), and keep the TV only for watching video tapes and DVDs.

    As for the computer, if little ones are spending too much time on the computer (the original question mentioned a 3-year-old), you may just want to keep the computer shut down during the day time, then boot it up in the evening after the kids go to bed. 

    I guess we are blessed in that our kids (so far) haven’t shown much interest or initiative in trying to use the computer unsupervised.

  • End all live TV watching and move to DVD/tape only. They are finite: they end, and without a tease for the next thing due to come on.  Thus, when it’s over (without commercials, which I’ve never let my children watch), it’s over.

    Shorts are particularly good for this, unless you’re weird about cartoon violence: Looney Tunes, Popeye, Tom and Jerry, Mickey Mouse, Donald, Pluto, Shaun the Sheep, etc.  They are about 7 minutes each.  We say “you can have 3 of these, then you read or play.”

    Old TV cartoons are good too.  Scooby Doo, Flintstones, etc, are about 22 minutes each.

    We set rules early on that television is limited to Friday through Sunday, and have a family movie night each week.  Dig out the old Disney live action features like Herbie or Shaggy Dog. The kids still love them, and most libraries carry them.

    We have 1 TV, and the kids don’t turn it on. It helps that it requires three remotes and several specific settings to get anything to show.

  • Our TV died several years back and my wife told me not to replace it, so we went four years without (just recently my wife bought a small one).

    One immediate impact was the reduction in the noise level in the house. Often the TV was on seemingly to provide a background distraction with noise.

    Mind you, it did not mean the kids were quieter, though arguments over which TV show to watch ended.

    Giving up TV all together is not that hard, and it is a great counter-cultural move too.

  • Get rid of the TV.  We did and have never regretted it.

    At one point I asked myself:  why do I think it’s bad for my kids to watch TV but it’s okay for me to?  Really,  why do I want to expose my wife and I to that trash?

    We suddenly had much more time for books.


  • Scott: Two responses.

    why do I think it’s bad for my kids to watch TV but it’s okay for me to?

    There are lots of things that aren’t okay for kids that are fine for adults. There are books that are okay for me to read that I wouldn’t my kids to read.

    The difference is that my kids are still growing, impressionable and not yet formed and without mature judgment.

    Really,  why do I want to expose my wife and I to that trash?

    I know it’s unpopular to say so in some circles, but I think it’s painting with too broad a brush to say that everything on TV is trash. I think that there are lots of shows that are worthwhile.
    I can’t count the number of times Melanie and I stop in the middle of Lost or Heroes or another show to have a long discussion on morality or human nature or philosophy.

    I recall that there were those who wanted to shut down Shakespeare’s Globe Theater on moral grounds. The same thing with Mozart’s Operas.

    I’m not saying everything on TV is worthwhile. But not everything is trash.

    If you find that not watching TV works for your family, that’s great. But I would hesitate to propose it as a rule.

  • I understand cutting off the “live feed” for kids, but I don’t understand the idea of going without a visual medium in the home whatsoever. It strikes me as pinched and fundamentalist, as though only the written word has value. A childhood deprived of things like the Disney classics (Snow White, Pinocchio, Dumbo) or the Wizard of Oz and Bugs Bunny would be a sad childhood indeed. I can’t see kids thanking their parents for it later. Well-done movies and television speak to the heart in ways no other medium can.

  • I posted the original question to Dom.

    First let me say there are some wonderful suggestions on here and I thank everyone very much.

    I do want to correct myself on something. It was my fault for not being more clear about my personal situation, but I think even those suggestions that would apply better to others are wonderful to have as responses here for others to read. My girls do not watch much of what is on television. Disney Channel in the morning. That is it. And not every morning, nor usually for very long. They might get one episode of Handy Manny or Mickey Mouse Clubhouse in but that is usually about it. My girls’ problems are DVDs. We keep our DVDs out of sight, but our 3 year old knows where they are and which ones we have and she likes, etc. She doesn’t watch anything bad – mostly Disney and Veggietales, maybe some Care Bears or Charlie Brown, but nothing inappropriate or bad. I wish we could keep the TV out of sight – i like that idea – but our TV sits on top of a TV stand and we can’t afford spending anything on any sort of covering at the moment.

    As our girls don’t watch much of what is on TV, cutting off the cable wouldn’t really solve our problem and, I confess, my dad likes to watch CSI, I like Biggest Loser Couples, 17 Kids and Counting, my husband likes Heroes, and all three of us like Hell’s Kitchen. Then of course, there is EWTN, through which we emotionally and spiritually supported the March for Life and view other programs. Also, if I cut the cable such that my dad couldn’t watch Duke Basketball, he might disown me. smile

    One thing that we have only recently discovered to be interestingly effective is using DVDs as rewards or incentives. My 3 year old has become stubborn about trying certain new foods. Yesterday she was asking during the day to watch “A Goofy Movie” and I told her to wait until dinner. Then, when she confiscated clean tupperware out of the dishwasher and refused to listen and give it back, we told her no DVD during dinner. When we were eating, she begged, even in that cute 3 year old, “Please, watch ‘Goofy Movie?’” (I hate saying no when they say “please” – I feel like I’m discouraging saying “please”) we told her she could watch it ONLY if she agreed to try some of our roast pork. She refused. No DVD. It got us a quiet peaceful dinner and she learned she doesn’t get everything she wants, especially without behaving a certain way. I’m not saying DVDs would be rewards for everything, but for girls like mine who like to watch them on the TV, on the computer and in the car, I may be able to use it to my advantage and cut back on DVDs at the same time.

    BTW, I have noticed it has been easier this week to cut the DVD watching time down and I think it is because the weather has been so much nicer we have been able to be outside. I’ve come to wonder if it is simply harder to cut back TV/DVD time in the winter when it is too cold or too wet for the kids to play outside. This week though, they have begged to go out on the deck even when they were in the middle of a DVD. So, as a note for other parents trying to cut back, maybe the best time to work on it is when the weather is nice.

    Much, much thanks to everyone for their comments and insights. I know it is a problem in many people’s homes and the more ideas on how to keep TV/DVD watching to a reasonable amount, the more people might find ways to implement it in their homes. God Bless!!!

  • I don’t know what age this would be appropriate for—not the youngest ones. But you might want to issue them tokens that they can trade in for a certain amount of TV viewing or computer time. Let them know that they have to pick carefully. If they don’t use up the token for that day, let them save it for the next day if they like.

    But the idea is to make them think about how much they really want to watch a show, or whether they’d rather skip it and do something else.

  • When my oldest was about 4 I thought he watched too much TV; starting in the early afternoon all the educational children’s shows, such as Sesame Street and Electric company, and a few more, adding up to several hours a day.  He didn’t want to be gone from the house during that time lest he miss his shows.  One day a ball or something went behind the TV.  He went back there to get it, knocked the TV down and it stopped working.  We didn’t try to fix it, just put it out for the trash.  And we didn’t have one for the next 20 years or so, while I had many more children.  I was way too busy to watch TV and my husband worked way too many hours to watch TV;  on his one day off a week he was happy to read.  My children invented their own games.  They played in amazingly creative ways. 
    I think this is the best thing we ever did.  After 20 years or so,  I wanted to watch movies on tape.  I asked the salesman if I could buy something which wouldn’t receive TV but just pay videos; he said there was no such thing,  which is actually untrue, but there was no such thing in his store.  I bought a TV, thinking that with no cable, in the valley we lived in we wouldn’t get anything worth watching.  We didn’t, but my children would watch the snow and static, it was such a novelty.  Then they secretly hooked it up to an antenna which had been left in the attic by the previous owners of the house.  (I knew nothing of this, I never went in the attic.)  So when I wasn’t there, they managed to bring in some local channels.  Eventually I figured if they were going to watch TV they might as well be able to watch the better stuff, and I got cable.  But I think the kids who grew up with it were impoverished in their ability to play creatively compared to those who didn’t .  Not completely so, but noticeably so.  They didn’t read as much or attempt such difficult books. 
    I don’t think black and white matters much.  My generation had only black and white TV growing up and still got hooked on it.

    My advice is,  get rid of the thing.  You won’t be sorry.  After a while the idea of someone coming into your house trying to sell
    cars or birth control pills or makeup or deodorant will seem outrageous.  You will come to appreciate silence.  You will read more.  Your kids will read more.  They will draw more pictures.  They will go out and build forts in the woods.  They will built play towns of sticks and stones in the yard.  They will stop asking for the latest expensive popular toy. 

    This is my 2 cents worth, take it or leave it.  I suppose most will leave it. 
    Susan Peterson