If you come over on any given day of the week, at any time, the television will be on at our house. I have a serious love of the Food Network and crime dramas, and yes, the occasional show on TLC or Oxygen. Hubs loves his movies and if...er... WHEN he gets up before I do, he's usually watching one while reading his paper. And now there is a tiny tv on the side, for the Little Man's viewing pleasure and for my sanity. Once Hubs and I spent an entire evening quoting children's dvds to each other, it was decided we needed two tvs.
I found out when Little Man was about a year old that the television was the only thing that could soothe the tantrums and screaming. I tried everything that the baby books recommended first, letting him cry it out, rocking, soothing, food, changing him, long walks, drives... nothing. Tantrums with Little Man at a year old were hours long, to the point where he'd lose his voice from screaming so much and burst the little capillaries by his eyes. If a stranger was in the house, he would spend the entire visit in tears. Nothing got done, my ears were ringing, and the stranger usually never wanted to return. The poor Infant and Toddler therapists tried so hard to get him to warm up to them, but it never happened.
Then one day I caved. There was this magical preschool channel - Sprout. It played all day long, and the programs seemed responsible and geared toward the needs of preschoolers. And I turned it on...
And the screaming stopped. Certain shows, like the quieter British ones (Thomas, Kipper the Dog) really got his attention. He was so happy and so content, it was like the heavens had opened and the sun was shining down on us. Okay I exaggerate but if you'd seen even one of his tantrums back then you'd know how I felt.
So we started leaving the tv on when people would visit. The therapist was excited to finally work with him. Friends enjoyed a glass of wine and good conversation with me while he watched his show.
So we thought... lets do this everywhere!!! Restaurants that had been formerly off limits were open again when we bought a portable DVD player. After splitting with Ex, I could take Little Man with me to the dentist or doctor and set him up in the big Graco stroller with the dvd player attached and he would sit quietly for a couple hours while I got my teeth cleaned.
It was an amazing discovery.
Then came the naysayers. "Your kid watches too much tv. He needs to play outside. He needs to interact with you more. You are stunting his growth." I didn't want to be "that mom". You know, the one the other mommies judge and say nasty things about behind her back. The one with poor parenting skills. I already was the baby of the mom groups. Now here I am, letting my kid watch tv ALL DAY LONG!?!?! Ugh.
But when I turned it off, the tantrums were back. The exhausting crazy tantrums that never stopped. Or a new development that started to alarm me. He would press his hands into his throat and hum loudly to feel the vibrations. He could do it for hours, laying on the floor while his eyes unfocused and he stared into space. Til I turned the tv back on and he was dancing and 'rocking out' to the Wiggles or Thomas.
[Rocking out is our polite phrasing for rocking back and forth, since when you say "My son is just rocking out, no big deal" people react less strongly than if you say "Oh yeah he loves to rock back and forth for hours slamming his back into the pillows, no big deal".]
In desperation I turned to one of the only docs that Little Man had ever warmed up to - his behavioral psychologist. He sees him twice a month to help with communication, but we'd originally started with him when the tantrums were at their peak. I asked him what to do - how to be a better Mommy that didn't let her kid watch tv for hours a day.
And he said the words that I repeat to myself when those other moms give me the judgey look at my child getting a portable dvd player whipped out of the diaper bag as the screaming starts:
"You know your child best."
What is better for Little Man? Hours of staring off into space, chewing on the pillows or pressing his hands into his throat because it is entertaining to him? Or maybe watching some Dora and somewhere in there learning something, maybe one day being able to respond to her stupid open ended questions.
So television it is. We have graduated from Sprout (since our Dish Network doesn't give us that channel) to DVDs and the occasional PBS. We watch them incessantly, on loop for hours. We take breaks of course, to do therapy games and eat snacks, run errands... but his attention span on games and snacks is maxed out after a half hour. So its back to the tv and more Caillou or Thomas. He has toys and books of course, and with the tv on he can multitask with chewing on those or pressing buttons on a toy for a moment or two. He also "runs laps" which is where he runs around the house in excited circles or bounces on furniture for a little bit til he comes back to his tv. But mostly a contented day for him involves several hours of his 2D friends.
So here is my blanket apology to all the parents of the typical four year olds I see out at restaurants, or at the grocery store when Little Man just can't take any more of the stimulation of new people and new experiences. The ones who shoot me dirty looks while their kids beg for their own table top tv or to be able to sit with our family and watch some Thomas the Tank Engine. I'm sorry we're television addicts. But the withdrawal just isn't worth it.