FAMILY ALMANAC

Toddlers testing TV time limits — when to draw the line

Posted Oct. 13, 2013, at 10:36 a.m.

Q. My husband and I have a dilemma and it revolves around TV.

We let our very bright, intense 3 1/2–year-old watch an educational TV show in the morning before he goes to preschool and to child care and then we let him watch another show in the evening so he can get some down time while I take care of the baby.

Lately however our son has begun to engage in power struggles with us whenever it’s time to turn off the television — and I’m not talking about a little fussing and whining. First he pesters us, badgers us and begs us to let him watch TV a bit longer even though we always set the timer when the show begins and repeatedly tell him that we will turn off the television as soon as the show is over.

Although we never give in, our son continues to beg us and then to argue with us, and when it gets bad enough we put one of his favorite toys on the mantelpiece for the rest of the night: the consequence he has to pay when he acts like that. Once it escalates to that point however, he starts yelling at us and then he goes into full tantrum mode.

How can we have a little time together in the morning and the evening without all this angst and all these arguments?

A. Young children are an awful lot like young teenagers. They will be fairly obedient most of the time, but only if you give them some say-so when your decisions are going to affect them; if you give them a lot of sympathy when you have to say no and if you look at the situation from his point of view.

Although your son knows that he is the center of your universe — because you and your husband are the center of his universe — he also knows that he is only half as high as you are; that he knows much, much less than you do and that he doesn’t have the words or the skill to tell you how much it hurts when you raise your voice (or even your eyebrow) just because he has done something wrong. So how does he respond? He yells loud and long because he doesn’t know what else to do. Anger is a child’s favorite weapon and parents are the targets he likes best.

Your child’s anger is also a sign of the power you wield but you must never, ever abuse it — and you won’t do that as long as you realize that you and your husband run the house, but it’s your child who runs the show. And he runs it not because he is smarter or better than you are but because he is growing — mentally, physically and psychologically — which makes his behavior change a little every few weeks. And when that happens, your discipline has to change a bit too. It’s like a game of catch-up. You’ll always be a little late but most of your new corrections will work as long as they trust and respect your child and let him be as independent as you possibly can. This approach should even curb your son’s love of TV but if he keeps begging for it so much, then turn the set off for a couple of weeks — without saying why or for how long — and just play CD’s during his down time instead. He won’t fuss for TV nearly as much when you turn it on again.

You might also follow the advice of one family day care provider who found that time limits work best if they come from the kitchen timer rather than the provider — or the parent. Although this lady would set the timer before she let her young flock watch TV, she never told them that they’d have to turn it off as soon as the show was over. When the timer beeped, however, she would simply say, “Mr. Buzzer wants you to turn off the TV now.” And the children would turn it off, without any argument, any tears or any consequences, because they knew that there wasn’t any point in arguing with a kitchen timer; because they were expected to turn off the TV themselves and because they were being treated like intelligent human beings. For all of these reasons, these children could save face. And when a child can save face, he knows that he is respected; that he is independent and that he doesn’t have to throw a tantrum to get what he wants.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com.

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