Parenting in the Pandemic: Books and TV

Expectation: No screen time until age 2!

Reality: No nanny? Here, watch YouTube Kids.

If you’re a parent in lockdown, and you don’t have a nanny who can play with your kid, then you probably have your kid in front of the TV or holding a mobile device most of the time. I know, because it’s like that for our son, Lucas. His school is online, via Zoom. He has video calls with friends and family. We watch movies and TV shows together. If we want to learn something, we look it up on YouTube.

I’m guessing that, like me, you have a lot of guilt over this. You work, you cook and clean, you do laundry. You barely have time for yourself, whether it’s for a shower or yoga or a nice book. How can you possibly have the time or energy to play with your kid or think of activities to keep them occupied?

Really, I had several motives. I wanted my son to have less screen time, and I wanted him to read more. I remembered that the sticker chart method worked really well for his potty training (more on that in another post; thank you Jaye for the inspiration!), so I thought that might work for this new plan.

Initially, the idea was, one book = 30 minutes of TV time, and we explained this to Lucas. He couldn’t just sit in front of the TV for hours at a time. If he wanted to watch TV (or on the iPad or on the phone), he had to earn watching time.

But gradually we expanded the list. He could earn 30 minutes of watching time or video games if he:

  • Ate a meal by himself
  • Was a good boy in school
  • Read a book appropriate to his reading level
  • Did some online learning on his own

This has been a good exercise in many ways. We manage the time he spends lounging on the sofa and watching video game playthroughs or silly costume skits on YouTube. He eats by himself at every meal, and we just help him by cutting up the meat or helping pile the remaining rice onto his spoon.

Being a good boy school, that means he’s supposed to listen to his teacher and his classmates, participating enthusiastically and not tuning out or talking over everyone else. We’re… still working on this. Sometimes he’s a little too enthusiastic and incredibly talkative, and his teacher has to remind him multiple times to listen to his classmates. I don’t know where he gets his energy! (Check out his school antics on the Trooper Dad blog.)

But it has been incredibly entertaining to hear him enthusiastically ask, “Can I do math?” There’s a site called, and there he can watch videos about science concepts, or solve math problems, and even learn social studies. It seems pretty easy to navigate, and there are quizzes to check what you’ve learned. Sometimes, when he’s done watching TV, he asks, “Can I do math?” He sits in front of the laptop, and he’ll just do math quizzes or watch science videos for half an hour, or even a whole hour.

It’s also been pretty interesting to see his response to the limited TV time. We set a timer for each TV session, and as much as possible we remind him, ten minutes left, five minutes left. When he hears the alarm, he turns off the TV himself. Sometimes, on weekends, we don’t bother with a timer, and randomly he’ll turn off the TV without our prompting. “I’m done watching,” he’ll say.

Originally, the idea was to reward him with a sticker for each activity he completed, and that each sticker amounted to 30 minutes of TV time. But quickly the sticker chart was forgotten, as he would go straight from, “I fed myself properly!” or “I was a good boy in school!” to “Can I watch?”

He is still not reading as much as I would like, but I think we’ll get there. He reads everything he sees, and he reads so quickly now! He reads the titles of YouTube videos, he reads labels and prints on t-shirts, he reads the stuff I’m working on. He reads book titles and delivery packages. He reads receipts and wonders how to read acronyms. At night, when we settle down for a bedtime story, he reads the words with me.

I hope he learns to love reading as I did when I was a child. I hope stories and words come alive for him and stir passions in him as they did me.

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