It all started with Toy Story. Max’s Lola got him a stuffed Buzz and Woody when she went to Tokyo Disneyland last year. A few months ago, Netflix got a whole bunch of Disney and Pixar movies. I thought I would show him Toy Story so that he could appreciate his toys. Up until then, Max would watch an episode or two of Word Party or short Sesame Street videos on YouTube. But he would lose interest after a while and he only seemed to really enjoy the musical parts. I wasn’t expecting much when I showed him Toy Story. I thought that after a few minutes, he would wander off and do something else. But he didn’t. He sat through the entire thing. And he did the same for Toy Story 2 and 3. He would then start asking for “Buh” (Buzz) every morning. Sometimes, he would climb into his highchair and buckle his seatbelt and ask for Buzz (because I would let him watch while he ate his meals). Eventually, he would go through the entire Pixar selection in Netflix. And in a blink of an eye, Max’s new interest in movies made him seem more like a child than a baby.
This new development also started my back and forth with screen time. I actually have drafts of a pro-screen time entry and an anti-screen time entry. On one hand, parking Max in front of the TV lets me to do so many things! On really bad days (aka we’ve run out of coffee days), I use it to take a breather. It’s almost always easier to feed him when he’s watching something. And I see that he’s learned to understand basic narratives because he reacts appropriately to the scenes (he laughs when it’s funny, expresses worry when things are uncertain, and cries when the characters are sad).
But I have to admit that when Max is parked in front of the TV for too long, he stores up A LOT of pent up energy. As soon as we turn off the TV, he’s more hyper and impatient. It’s almost like he turns into sleepy Max even if he napped well that day. So, he’s harder to take care of and seems fussier. On the days when he has no screen time, he’s calmer and easy going. He listens more and he’s more inclined to wait.
I’ve heard from other moms that one possible effect of too much screen time is speech delay. A mom from Singapore shared that her son wasn’t speaking so much at 3 years old and his pediatrician was concerned, so they were told to eliminate all screen time. Eventually, the boy turned out fine. Also, from my training in education and psychology, we are repeatedly told that children do not learn to express their primary language by watching television. They learn language by observation (when their caregivers model language use around them) and engagement (when language is used on them and they are given the opportunity to express it as well).
While I don’t think that Max is exhibiting any signs of speech delay (he’s actually quite eager to talk to anyone who pays attention to him), this is something that’s always at the back of my mind whenever I park him on the couch to watch television. And this is why I overcompensate with reading time.
I try my very best to read a couple of books to him at least once a day. Thankfully, Max seems to enjoy reading. He often initiates it before I do. More than the improvements in his expressive vocabulary (and there are improvements because if you read the same books over and over again, your kid is likely to start imitating you), it’s a great way for Max to focus on an activity for an extended period of time. Reading also creates opportunities for Max to practice empathy. When he sees that someone is sad in the book, he becomes sad also. And we try to use that moment to teach him emotion words that can help him regulate his own emotions. And I think it’s kind of working!
A few days ago, Max bumped his head on a table and he came up to me, pointed at his head, and said: “Momma, wawa!”. His eyes were a little wet, but he didn’t bawl like he used to. Wawa is a Filipino term that short for Kawawa which has no direct English translation, but it’s what you would use to refer to someone if you pitied them (maybe it’s comparable to the word ‘poor’—as in, “poor Johnny, he lost his lunch”). He started using this term a lot when referring to Trixie from Moe Willems’ Knuffle Bunny. Trixie was wawa when she realized that she didn’t have Kuffle Bunny and her Daddy couldn’t understand why she was upset.
Because he had this word in his arsenal and he used it to communicate his feelings, he didn’t need to freak out and cry. Instead, he took my hand and brought me to the kitchen and asked for some “ay” (ice) for his head. I was so amazed! Just a few weeks ago, that same incident would have led to many more tears, a lot of hugging, and a breastfeeding session to calm him down. But because he knew that I understood him, he didn’t need to freak out to communicate that he was hurt and needed attention. Mind blown.
As much as I would like to hippie out and say that my child absolutely does not get any screen time, I can’t. It helps me in so many ways and I am very grateful for all those wonderful Pixar movies (which we enjoy watching as well…we still cry at the end of Toy Story 3). When I start feeling uncomfortable about the amount of screen time he’s had, it’s very easy to go on a screen time detox for a few days. But regardless of how much screen time he gets in a day, we’re definitely going to keep reading.