Other than mapping out a plan for getting my daughter to sleep and thinking fairly consciously about what to feed her, I’ve made most of my parenting decisions on the fly. When I noticed she seemed upset if I looked at my phone a lot, I stopped. When she seemed happy to sit and look at books alone in her crib in the morning while I slept a little longer, I thought, Why not?
So, although the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends keeping anyone under the age of 2 away from screens, and even though I rarely watch a lot of TV myself, one day when she was 6 months old, I strapped my daughter into her Baby Björn bouncer, set it on the couch, and tried desperately to figure out how to turn on the television. We were home alone together, stuck in the house in a downpour, and I was hoping that loading up Sesame Street on Netflix would win me ten minutes to cook myself something warm to eat. Again: Why not?
Oh, I knew about the data. I wrote about tech on the internet for years before I became a parent, and the research overwhelmingly suggests that very small children should have extremely limited access to television, phones, computers, and iPads. My personal work in the parenting field — spending 12 waking hours a day with my daughter — backed up the screen thing right away. Anytime she had access to an iPhone, she lost it. Her eyes glazed over, and when I took it away, she cried. So, early on, I decided no phones or tablets for Zelda — not forever, just until she could handle them a bit better.
But TV seemed different. Ten minutes of watching colorful activity on television isn’t that different from ten minutes of watching colorful activity on the street for a baby, right? My kitchen was basically part of the living room, so I stayed near, keeping one eye on her reaction. She made it less than two minutes before craning her neck around, looking for me, unimpressed by Elmo or Big Bird. Needless to say, we both ate cold food that day.
In the months since then, any desperate attempt — and there have been a few — to divert her attention by showing her a TV has been a five-minute-maximum waste of time. Even when I was traveling alone with her this summer and trying to quiet her a bit for the other travelers, shoving an iPad into her hands on an airplane accomplished nothing. She simply didn’t want to sit still long enough to engage with a show, and giving her my iPhone (which certainly will distract her immediately) isn’t an option I am willing to explore except in the worst of situations (shot time at the doctor’s) because she almost always disables it, and she inevitably cries when I take it back.
She’s a bit of an all-or-nothing kind of girl, though. Sometimes I feel like you can’t do anything nice for her: Give her one piece of chocolate and she will follow you around endlessly, before she’s even swallowed the first, demanding más. She would happily get “más” all day.
But decisions made on the job, without a lot of forethought, can have crazy, wide-ranging consequences with a child, I am learning. One time in the car, I put Raffi’s version of “Wheels on the Bus” on to appease her, even though I generally impose my own musical selections on her in transit. If you haven’t heard it, it’s a really sick rendition, but it’s also only a minute and 40 seconds long, so when her little voice came from the backseat asking for “más,” I happily complied, not knowing that I was opening the door to a larger problem: That is, for her, there is never enough “más.”
Sometimes it seems like a harmless gesture of affection — playing “Wheels on the Bus” a second or third time in the car, who will it hurt? But there is never enough “más.” She must listen to “Wheels on the Bus” on repeat, hundreds of times over, until she has finished with it, until she literally stands up and screams “NOOOOOOO!” when she hears it come on. Her need for repetition until all of the joy has been lost happens in particular with music, probably because I don’t allow it with things like food. I’ve read the same book to her 20 times in a row, only to find that she would like me to go on. I go on.
It should be no surprise, then, that at some point she would combine with her undeniable lust for “más” with an aptitude for chilling — the ideal mood for watching a passive medium like television. I know, “passive” sounds like a negative, but recently a friend, also the parent of a toddler, succinctly described the upside to sitting and watching: “They’re so busy all day, sometimes it’s nice to just see them chill.” And it is. Suddenly, my child has progressed from merely having two modes, ON and OFF, to having a third, where she can just be for a bit. She doesn’t need to be fully active and engaged in a creative project 100 percent of the time she is awake, and I’m okay with that — I even support it.
And so, a few weekends ago, in the evening, when I wanted to make dinner and my husband, Josh, wanted to cuddle with Zelda, he carried her to the couch and sat down to view the Disney movie Frozen. This wasn’t the first time Zelda had been shown Frozen — we’d purchased it ages ago thinking maybe its songs would catch her fancy, to no avail. He put it on this time simply because it was available. And it clicked. She sat, enraptured, watching it for nearly an hour — where previously it was impossible to imagine her sitting still for ten minutes. The next day she asked for it again. “Frarry, frarry,” she said over and over, finally pointing at the television. We put on Frozen. She watched.
Every day now, inevitably, she asks for Frarry. Some mornings I hear her in her crib talking to herself about it in the dark before I’ve even said “Good morning” to her. Mostly I ignore her requests, knowing that her appetite for “más” can’t be quenched just yet.
“Let’s restrict her to 30 minutes a day,” I say to Josh, knowing how hard that will be considering that the movie is an hour and 40 minutes long and she is extremely invested in its narrative. I try to limit it to the evening, while I cook dinner. I hear myself making excuses for a Disney movie I know I should be opposed to, at least on principle: “It’s pretty feminist, I guess, the way the women save each other instead of a man having to do it.” I am beginning to think weird thoughts about this movie. I know it was a global phenomenon, but I didn’t experience it in real time; I’m only getting to it now. “Sven and Kristoff have an interesting relationship,” I note, though only Zelda is around to care.
I don’t know what to think or feel. On the one hand, I’m happy to see my daughter patiently sit, engaging with a narrative. She knows the parts of the movie now, and that’s extremely cute — “Anna boom!” “Amazing!” — and she certainly knows the words to the songs. I have some very positive early memories of childhood television-viewing, mostly involving Mister Rogers and The Love Boat, with my parents cuddling beside me on the couch.
But Zelda’s brain is downloading Frozen in a way I never could as a child. I couldn’t watch a movie whenever I wanted to — screenings were at the whim of TV programmers. Later, I could rewind a VHS tape, but those did not lend themselves to the types of repeat moves she now requests: “NA NA NA,” she yells, letting me know when she wants me to start the movie over (the first piece of music opens with a chorus singing, “Na na na”). She knows that the television can produce not just TV shows but Frozen, and she has almost no interest thus far in broadening her horizons. Sometimes I’m tempted to think that Frozen is the McDonald’s of kids movies in that it might just be genetically engineered to be as addictive and delicious as possible. Despite its many annoying plot holes, my daughter seems to think this movie is the shit, and nothing I do or say has any effect.
So several times a day I hear her wander into the living room, knowing it’s only a matter of seconds. “Frarry,” she says, smiling at me. “Na na na, Anna boom. Snowman.” And, depending on the time of day, I either divert her attention away, wondering what Walt Disney has done to my child, or I breathe a quiet sigh of relief, grab a blanket, and say, “Do you wanna build a snowmannnnnnn?” And I try not to worry about, for now, whether I’m a lazy mother for giving in to my extremely smart daughter. I’m sure we’ll have worse fights than this, and I’m prepared to win when it really matters.