How can we take a balanced approach to TV if my 2 year old asks for it constantly?

Michael Rich, MD, MPH

Michael Rich, MD, MPH, is Boston Children’s Hospital’s media expert and director of Boston Children’s Center on Media and Child Health. Send him a media-related parenting question via cmch@childrens.harvard.edu and follow him on Twitter @CMCH_Boston.

Q: My daughter comes home and the first thing she says is, “I want to watch Doc McStuffins.” We try to avoid TV during the week and let her watch it on the weekends. She is 2 now, but before this, she was not exposed to television. If we tell her we don’t watch TV during the week, she may get upset and say she doesn’t want to go to school. Should we be concerned?? I don’t want to make TV some “prized possession.” We want a balanced approach in our household. I just get concerned when I hear her freak out if we don’t want to put on her favorite show.

Doubting Doc in Norcross, GA

A: Dear Doubting,

The fact that your daughter asks for this show every time you come home probably means two things:

  1. She’s trying to master television viewing as an activity. She likely asks for this over and over the same way she might ask over and over for anything that is novel and, like television, a developmental stretch.

  2. She is trying to incorporate television viewing into her routine. Children are creatures of habit, and predictable routines are comforting. Perhaps she’s seen the show a few times right after getting home, so it’s becoming an expectation for her. Given the many more developmentally optimal activities for 2 year olds, such as imaginative play, building, and music, you can build a routine that is richer in experience than even the best educational TV.

It sounds like you don’t want her to expect to watch television every time you come home, but you’d also prefer to avoid the conflict that you anticipate will come with saying “No”. Subsequently,

  • Don’t say “No”, say “Yes” to other activities. Pre-empt her TV request by having an activity ready to go when she arrives home—a different activity each day.
  • Make TV and “Doc McStuffins” part of a varied menu of experiences, each of which happens sometimes but not always. Use TV in mindful and directed ways when she’s able to learn from it, and avoid making it a treat or, in its restriction, a punishment. If she asks for the show when it’s not part of the day’s menu, clearly, firmly and compassionately let her know the activity you will be doing instead. Be matter of fact about it.
  • Don’t anticipate or fear her “freaking out”—your very smart 2 year-old will sense your worry and may take advantage of it. As her parent, you must set boundaries and guide her toward activities and experiences that most enrich her. Know that even if she has a tantrum, she is expressing her frustration in a way that is developmentally appropriate and that you should not change your actions or plans based on her behavior. Setting expectations and parameters for her as a toddler will help her realize what is expected of her and shape her increasing self-discipline as she grows up.

As a toddler, your daughter does not know how much of something she enjoys, whether it’s TV or ice cream, is good for her. It’s up to you to set expectations and enforce them with love, clarity, and strength. School, meals, and bedtime are all part of the routine she needs. They are not negotiable. They just happen, day in and day out, regardless of what else is going on. While it’s developmentally normal for her to challenge those routines as she is learning them, the most important part of that development is your clear adherence to expectations. Take a look at some other resources that can help you navigate those challenges.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

The Mediatrician®