On a friend’s recommendation, a mom in Laredo, Texas, rents Pirates of the Caribbean for her 6- and 4-year-olds. She has to shut off the TV when her kids start to cry at the frightening images of skeleton pirates. “I knew it was rated PG-13, but it was by Disney, and my friend has kids the same age,” she says. “I don’t know what she was thinking.”
A working mom in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, hates that her stay-at-home husband plants their kids, 3 and 2, in front of the TV for hours at a time, but her husband doesn’t understand her frustration. “They’re watching learning channels,” he counters.
“I’ll say, ‘Okay, only one show. Half an hour,'” a Los Angeles mom says. “Then the phone rings, or I start doing something, and before I know it, it’s been an hour and a half. But at least the kids have been out of my hair the whole time.”
Confusion. Frustration. Relief. Guilt. For parents, these sentiments coexist with the big box or flat screen in the living room. There may not be anything in a mom’s life that causes so many mixed emotions on a regular basis.
The angst that many parents feel stems partly from the way TV and DVDs or videos are often used — to keep kids occupied while parents do grown-up tasks. And there’s the sense that other moms and dads are judging your parenting skills by what your child watches, or how much.
Almost 85 percent of moms say they turn on the TV or pop in a DVD or video “sometimes or often” to get tasks done around the house, according to a recent survey of Parenting’s MomConnection, an online panel of mothers around the country. Of the 1,100 moms, those with kids ages 2 and 3 — active but usually not yet in preschool — are the most likely to turn to TV for distraction purposes. (How else are you supposed to do a load of laundry or get dinner ready without an extra set of hands or eyes?)
At the same time, a quarter of all moms said they felt guilty about the amount of TV their kids watch. “I’m afraid too much TV is going to take away from my sons’ ability to use their imagination and explore the real world,” admits Trish Rawls, mom of AJ, 4, and Hank, 3, in Fredericksburg, Texas. “I don’t want to raise kids who can’t entertain themselves — or will end up as couch potatoes.”
Jeannie Ralston recently moved to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, so her two sons could attend a bilingual school.
The big fib
The sense that it’s important to do the right thing can be so great that almost a fifth of moms say they lie about either how much or what their kids watch. (Parents of kids under 2 are most apt to misrepresent the amount watched; those with older ones tend to lie more about the content.) And almost two-thirds think other parents lie to them.
“There’s so much pressure to be a good parent, I sometimes fudge,” says a mom of two from Charleston, South Carolina. “It’s hard to admit that your kids watch three hours a day or that you use it as a babysitter.”
I’ll cop to having given in to TV marathons for my two boys when they were younger, not having the backbone to simply turn off the set and deal with the tears that would inevitably ensue. I’d comfort myself with the idea that they were watching PBS or a commercial-free DVD, but who was I kidding?
It can also be hard to keep track of how long the TV’s actually on. “I think everyone underestimates, myself included,” says Martha Outlaw, a mom of two, ages 7 and 4, in Wilton, Connecticut. “If there were a timer on the TV, I think most of us would be surprised.” In fact, when Nielsen Media Research began using sophisticated measuring technology earlier this year, the company found that children ages 2 to 11 watched up to 33 percent more TV than reported the year before, when households were responsible for tracking their own tube time.
When it comes to what’s on TV, moms with kids of all ages are bothered most by violence, followed by sexual or suggestive content. But, says Kate Holmes, a mom of two kids in Los Angeles, “at five or six, the whole landscape changes. It seems like there’s really nothing geared for that age group, until they’re about twelve. So they end up watching things that are too old for them.”
Indeed, moms of kids ages 7 to 12 are most likely to disregard ratings, saying that they think their kids can handle the content despite the ratings. Beverly Henry of Temple, Texas, admits that her sons, 9 and 7, have on occasion watched R-rated movies on TV. “I let them watch Godzilla. I covered their eyes during the scariest parts, and afterward we talked about the bad language used and how these were words they shouldn’t be using.”
Many moms, however, feel that it’s not enough to merely shield a child’s eyes; 75 percent say they’ve turned off a show or movie because they didn’t want their child to view a certain scene.
Keeping track of the Joneses
Maybe because TV limits are so hard to enforce, almost 50 percent of moms in the Parenting survey say they’re secretly relieved to find out about other moms’ more lenient rules. Says Marianne Zapella of San Diego: “When I found out that a friend’s five-year-old was allowed to watch Fear Factor, I was so surprised. I thought I must be doing okay as a mom. Even though I want to make my own decisions, I can’t help but be influenced by what other people are letting their kids watch.”
If you need more reassurance, I’ll admit to letting my 3-year-old watch Top Gun on video repeatedly because he loved airplanes so much. What was I thinking, with all that violence and testosterone? Okay, the images didn’t seem to upset him, and I did turn down the sound so he wouldn’t hear the curse words, but looking back, I probably could’ve found a tamer video of flying jets.
Other mothers’ rules can be a problem, say moms, when their child is under someone else’s watch. More than a third of moms report that at some point they’ve disapproved of other parents’ TV policies, yet most of them say they don’t express it. “I realize I have to go with the flow,” says Terri Sigler of Asheville, North Carolina. “The best I can do is to send my child to a friend’s house with an approved DVD.”
Moms of grade-schoolers are the most likely to speak up. “When Hunter was six, he watched The Terminator, which is rated R, at a friend’s house,” says Holland Stephens, a Seattle mom of two. “When I found out, I said to my friend that we only let Hunter watch G-rated movies. She was cool about it.”
In the end, no matter how much peace and quiet can be bought when a show or DVD is on, about 40 percent of moms say they don’t like TV. This is most true of moms with kids ages 7 to 9 — 55 percent give it a thumb’s down. “I feel like so much of it is filler,” says Stephens, whose children are 10 and 7. “But what I dislike most is how it’s brought on this hipness level and sophistication in young kids that I’m not comfortable with. It’s not just the violence — it’s how children are treating each other in some kids’ programs and how they talk to their parents like they’re equals.”
Though she admits to having guilt for using the TV as a babysitter when her kids were younger, she and her husband have reassessed its role in their family’s life. On a recent vacation to a TV-free cabin, they were surprisingly content without the tube or movies. “We read together, played games, and just hung out,” she says. “That’s when I decided we shouldn’t have so much TV — not any of us. So we cut back when we got home. It’s incredibly liberating to have finally gotten some control.”