Tiredness, TV, and Tantrums

One of the best-loved things in our house (at least by one member of the family) is Thomas the Tank Engine. We have two identical toy Thomases who ride on the classic wooden track. We have a big toy Thomas that our little guy fell in love with at the local consignment shop when Daddy was buying him waterproof mittens. Thomas comes up frequently in family conversations. Thomas often sits on the dinner table to watch our son eat, perches on the counter at bathtime, comes upstairs to read stories before bed, and gets a kiss goodnight once the stories are finished. Happy dancing ensues if we play his 30-second instrumental theme on repeat on Apple Music. If we had a stuffed Thomas, I think Arlo’s faithful elephant (“Elly”) would be quickly discarded as a sleeping companion.

Unfortunately, we’ve also made Arlo aware that there is a TV program of Thomas, which has resulted in our first ongoing struggle with tantrums. We’ve generally tried, since our wee one was born, to limit screen time to a bare minimum (ie. when he was sick, getting his nails cut, or at someone else’s house), and this has been fairly easy to do at home, since we don’t have cable (we’re Netflix people), and our only tv is in the basement, which isn’t baby-proofed and therefore we don’t spend much time with him down there at all.

But, as Mindy Wood of PurposelySimple.com observes, TV is sometimes entirely too accessible and helpful an option for childcare. As she explains, “We all know that screen time in excess can be harmful to infants and toddlers, […] so why are so many young children still watching too much TV? Well, because parents are tired! [and] it’s totally understandable to want a few moments of peace every day.”

I’m seeing lately how this is especially resonant if you’re a mom eight months into a second pregnancy… and not really able to do much mobility-wise with your toddler… or if you’re a dad and your partner is experiencing the aforementioned, so you’ve been assigned more of a single-parent role lately… and your kid is having trouble sleeping but at least when he wakes up at 5am on a work day, if you put on Thomas, you can lay down with your pillow on the couch and a blanket and pretend to still get more sleep until 6:30…

…And I’m sure many parents out there have completely different but just as valid and understandable circumstances that also, bit by bit, bring them to allow a little more screen time. It’s so easy to justify, too:

“It’s not like we’re letting him watch things with commercials.”

“It’s just a little bit here and there.”

“We’re going to let him watch TV eventually anyway, so it’s not so bad to introduce it slowly now.”

“It’s so snuggly.”

“It’s so PEACEFUL when just this short program is on!”

Even though Arlo didn’t watch every day, or even close to it, I knew things were headed out of a realm of control I felt comfortable with when one unusual afternoon, his grandma dropped him off  with me after caring for him for the day and he cried because he wanted to go straight downstairs to watch “Thomas” on the “Fee-Vee” (TV), and I told him that wasn’t an option.

A few mornings later, when Arlo decided 4:50am was an appropriate time to wake up, his Dad tried to get him to go back to sleep but eventually resorted to the Very Useful Engine (oh, so useful indeed!), as that would be less stressful pre-6am for everyone within earshot. Unfortunately, this backfired when it was finally time to get ready for the day, and Arlo threw an absolute fit about Thomas being turned off – a fit complete with wailing, leg-kicking, and ultimate despair that lasted through changing his diaper, choosing clothes, putting on his shoes, and finally getting out the door. We parents both managed, somehow, to keep our cool during this fit, and I heard myself saying, repeatedly, “Well, Arlo, if you can’t handle it when Thomas gets turned off, then next time we won’t be able to turn him on at all.”

Right now, my biggest issue with screen time for a toddler isn’t the recommendations from experts that kids under two shouldn’t have screen time at all, or that too much video-watching inhibits communication and social skills, or that it decreases attention spans or reduces kids’ abilities to explore and discover through active play. It’s that it turns my kid into a whining, wailing, tantrum-having toddler in a way that nothing else really seems to do. He simply doesn’t seem mature enough to handle screen time.

The tough part, is, of course, that in moments that are already difficult, or leaning toward a possible tantrum, screen time is a pretty surefire way to derail that train – at least for the moment. Other options for distracting, re-directing, or otherwise dealing with undesirable behaviour all seem to require a lot more energy, which sometimes, you just don’t feel you have as a parent. (Wood actually has some helpful, tangible ideas in her piece on raising a low-media child without going insane, but they do require efforts in pre-organization and maintenance that switching on a video just doesn’t.)

I’d like to get rid of Thomas (the video version) altogether as a coping mechanism for the trickier moments of parenting, but it seems unrealistic to do so. Do we really have the willpower, even in moments where we feel depleted already, to avoid that easy fix? What if we just do it even less often – is it really so bad if it hardly ever happens? Shouldn’t we really just cut ourselves some slack in this particular period surrounding the arrival of a second child into our family? We’ll have plenty of time to figure it out later, right?

I don’t have any answers today, so I’m more looking to my fellow parents for your thoughts. What are your theories on screen time with toddlers/young children? How do you use TV, or determine when your kids can watch it, and how much?

Looking forward to hearing from you!



  1. Leah says:

    Oh geez, this is all too familiar–except in our house it has gone from youtube videos of Mater (then after several clicks and re-directs he ends up watching some annoying kid named ‘Ryan’ play with every toy imaginable) to now, Paw Patrol. The SECOND he arrives at consciousness in the morning, before he can even fully open his eyes he is asking for ‘five minutes of paw patrol only’….and in the morning, when I’m getting ready, I don’t see the harm in what ends up being 15-20 mins of it as I get ready. But then when it’s time to get moving…it’s MELT DOWN time. Like…rip off his arm he is in such agony that his screen time has ended! We’ve used a timer for a while, so it ‘helps’ sometimes with the transition from screen to no screen but i’d say at least 80% of the time he still melts down. 20% of the time, the timer thing actually works and he hands the phone back complacently.

    The same intensity of yearning returns once we step in the door (sometimes even in the car ride home) at the end of the day. Again, helpful timing as it either lets me sit with my own device to unwind..or allows me to get dinner ready. Same meltdown ensures and much of the night is spent saying…”No…you’e watched enough today, let’s go play with x….”

    I struggle with this daily…my partner and I exchange glances of ‘wtf’ when tantrums are at their peak and we collectively feel like the anguish he is facing by NOT watching videos is doing more harm than if we let him watch, five more minutes.

    I dont’ have an answer either…it’s hard to be firm and consistent all the time…i watched TV when I was his age (almost 3) and I”m okay…i think?! I do agree we need to be more gracious and kind with ourselves over it all…if this is the only we are worrying about…then we are ALL doing more than fine–are we not?


    • raiseamother says:

      Sometimes it helps so much just to know other parents are having the same struggles. I guess if it was easy, we’d have a fool-proof manual by now, right? 🙂 A timer might be an interesting thing to try in these situations for sure, to try to help the little one understand that there’s an appropriate frame for these things, and how to know what that is. Thanks, Leah!


  2. Heather says:

    Hey Lindsay! I feel like the root of the problem is less of a screen issue and more of a sleep issue? Like if Arlo was sleeping until 630 on a regular basis the temptation to turn on the TV wouldn’t be there and you could use Thomas as more of a reward for good behaviour instead of a way to cope during typically trying parenting times? We used the “gro clock” to get Liam sleeping later in the morning. And we made sure he was in bed early (7) every night as “sleep begets sleep” as they say. Now that I’m deep in the trenches of not sleeping with a 3 month old the gro clock has been an absolute saviour since i reliably know Liam won’t be up before 7 no matter what the night threw my way and often Mat is out the door before 530 so I’m alone for mornings during the week….. Just a thought though, not sure if you agree that sleep might be the real issue. He obviously loves Thomas so having it as a reward for following the gro clock might be very reinforcing for him.


  3. Lindsay@RaiseAMother says:

    Heather, I *definitely* think part of the problem is a sleep issue. Our wee one has never been a consistent sleeper, at least not for daytime naps (he has three different caregiving situations per work-week, which I think might be part of that, but he never even was consistent when I was on mat leave and trying to chart his patterns to make sense of it). He occasionally has gone through stretches of 8:30-6:30 consistent nighttime sleep, but they never last for very long. The other thing that I think is making things worse now is that he’s in a pretty extreme daddy-love obsession, and I think he’s figured out that early morning is one time he can spend with Daddy before the work day, since Mommy can’t get up and carry him at this stage of the game anymore…
    So the gro clock sounds like it might be just the ticket! I’ve been wondering for a while about some sort of clock that a 19-month-old could understand to learn the difference between ‘too early’ and ‘okay to wake up’ time (especially with the seasonal light change, I’m sure that’s very confusing for toddlers). So I’m definitely going to check that out and see if it might be useful for us to try! Thanks! 🙂


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