The day my toddler asked me to put down my phone

By Denise Lim

Deep in thought, I failed to notice the persistent drumming of little fingers on my thigh.

“Put… down… your phone,” sputtered my ruddy-cheeked, then 20-month-old toddler, tightly clutching her Dr Seuss’ Mr Brown Can Moo board-book.

My husband shot me – and my smartphone – a pointed glance.

I brandished the screen, displaying a half-composed e-mail. “This is for work,” I mumbled defensively. “Not like I am on social media.” (Just in case it looked like I was watching amusing video parodies of global political figures. Again.)

Instinctively, of course, I grasped the point. It was precious family time on a Sunday evening, and we had set out to have fun and bond with our children – device-free.

That one of my toddler’s first complete sentences – complete with a possessive adjective – was about my smartphone also delivered food for thought.

It is not that screen time pervades our family life, I rationalised.

My three children, now in kindergarten and nursery, neither watched television nor played with personal digital devices the first two years of their lives. The screen embargo was lifted temporarily on only two occasions: for the National Day Parade live telecast and for FaceTime when my husband travelled abroad.

Our television set was a white elephant. I consider this a feat, given how we used to eagerly catch the latest programmes in our once child-free life. (Game Of Thrones in recent years? BBC’s Sherlock? Forget it.)

But I suppose these efforts were well worth it. We enjoyed our children climbing onto our laps and clamouring to be read to, embarking on “good old-fashioned” pursuits like climbing at the playgrounds, doodling, dancing and simply goofing around – activities we loved for growing their imaginations.

I high-fived my husband when my elder twins hit the age of two, before which the American Academy of Paediatrics recommended no screen exposure (although this guideline has recently been changed to 18 months).

“We made it,” I cried, until it sank in that if we wanted to effectively limit screen exposure for our youngest, delaying the introduction of television for another year or two for the elder ones would really help. Today, my brood watches a curated selection of programmes on television or YouTube, twice a week.

Related: 6 ways to limit screen time for babies, toddlers and preschoolers

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