In my experience, tv changes my kids. I can clearly tell the difference in behavior when we live with little or no tv , to when we go back to having cable or satellite. Most recently, between when we canceled our cable before we moved (and basically lived on a small amount of PBS for several months) to now when we have satellite service and some channels with kids' programming 24/7, the kids are definitely different. Without tv my kids were more patient, listened better, looked at more books, did puzzles, and generally acted like they were more intelligent. Now the first entertainment they want is tv, and they have less patience, have shorter attention spans, and resort to yelling sooner. They're improving again now because we've been cutting back on tv time in the past few weeks, but I think even less screen time would be better.
That is my experience with my 5 kids, but I have found it to be true even when I had only one child. We stayed home together. I didn't play directly with him all day, but he didn't watch tv all day either. We had Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street and Blue's Clues. Then - he did what I did or played with his own toys where I was. Instead of tv we listened to classical music, kids' music, and books on tape. Sometimes we had a picture book to go with the tape, but often we just listened while doing other things. When I was in the kitchen, he played with safe kitchen items. Sometimes he was in his highchair so he could see what I was doing, or to keep him away from the oven. Sometimes he was on the floor scattering measuring cups hither and yon, and banging on pots with wooden spoons, making me more deaf than I was. Sometimes I helped him dump the flour for the pizza dough into a bowl.
My suggestion for moms of just one small child is to turn off the tv as much as you can handle. Make yourself *at least* twice a day (more if you can) during the day, (not bedtime) sit with your child just for one activity - show him how to do something like a puzzle or read a picture book to him, even if he doesn't seem to be paying attention. If he can't leave the book you're reading alone, give him another book to turn pages in but keep reading. Or give him paper and a crayon for 5 min. in his highchair. At 19 mo. my first child learned do a 20 piece board puzzle because my husband would sit with him at our coffee table and they'd do it together while sports highlights were on ESPN in the evenings. Before he was 2 he could cut with safety scissors. Supervised, of course, but that came about because if I was doing a craft project, I found something similar he could do too, if he wanted to. Little kids need plenty of attention, but for many things they don't need undivided attention. Reading them a story book while you are watching the news still counts even if it isn't ideal.
I don't much like playing cars or dolls or other pretend games with my kids. Vroom vroom for about 3 min. is all I can handle. Choo choo is better because then I can build the track, but I don't actually run the trains. The track is done and I'm done. There you go, have fun! I have always been in awe of women who can sit and play Barbie with their little girls. Mind numbing is not my thing. Of course, I didn't even own a Barbie as a kid, but I did have lots of pretend games with my Susie bear and my Raggedy Ann and my baby dolls. But now as an adult I can't really pull it off. If I play Lego with the boys, I invariable have to either build something from a plan or sort pieces. I can't just pick up a spaceship and jump into Exploding Super Nova Bombs vs. Black Hole Ships of Doom or whatever the game is called these days. "No, Mom. The red things are blasters, the yellow ones are transporters." I mean, I can't even figure out the rules to playing Pokemon cards. Maybe because I've never tried.
But really? I don't think it bothers my kids. They seem to get it that I need something different. And when they were little (some of them still are, but I'm thinking of the two oldest ones who are now 14 and 10), they didn't rely on me to entertain them. I did my best to make sure they had a safe but stimulating environment, and I left them to it. And if they wanted to join me in whatever I was doing, I let them as long as it wasn't dangerous and I had the time and patience to let them "help" me. Sometimes that just meant picking them up to show them what I had, and putting them down again.
But back when I only had one kid I didn't have a computer! That is a biggie, but I would equate my computer time with my teaching time as far as attention paid to the little ones. When the older kids and I are doing school work (and/or computer), or I am cleaning, sewing, etc. etc. the two youngest (ages 3 yrs and 21 mos) are still entertaining themselves. Like I said, tv is their first choice, but when I say no to that then they "paint" with water on their chalkboard, stack and stick felt pieces together, cook in their pretend kitchen, do puzzles, play with big magnets on the fridge, or sit next to me and color. They build with Wedgits, try on Mom's shoes, "wash" dishes in a dishpan, or hide under blanket tents. They play separately as often as they play together, so though they are companions, they aren't dependent on one another and they function fine when one or the other is gone to swimming, or the library, or shopping with Dad. What I mean to say is, I think these things work for only children as well as children with siblings. Maybe even better for onlys, because they don't have to share.
This post is a lot longer than I meant it to be. I will just say in closing that if you love playing kiddie games with your little one, that is great. However, if you can't stand more than 4 minutes of flying a toy airplane between the couch and the chair and back again, I think that's ok. But just because your child is small doesn't mean they aren't absorbing things. They watch you and copy you and learn all the time. And a real person is much more interesting than a tv screen in the long run. They need to learn that, and speaking for myself, sometimes so do I.
*Ok, a LOT.
H/T to Cheeky Pink Girl for the idea for this post.