The Dumpling Is Like the Cat I Never Had

Coming home from work is my favorite part of the day. It has been 12 hours since I last saw the Dumpling, so surely she would have missed me as I have missed her. The poor girl had probably spent her whole day waiting for mommy to shower her with hugs and kisses.

At least that was what I thought as I walked through the front door.

“Sweetie, Mommy is home!” Expecting the scene that I just envisioned to play out, I held open my arms and waited.

The Dumpling glanced at me and then continued watching The Secret Life of Pets for the umpteenth time.

“Sweetheart?” I called again.

My daughter didn’t even turn her head this time.

“Can you give mommy a hug?” I waited with my arms still wide open. I eventually gave up and went over to hug and kiss her instead.

Weekday evenings can be rough. It’s always a mad dash to leave work at 5:30 pm just to spend the next 1.5 hours sitting through New York City rush hour traffic. When I get home around 7:00 pm, it’s time to start my second job as the Dumpling’s mommy.

On this particular night, it was 7:30 pm by the time the Dumpling was fed and cleaned, but I needed to keep her occupied for another few minutes to vaccuum the trail of crumbs she left all over the house and pack her food for daycare tomorrow.

“Do you want to watch Masha and the Bear?” I asked her as I turned on Netflix. The Dumpling nodded and climbed on the couch. That would be approximately 10 minutes of uninterrupted free time I just bought myself, so I hurried back into the kitchen. After I was done, I peeped into the living room to check on the Dumpling. Finding that she was still content with watching TV, I rummaged through the fridge for some leftovers and popped the plate in the microwave. I finally had some time to myself!

I was maybe four bites in when the Dumpling scurried over.

“Ma-nye, poe poe!” She said with arms wide open and the saddest look on her face.

“Aw, sweetie! You finally want mommy to hold you?” I forgave all previous transgressions and scooped her up.

“Sit.” The Dumpling instructed while pointing to the living room couch. I carried her over and she snuggled up in between my arms as we watched TV together. When she made a silly face in imitation of the main character, we both giggled hysterically.

My daughter is like a cat that I never had: she demands my attention when it suits her but pretends that I don’t exist when it doesn’t. At that moment, all she wanted was her mommy, so I held her even tighter because moments like this were worth everything that I worked so hard for.

The Dumpling then perked up when she heard the front door opened.

“Daddy! Daddy!” She said with the biggest smile on her face and ran over with arms wide open…just like the scene I had envisioned for myself earlier.

For the rest of the night, I was relegated to nonexistent.

Why We Let the Dumpling Watch A Lot of TV

The television is almost always on when we are home with the Dumpling. Recently The Secret Life of Pets seems to have taken top spot as her favorite movie and has been playing on constant repeat. When the scene of Leonard the poodle came on, she dropped whatever she was doing and waited for the music to transition from Vivaldi to System of the Down. The Dumpling would then imitate Leonard’s headbanging by jumping up and down to the heavy metal.

We have probably watched this movie about 30 times in the past month. As high as that total sounds, it is actually a distant third compared to Kung Fu Panda I and III, which she watched at least 150+ times each.

To get those stats, jigg and I let the Dumpling watch about two hours every weekday and essentially as much as she wants on weekends if we’re not out. This comes out to an average of 3.5 hours per day, which exceeds the amount that experts recommend for the Dumpling’s age group. Apparently the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages media use for children younger than 18 to 24 months. The organization’s guideline used to be no screen time at all for children under 2 years old, but have recently lowered the age to 18 months. Their current recommendation is one hour per day for children between 2 to 5 years old.

Despite warnings from researchers about the dangers of too much screen time, neither jigg nor I think our daughter’s current TV intake is bad. On the surface, it’s easy to judge parents like us who use electronic media as an easy way to get 15-20 minute blocks of uninterrupted free time. I’m also not going to deny that to a certain extent, I sometimes encourage the Dumpling to watch TV just so I can drink my morning coffee in peace. The reality, however, is that most of those logged hours are accumulated together with the Dumpling.

To be clear, watching television in our household means playing Netflix on our living room TV. The Dumpling has no concept of channels, scheduled show times, commercials, or anything associated with traditional television that jigg and I grew up with. She has her own Netflix profile with access to curated shows and movies like the Kung Fu Panda movies, The Secret Life of Pets, Zootopia, Thunder and the Magic House, Finding Dory, Masha and the Bear, The Mother Goose Club, and Minions. Missing from the repertoire are the “quality” programs that educators typically recommend, like Sesame Street or Daniel Tiger. We tried, but the Dumpling took no interest in those shows.

Instead of turning into an antisocial screen junkie, however, our daughter is actually learning. When we watch television together, it’s not a passive activity. jigg and I are constantly interacting with the Dumpling: we describe the visuals on screen, name the characters, ask her to point out objects and animals, discuss the plot, recite lines, sing along, dance, and act out scenes.  We watch whatever she watches, whenever she watches.

In other words, we use digital content as a tool to complement, not substitute, our roles as the Dumping’s primary educators. More emphasis is placed on our interactions than the quality of the content, assuming that it is still age appropriate. jigg and I also draw a hard line between the medium in which the Dumpling consumes content. While she has free range access to our TV, iPhones are typically off limits. That is because the former can function both as a shared and personal device, while the latter is designed specifically for individual use.

In an ideal world, I would love to do more sensory and developmental activities and watch less television with the Dumpling. The reality, however, is that jigg and I both work full time, and our daughter spends 10 hours a day at daycare. When we are not doing chores on the weekends, we are bringing the Dumpling on play dates, going on road trips, brunching, and visiting zoos, parks, and museums. In today’s modern [and very involved] form of parenting, I think that the Dumpling is getting sufficient intellectual stimulation and social interactions.

“HA. HA. HA.” The Dumpling laughed menacingly in imitation of Snowball, a deceivingly cute bunny who is the gang leader of The Flushed Pets. She pointed at the TV to make sure that I was still watching the movie with her.

“That’s an alligator. Those are frogs. There’s also a pig!” I named each of Snowball’s animal henchmen aloud.

When the Sacred Viper was about to appear, she pointed excitedly at the screen and said “seh seh,” the Chinese word for snake.

“What does a snake say?” I asked her.

“Ssssssssss,” she hissed at the same time as the Sacred Viper.

As the main character was about to be bitten, multiple giant blocks of concrete fell and crushed the viper to deat.

“Moe-ah,” the Dumpling giggled in psychopathic delight. The word means “no more” in Chinese, and it was the Dumpling’s tribute to the serpent’s violent and untimely end.

In the greater scheme of things, I don’t know if 3.5 hours of daily TV time would doom her to childhood obesity, violence, speech delays, behavioral problems, loss of social skills, and the slew of other impediments that experts warn about. I do know that I’m bonding and cuddling with my daughter and making the best out of the time we’re spending together.