I’m guessing you may have at some point experienced what I did. You introduced a fun luxury: TV, LeapFrog, iPad or video games to your children. And, in short order they were hooked. You had fantasized of family movie night followed by lovely conversation and loving children, happily putting their devices away to join you for dinner.
That vision was smashed to smithereens with growls and tantrums and an unwillingness to participate in real life. Only to be followed by relentless demands for more screen time day in and day out. The plan to remain firm withered in the face of strong opposition and oppositionality.
At first I tried to manage it by setting a weekly limit of three 20-minute increments. I discovered children are terrible self-monitors and even worse reporters, and parents are not that much better at communicating and coordinating efforts. Especially where little clever and cute manipulators are concerned.
Using screen time as a reward system also did not work, as children then learn to want rewards for absolutely everything. And I mean everything: “I brushed my teeth, can I have screen time?” “I ate my snack, can I have screen time?”
I realized that I had to change things immediately if I didn’t want my children to be addicted to the serotonin feedback loop of the blue light.
Action Plan to Manage Children and Screen Time
While I tried different methods, the one that was the easiest to for all to monitor was making a designated day and time for screen time / movies. We chose weekend afternoons. After all the homework and chores are done, our children are permitted one movie of their choosing. This way everyone knows when screen time was and for how long it is going to be.
The nice things about this plan is that after a week or two of following through, everyone is on the same page and there are no more requests for screen time during the week. It’s a relief to not have to say “no” all the time for something that should be self-explanatory.
The reality is we all need down time and we all need a break. Children remain quite locked on screens and so they are an EASY way to preoccupy children when you have something important you would like to do. But keep in mind, screen time is screen time. Learning games on tablets is still very much screen time. If you really feel they need more math exercises or learning how to write their letters, sit down with them the “old fashioned” way and show them. Also show them patience, interest and effort. Those lessons will pay off. I guarantee it. Years later they will remember that you took the time to sit down with them and work it through.
While screen time may be fun, and it’s easy, and a family movie can be great, it is so important that children get time with the adults who love them outside of screens. This is where they get their self-esteem, learn that their thoughts matter, learn manners and etiquette and how to have a conversation. Don’t underestimate how much they need to talk with you, play a game (non-screen) with you, and how much they need you to create an art exhibition in your kitchen with them, serving apple juice and hors d’oeuvres to the “patrons”.
Right now while sheltering at home we are more often in the same physical space with one another, but this concept of quality time is about being fully present and engaging, getting to really know who your children are, philosophically, spiritually, and emotionally.
Exceptions to the rule
There ought to be none, save for unusual circumstances. In the past, “unusual” meant something like flights or sitting in a waiting room while you met with your doctor. Granted, our entire lives now might be considered unusual. But if we make exceptions on a daily basis, it’s near impossible to roll-back exceptions later. Rules made now, even during shelter-at-home, will set a precedent.
Concrete, constant rules make understanding life and expectations so much easier for children. I know it’s nice to relax at dinner with your spouse or partner and have adult conversations while the children are quiet, but they also need to learn to sit, wait their turn, not to interrupt, to participate, and feel they and their thoughts are interesting. If they need something to do, paper and crayons have worked for a century or more. If that is insufficient, how about coming up with a family dinner tradition such as checking in with each person at the beginning of the meal with: “What was the best or most interesting part of your day today?”
You Are a Hero
We are parents, teachers, coaches, counselors—whatever hat you can imagine right now, as parents, we are wearing it. Yes, we are exhausted. Yes, we are ready for a break. And, yes, it may feel easier in the short-term to give in and let rules around screen time flex. But in the long run, your children need all the constancy and stability, the assurance and love, that you can give them. Behind that growl or tantrum (remember to breathe) is their adoring appreciation. At least eventually.