By Betsy Chasse
There has been much said about screen time and our kids. Parents lament that as their kids grow older, their Christmas list becomes less about Legos and more about iPhones, Xboxes, cool new gadgets and accessories. We worry our kids are spending too much time with a screen in front of their faces and less time playing outside in nature or reading.
I know parents who make sure their kids are playing with the “right” toys. And it’s stressful! I’ve been there. My kids recently jumped in the car and started singing the theme song from one of their favorite childhood shows, Little Einstein’s, based on the company Baby Einstein – remember that craze? Parents with kids my age (11 & 14) might recall we were sold on the notion that if our kids played with those toys, watched those videos, read those books, then we would in fact end up with “Little Einsteins.” Alas, that company went down in a flame of lawsuits when parents found out, sigh … nope, my kids won’t necessarily be smarter if I fill their days with flashcards and Bach, packaged in a $100 set.
Chances are they will be smarter if you read to them, play with them, sing with them and engage with them. But that doesn’t really have anything to do with what’s on that flash card and the library has a vast array of books that will do the trick.
As parents we worry about the world our kids are growing up in. We want them to be smart, educated, inspired, active and hopefully involved in things that will keep them out of trouble. But are we over doing it? Is our fear of all the horrible things in the world actually pushing our kids away from us?
Let’s talk about smart phones and screen time. Recently I read an article that suggested getting your kid a flip phone instead of a smart phone because doing so would drastically reduce screen time, they are virtually indestructible, have a long battery life and are cheap. I read this article and my immediate reaction was, “Way to make your kids feel alienated and guilty for wanting the same things we adults have”
Yes, ideally our kids should not be judging other kids based on what they have or don’t have. But guess what? They do. And instead of being aghast at that, as a parent I have really honest conversations with my kids about it, because my kids have more things than many kids do, and not as many things as a lot of others. That’s life and it’s ok. What I won’t do is get them a device that is less than par because I’m afraid their brain is going to freeze because of too much screen time. What I will do is educate them about money, the cost of living, saving up for things we want and making sure what we want is in alignment with our values.
As a parent I’m not interested in making decisions out of fear. I am not interested in teaching my kids to suffer with less because I had to as a kid, or to feel guilty about wanting or desiring something. I do this, you do this and kids are growing up with enough shame already. I realized early on in my parenting adventure that my kids were not growing up in the neighborhood I grew up in. They are having a very different experience and I can either judge it, fear it, or embrace it. I can meet them where they’re at, or I can force them to live my way. And FYI, the latter doesn’t usually work out very well for anyone. When you were a Tween or a Teen, can you recall your parent’s reaction to your clothing choices, your music choices, your celebrity crushes? Or did you eventually stop sharing those things with them because you grew tired of the judgement they threw at you?
And we wonder why our kids stop talking to us …
Because I am divorced, my kids had phones from a very early age. Along with that phone came The Rules of Phone Engagement. Most of my kids’ friends didn’t have phones until they were 13 or 14. Elora had hers at age six and she gained a lot of wisdom about that device. It wasn’t a toy to her. It was a communication tool. It had lots of fun things it “could do” and she had to ask me before she could install any app. I also had complete access to the phone, the texts, the apps, and she didn’t get social until she was about 10 or 11. Does this make me a horrible parent?!
My kids grew up watching me use my device, use social media and it felt pretty hypocritical to say to them, “You’re not old enough to use this.” I’d rather say, “Let me educate you.” And that is what I think is currently missing from this entire conversation about screen time.
Instead of having conversations with our kids, giving them the information they need to navigate this techno world, we think keeping technology from them as long as possible will make them better and safer. And I just don’t think that’s the case.
I’ve heard a lot about Millennials and how they don’t understand the world, how they are lazy, unproductive, need safe spaces, etc. I haven’t met many of these Millennials. However, I have met a ton of Millennials (and younger and several older, actually) who are unprepared for the world. Why? Because for most of their life they weren’t allowed to actually engage in the world and if they were, they were left to their own devices and not given the tools to navigate it with grace, empathy and wisdom. It was either “Here, have at it honey” or “No way!”
There is a middle ground. One that can empower your kids to fully engage in their world while also being safe. And it starts with communication. It starts with seeing the world through the eyes of your child and engaging with them there. My 11-year-old son plays Fortnite and Call of Duty! He also reads, plays football, loves riding his bike, and Pokémon. How did he end up this way?
I don’t limit his screen time. He does.
GASP! What?! How can that possibly work? It works because I’ve empowered him to learn how to make choices for himself that serve his purpose. In order for him to get Call of Duty he had to provide me with the scientific data to show that playing this game would not impact him in a negative way. He had to prove to me that playing this game would not impede him living by his values. I’ve spent years having discussions with my kids about value, purpose and meaning in their lives. He had to agree to continue to live his values and that playing these games wouldn’t change who he is.
I ask them often to check in and share what they value in life and explain to me how they are living that value every day, giving me concrete examples. They have grown up watching me not shop at certain stores, not buy certain products, and not engage in certain activities because these things don’t fit in with my values. I don’t judge their values. It’s not up to me to set them. It’s up to them. But that doesn’t mean we don’ talk about it. We do. And when they aren’t living up to their own set of publicly stated values, it usually shows and then we discuss it. Through years of experiencing this kind of self-monitoring and self-assessment and communication about it, they’ve learned on their own that going against their values often ends in upset. And they’d prefer to avoid that.
Bottom line, instead of me automatically dictating everything my kids can and can’t do, we discuss it. Which does not mean I’m a mom who doesn’t set rules. I have boundaries. I have an “over my dead body” list for my kids and they know exactly what’s on that list. Just ask them.
However, I am also a mom who spends a lot of time talking to my kids. I’ve worked hard to avoid the “Because I said so” statement and spend a lot of time engaged in conversation about my why’s, my values and my reasons. I’ve taught my kids to ask questions, to respectfully disagree and to provide their own reasons why. (Ok, they don’t always respectfully disagree. They’re working on it.) But they do understand the power of open, honest, communication. They understand the importance of living their values and they have learned to trust and appreciate that I’m not just blanket “NO’ing” them.
The result so far has been great! This morning as my son headed off for his final day of school before his Thanksgiving break, he told me about his plans for next week. To make it to a certain level on Fortnite, it’s going to require a certain amount of playing hours a day. As he described this he said, don’t worry, mom, I’ve got a schedule, and I’ve included finishing a new book I’m reading and an hour of exercise every day. Will you go bike riding with me? And can we go on a hike?”
I actually think he’s more concerned about my screen time than I am his.
** A keeping it real footnote:
The other night as I snuggled with my Son he says to me “I kind of just want to quit everything and just play video games all day”. I said “Hmm, why is that?” and he answered, “It’s the only thing that interests me right now.” “Fair enough” I say and I ask him how that fits in with his values….what comes to light is that he’s frustrated with school, he had a terrible football season (He left the team because of bullying and terrible coaching) and he’s just bored right now…and the only thing he’s got is gaming…he realizes this is a temporary thing and that he has the power to change it. We come up with some options to inspire him and all is good in the world. This is a daily practice. It’s a way for him to learn that life isn’t always “exciting” sometimes it’s boring…getting bored is a sign to check in with his values, his interests, try something new, shake it up a bit and that’s exactly what he’s doing.