Marguerite Kelly
Family Almanac

Setting limits on children’s use of electronics

Q. My two girls, 15 and 14, and my 12-year-old son have nothing in common, so they turn to their electronics instead of one another. And yet these same children are straight-A students, they take the most difficult classes at school, they help me regularly, and their friends are great. Two of my children also play two sports each season, and one of them plays one sport. That means that I drive a lot. Because I’m a single parent who works full time, I’m also exhausted most of the time, but at least the driving gives me a lot of one-on-one time with the kids. Or it would give me time with them if I weren’t so isolated by their electronics. I do insist on regular game nights, which they detest, and that we eat dinner together, but our meals last only 15 to 20 minutes, max, and then they’re back to their electronics.

The situation is complicated because my 14-year-old is quite angry but her therapist thinks I should just “let her be.” I totally disagree with this idea. If we exclude my daughter from trips and fun days and dinners, I think she will become more and more isolated. As it is, she spends her free time in her room, and so does her sister. At least my youngest likes to be with me and even plays games with me as long as he is still plugged in. To my dismay, however, he won’t go near a book.

(Hadley Hooper/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

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My children don’t understand when I grumble about their electronics because they are such good students and they do all that I ask, but these gadgets are isolating them from each other and from me. And if I set limits? The kids just sit in their rooms and complain.

Should I let them do that? And where do I draw the line?

A. What would their math teacher do if your children listened to music on their iPods while she was explaining an algebra problem? Would the minister be annoyed if they texted and tweeted during the service? And what about their coaches? Would they let your children use their iPhones while they were playing soccer?

If your children can’t use electronics on the soccer team, they surely shouldn’t use them on the family team, which is the most important team of all. This is where children learn to interact, to negotiate and to compromise with one another so they can interact, negotiate and compromise with difficult roommates in college, cranky colleagues at work and spouses who have lost their way.

You can steer your children in the right direction by setting up better rules, by treating your teens with the respect they deserve and by figuring out why they hate game nights so much.

Your daughters may not enjoy these evenings because they think that they’re too old for childish games, so put them aside for your son and lay out a puzzle for the family. It will invite all four of you to check it out when you walk past the puzzle table and slip in a few pieces sometimes, either when you’re together or alone. In the process, you’ll find that puzzles invite conversation and build family cooperation as long as your demands are casual and there aren’t too many of them.

Chores can also help children work together if you ask two children, instead of one, to cook dinner once a week. They’ll talk a bit when they make their spaghetti sauce and they’ll talk even more at the table, especially if you let each of them invite a friend to dinner.

The main change, however, has to revolve around the electronics. Tell the children that they can watch television and use their iPods, iPads and iPhones as much as they want when you’re at work, but they’ll have to toss these gadgets into a basket before dinner and leave them there all night. This will make your children shriek with despair, but you can soften the blow by letting them do their computer research in the family room, where you can see what they’re doing, and let them read e-books when they’ve finished their homework, instead of watching TV.

This will give your children more balance in their lives and it will encourage books, too. Although your son may read only abbreviated catchphrases on Twitter now, he is at least reading something, so give him a copy of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” by Ransom Riggs (Quirk; $9.35) for his Kindle. This thrilling, chilling book will make him beg for more.

Send questions about parenting to advice@margueritekelly.com.

Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A hosted by Kelly and read past Family Almanac columns.

 
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