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Someone gave my 5-year-old a tablet

There it is. A tablet for a tot. (Meredith Hale)
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I was at a loss.

As I sat there eyeing the small gift box, tastefully wrapped in blue paper with a matching ribbon, I had no idea what to do. The accompanying receipt told me what was inside: a brand-new Kindle Fire – for my 5-year-old daughter.

When my husband came home from work, we stared at the gift together, unsure how to proceed. We agreed that the present, sent by a close family member, was incredibly generous. We also agreed that our daughter would love it – after all, she always asked to play on Papa’s iPad whenever he visited, and she was fascinated by her cousin’s tablet. But she’d never had one of her own, and frankly, the idea of getting her one hadn’t crossed our minds.

Until now.

Suddenly, we were faced with the prospect of our kindergartner owning a tablet, on which she could play games, practice reading, or surf the Internet. On the one hand, it sounded innocent enough. After all, we want her to be comfortable with technology and keep up with her peers. There are plenty of educational apps for young kids – not to mention opportunities for her to keep busy during long road trips or stints at the doctor’s office. Plus, it was a gift from a family member, who wanted to share something special with her during the holidays. We couldn’t object to that.

And yet we had some serious reservations. Talking it over, we came up with a list of reasons we were uncomfortable letting our daughter keep this gift.

There’s a world beyond the screen. I’ve seen too many kids who’ve lost the art of eye contact, their attention perpetually focused on their fingertips. Who am I kidding? You can add me to that group. While I try to resist, I get sucked in way more often than I should. I know how easy it is to center your life on a screen, and lose sight of everything around you. I rationalize that I need to check client E-mails, or respond to a comment on my blog. But the reality is that if I’m looking down, I’m not paying attention to the people in front of me. Or taking in the first blooms of spring. Or being inspired by an elderly couple staring into each other’s eyes. I want more for my daughter. I want her to see the world – and not just on YouTube.

It sets us up for a constant battle. While we allow our daughter to watch television, we do try to limit her TV time to some extent. Yet even those efforts bring on complaints and aggravated eye rolls. I can only imagine the battles we’d have trying to disconnect her from that device – whether for dinner, or homework, or just a chat about her day. Yes, we could set limits on her screen time. But do we really need something new to argue over?

What’s she looking at, anyway? My daughter has (thankfully) outgrown Dora, and is always looking for new shows to watch. Fortunately, with the TV in the living room, I can sit down and watch with her. I can decide which shows are appropriate, and provide context for anything confusing she may see (like how real girls, unlike the Winx fairies, need to wear actual clothing). Handheld devices offer less opportunity for such oversight. I know there are parental controls, but I’m still uncomfortable with a screen I can’t easily see—especially one that’s connected to the Internet. While she can’t read yet, there’s still plenty of trouble she can get into online. It’s not all photos of rainbows and dancing cats out there, after all.

With a great device comes great responsibility. Winter just started, and already my daughter has misplaced 90 percent of her hats and gloves. She’s always leaving things places—on the bus, at a friend’s house, in the store bathroom. She’s only 5. I expect her to lose things like hats and gloves. I’d be much more upset if she lost a Kindle, and so would she. Why place that burden on her?

Little brother, big problems. My daughter has a 2-year-old brother with boundary issues. Last night at dinner, a 20-minute screaming match ensued when he insisted on using her Frozen silverware set. I can only imagine the decibel levels around here should a shiny electronic gadget enter the picture.

It’s a Zen thing. Finally, yet perhaps most importantly, my daughter has an amazing way of being still. We frequently drive six hours to visit my in-laws. During these trips, sometimes she naps, sometimes she colors, sometimes she plays with dolls. But frequently, she just sits. I’m not sure if she’s taking in the sights or is lost in her thoughts. But being able to be quiet and contemplative—to be in the moment—is a gift that should be nourished. I’ve seen the transformation when my dad’s iPad enters the picture. Suddenly, this same child can’t go for a 10-minute car ride without wanting to play Angry Birds. While I support parents who rely on tablets to keep their kids sane in the car, my daughter seems to be fine without this distraction. And I’d like to keep it that way for just a little longer.

I know we can’t postpone the inevitable forever. The world around us—and our own technology addictions—make that impossible. Our daughter may eventually need one of these devices for school, or beg until we can’t take it anymore. But I like to think we still have time. That we can nourish her imagination and encourage her to live in the present for just a little longer.

And so, we had the awkward conversation and returned the Kindle. It was uncomfortable and confusing, but right for our family. After all, those Angry Birds will probably still be peeved a few years from now–when we’re ready to enter the 21st century as a family.

Meredith Hale is the author of Mommy A to Z: An Encyclopedia of the Joys, Wonders, and Absurdities of Motherhood. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and the Mommy A to Z blog.

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