To be fair, I’m often unaware of parenting conventions, and can often be heard exclaiming, “Wait. This is a thing? I didn’t know this was a thing!” Until I heard that other parents set limits on the amount of time their kids could spend in front of a screen, I didn’t consider that I should worry about it.
Please don’t think we let our children vegetate. My son is 17, my daughter is 9, and neither one is dead-eyed and drooling as they scarf junk food in the blue glow of a monitor display. (That’s me when I’m on a deadline.) Our only “policy”: If they’ve fulfilled their kid obligations – schoolwork, chores, exercise, practice, etc., they can go Hulu some “Yu-Gi-Oh” episodes or nab a few Pokemon on the Nintendo DS. Or they can catch up with friends online. There are days when no screen time happens if homework and activities fill up the schedule , and there are weekends when our children retreat to a bedroom for a Netflix-palooza, emerging mostly for meals and snacks. They adore this, and I don’t blame them. I love a good Netflix marathon myself.
What works for our family is flexibility. Children do, of course, need structure and consistency, and in our house our vigilance and attention are the constants. Some day when they’re in therapy it’s possible our offspring will use words like “hovering” and “nosy” when describing us. I probably take far too much pleasure in cozying up next to one kid or the other with a bright smile, peering over their shoulder at the screen, and saying, “Whatcha doooooooooooing?” They act exasperated, but I think they like it. Naturally, we have passwords to all their accounts and check devices whenever we like.
It is not unusual for us to interrupt other family members mid-task in order to show them a crucially important Grumpy Cat meme or the latest Jimmy Fallon lip sync contest. I confess to having texted my beloveds who are in another room of the house to see what they’d like for dinner. Our screens don’t isolate us from one another – they are another medium through which we interact. One of my very favorite times of day is when my teenager will pull out his iPad, sync it to the TV, and proceed to play me his favorite YouTube videos. It might be a clip on quantum physics or John Oliver talking about net neutrality or a monkey farting itself out of a tree. I love it equally when I see him coaching his little sister through beating the latest level of her video game. The moments that happen around this screen or that are moments of connection, as precious as those shared over a cutthroat game of Uno (“DRAW FOUR, Mommy! Deal with it! Boom!”) or a family dinner.
My eyes misted over the other night as I listened to my son playing “Call of Duty” with his buddies from grade school. They all attend different high schools now, but they still get together online and kill zombies. Hearing the banter back and forth reminded me of hosting sleepovers when they were wee lads flinging Cheetos at each other across my living room. I listened for a few minutes before clearing my throat and singing out, “Oh, dearest darling! Dinner is reeeeady, my baby boy!” He rolled his eyes, laughing, and told the guys he had to go.
For my children, technology is not mysterious. It doesn’t freak them out. It doesn’t control or oppress them. It’s a tool. They do homework on their iPads. They read books on e-readers for school and pleasure. They play games, watch videos, and chat with friends. It’s not a big deal. Screen time, for us, is still time spent together, just perhaps a bit different than how you do it.
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