We are now almost a month into this “unlimited screen time” experiment, and it has become the stuff of parental legends, I’m telling you. I’m learning more every day, about myself, about my parenting, about my relationships with my children, and about them. It’s insane.
For the sake of mutual understanding, I’ve come up with a definition for what unlimited screens means for our family and will add it to future posts on the topic:
Unlimited screen time (UST) is removing rules and judgment from the area of electronics in parenting (gaming, television, computer, etc), focusing instead on dialoguing with children about principles regarding relationships, bodily care, freedom, personality and anything else that might come up. The goal is to allow children to develop their own limits and preferences over time, fostering your relationship with them through the process. UST is NOT giving your child an iPad and walking away — time spent together watching, playing, discussing, and enjoying is a necessity.
I understand that not every parent who limits or uses rules with screens struggles with judgment and control as I have, so what I’m learning will not be universal. However, I still hope others could benefit from my own processing. Here are some examples of how my thinking is changing:
(1) Our boys (6 and 4) had been using the iPod and iPad all morning, and Harper (girl, 2) had been intermittently watching, taking turns, and playing with other things. Eventually, she and I headed outside with the dog to bask in the sunshine. (It’s an unusually warm day in Shizuoka today.) I invited the boys to come out with us — they both answered with a polite, “No thank you!” Pre-UST: I would cajole and beg the boys to come out, reminding them of how good the sunshine and outdoor activity can be for our bodies. If they still refused, I would either huff off, or make them come with us because I think its a better choice for them and they aren’t making it on their own. They would know, regardless, that I disapprove of their decision. Post-UST: I still felt all the things I felt above, knowing that the sunshine would do them good. I reminded them that exercise is good for the muscles, and when they still choose not to come, I smiled and told them to have fun with their games and that we would be outside if they needed anything.
(2) Harper and I made “soup” with rocks, water, and some weeds. While pulling up some greenery to use in our concoction, we discovered some small, onion-like things attached to the root — probably about the size of a small kiwi. I became very curious and dug them all up, wondering what they were and what they would look like cut open. I called the boys down telling them we found something in the yard they should see, and they came running. I asked them if they’d like to wash them and cut them open with me, and they politely refused and went back inside. Harper was very excited to see what these little vegetable-like things were. Pre-UST: I would have probably shamed the boys for ignoring this random and fun nature lesson in favor of electronics, by frowning or mildly lecturing on how important it is to know the created world around us. They might’ve joined in just to please me, but would’ve been eager to get it over with. Post-UST: They went back inside, and Harper and I dissected the things. I tasted one and spit it out (it was awful, a definite weed), and Harper thought that was hilarious. We put them in our “soup,” and the boys came to see our finished product.
The most surprising observation from these interactions for me? Everyone is being polite with each other, even those who were most notorious for throwing fits. UST is helping me acknowledge that we are all individual beings who must learn how to live and play together, and I think the children feel like their opinions and desires are heard, acknowledged, and valued. I am beginning to see that my children will learn most from what I model for them, and not from the rules I make.
As far as drinking deeply from the well of electronics goes.. Harper is the least affected by this change, and can easy move between TV, dolls, puzzles, helping in the kitchen, and other activities. The boys (who have experienced the most limits in this area) are just now, this week, beginning to choose other activities. We have been talking a lot about how its not great for our bodies, minds, and spirits to do the same thing, day after day after day, whether it be reading books, or sleeping, or playing games, or running around. We need periods of activity, of stimulation, and of mental and physical rest. I am doing a lot of prompting, but we are making the decision together to leave the iPod at home, turn off the gaming system, leave the house together, etc. Ezra (4) is not as keen on these decisions, but Jones (almost 7) has been encouraging him by saying things like, “We don’t want to spend all our time on one thing — the world has so much to offer!” 🙂 Who knew letting go of the controls would bring about stuff like this?!
It should be said, however, that the boys in particular are still playing a LOT of games, which would go beyond the limits I would’ve set in times past. My thoughts about electronics v. books are changing a lot, as I begin to question where I gathered my ideas about their value to us as humans. Can’t we use both to have fun, gain knowledge, grow together relationally? What makes one area better than another, besides our own personal opinions?
I think its rather self-evident that UST is moving beyond the area of TV and games in our family — its impacting our relationships with each other on a most basic level, and the fruit of this can be seen in areas having nothing to do with screens. Most particularly, our oldest has been the hard-hearted one of our family when it comes to getting in trouble and apologizing, and I have seen that change this past month. He has been genuinely sorry on a number of occasions, and I really haven’t seen that in him before now. Removing limits from screens really demolished a barrier between us, and I can tell that he also notices the difference. I would pay any price for this result, and it turns out I’m not having to pay anything at all.