When parents hear about Screen-Free Parenting, a common objection to screen-free or, what most of us do, screen-limiting, is that it would be impossible to get anything done (i.e. make dinner, take a shower, or have a cup of coffee) without the screen. These parents credit the screen for their sanity. However, screens are not the solution to the dinner-making woes. They are actually the problem.
Screens are the Problem, Not the Solution
Hear me out for a minute while I share my anecdotal example of a typical screen-free day in my house. Obviously, screens are not a part of the daily lives of my five- and two-year-old children. And, yet, I take a shower, go to the bathroom, make dinner and work from home on a near daily basis. Let me describe yesterday afternoon for you:
I was home with my two kids. Neither one napped (which is increasingly common in my household). The afternoon nap is when I will get some grading done, respond to e-mails and prepare for my classes (my day job is that of a Psychology instructor).
So, I ended up with no nap and lots of work to do. Did Clifford the Big Red Dog rescue me? No. Did I orchestrate hours of pin-worthy entertainment for my kids? No. My kids solved the problem for me, by playing with one another happily for a few hours. Their games included dressing up in Halloween costumes, playing “monster”, having a snack and reading some books.
They had a blast. Not every day is like this. I am flexible. If they are playing well together, I get stuff done. Sometimes, it doesn’t work out like that and I prioritize what I need to do and then help them a little bit more. If you follow our weekly never-ending 1 Million Screen-Free Activities list, then you know that we get involved in their play plenty, but, the reality is that they know they are often in charge of their own play time and they can come up with plenty to do on most days. They also get along wonderfully (most of the time) and we prioritize and protect their relationship. Because they so often entertain each other, my husband will often remark, “Man, what do people with only one child do?”
How Screens Can Rob A Child of the Ability to Direct Their Own Day
Our parents and the parents before them were able to make dinner, take showers and do everything they needed (and sometimes wanted) to do. How? They did not take responsibility for their children’s entertainment and they expected the children to play (and do chores, but that’s another issue). Here are some of the ways a screen can rob a child of the ability to direct their own play (meaning their day).
1. Accustomed to Entertainment
If parents utilize a screen whenever the activities do not revolve around the child, the child becomes accustomed to entertainment. There is nothing wrong with the child, they just haven’t been given the opportunity to learn how to direct their own play or entertainment. Respect your child (or baby!). They are capable human beings who naturally find the world incredibly interesting.
2. Intolerance of Boredom
Because children become accustomed to entertainment, boredom can feel uncomfortable or even intolerable the first few times the child feels it.
From our article, Your Kids Are Boring Because You Never Let Them Be Bored, “Being bored allows your children to turn their attention inward. They must rely on themselves for entertainment. This fosters independence and independent thinking. The opposite: always being your child’s cruise director trains them to require external input constantly. This creates a little person who cannot tolerate boredom. By allowing your child to be bored, you are allowing them to gain independence and confidence.” Check out that article for four more reasons to embrace boredom.
Children’s programs via screens and applications are designed to keep little eyeballs as long as possible. However, children’s capacity for sustained attention is limited. So, how do they keep your child glued to their program or application? They have become very, very good at it, and at times involve psychologists to develop programs your kids won’t want to shut off. One method employed is the “screen shift,” which refers to each time the whole screen shifts to a new scene or image. In children’s programming, it can be every few seconds.
After viewing just 3.5 minutes of a program with rapid screen shifts, children did worse on tasks of sustained attention. Correlational research also found a connection between the number of hours of screen time before age three and attention and behavior problems at school-age.
The theory is that rapid screen-shifts train your child to expect a rapid, constantly changing and thus always-entertaining environment. This is in sharp contrast to the often slow reality.
Screens Don’t Make Your Life Easier. We Do.
Pretty narcissistic concluding headline, I know. Here’s the deal: I don’t believe screens make your life easier (I know many whiners will disagree with me). Screen-Free Parenting is here to make your life easier with the following mandate: Don’t entertain your child. Allow your child to entertain themselves. Place some boundaries when you need to get something done (i.e., “I can help with you that in about ten minutes when I am done with dinner. Choose something else for now.”). Often, once I set that boundary, my children involve themselves in something that takes much longer than the time allotment I needed.
Connect with your child, sure. Play with your child when schedules permit, yes. But, respect your child’s ability to direct their own attention and come up with something to do. If they get bored, that’s totally fine. Life can be boring sometimes. If they get into trouble, that’s okay too. Find the naturalistic consequence and move on. They don’t need a screen to protect them from negative emotions or trouble. They need to experience those things.
Our lives are so much easier without screens because our children know we are not going to entertain them when we are:
- In a Restaurant
- At the Grocery Store
- Making Dinner
- Taking a Shower
- Having a conversation with one another
- On the Phone
Our lives are also easier because we can head out to the store without requests for toys (remember, they are not marketed to via a screen while we take our morning shower). Our lives are also easier because they are not exposed to the sibling rivalry that often dominates portrayals of siblings on screen. Therefore, they play with each other and are (gasp!) nice to one another. Here’s a list of nine reasons we think parenting without screens is the easier, often lazier choice. We’re not shaming you. We’re being lazy.