When the Screens Go Off
And other times I fight modern crutches in the name of parenting and sanity
I fully admit that I, too, have dropped my child in front of the television to keep her occupied while I get a little extra work done.
I fully admit that I, too, have handed her the tablet downloaded with a new movie for a long car journey or plane ride.
And I fully admit that I, too, have handed over my phone in the grocery store so that she can look through pictures in favor of, you know… not whining about my disinterest in filling our cart with Kit Kat bars.
But sometimes, the screens need to go away. I need to turn them off. We need to do something else.
Sometimes, it’s because her majesty has made some bratty comment I don’t like and I take them away until she earns them back. Sometimes, it’s because she’s watching garbage I don’t approve of with no clear life lesson. Sometimes, it’s because I’ve had to call her name more than a few times and she’s too warped into a show to have heard me.
More often than not, though, it’s because I just don’t want them on anymore. It’s time for them to be off, and this is when I get to pull the “Mommy said so” card. (A delightful card to have in one’s back pocket… Mom, I get it now.)
Wanna read a book?
Let’s go to the playground. Bring your baseball glove.
Can you help me with errands today? Let’s write out a list together.
This applies to me, too. My phone goes on silent and gets put away face down somewhere. I turn my monitor off. I don’t check my emails. Texts go unanswered, and Instagram is forgotten for awhile.
Until she does something cute and photo worthy, and then it comes back out in a hurry.
But not always.
Ultimately, I don’t want either of us so absorbed in our screens that looking at each other gives us mental whiplash. It’s a rule for me as much as it is for her. If I’m so busy seeing her through a digital album, what might I not catch when I see her in front of my face?
For similar reasons, take out food is a rarity.
Sometimes, it’s because we can’t agree on what to order. Sometimes, it’s because we can’t find that one menu from that one place — you know, the one that had the really good bao buns?
More often than not, I just don’t want to spend the money. I now (twenty years after it first applied to me) understand the “but we’ve got food at home” argument. (Damn it.)
We can make our own pizza today.
You pick the cookbook, sweetie, and we’ll find something we can fix together.
Yes, I know Grandma took you to McDonald’s, but we can cut our own apple slices.
I don’t want either of us relying on the quick option, the easiest route. I want her to develop skills now that she can carry with her. I want us to rely on ourselves and on each other more than we go for the path of immediate gratification, which happens to so often also be the path of longterm complacency and lethargy.
I will, so help me God, teach her to boil an egg by the time she moves out of the house.
As of this year, we no longer order things online. My inner environmentalist no longer felt able to justify the packaging waste and transportation. My inner economist no longer felt able to justify paying for a Prime membership that only ever encouraged me to spend yet more money on Amazon.
Do we need it? Is it necessary, helpful, a solution to a problem?
If not, forget it. If yes, then whatever it is, it gets added to the bottom of that list of errands we wrote together, and we’ll get to it the next time we’re out. If, by then, we’ve forgotten all about it, then did we ever really need it to begin with?
I promise I do understand the appeal. It’s 2019. The world is a magical land of overnight shipping and delivery services to do your grocery shopping for you.
It’s nice. It’s quick. It’s convenient. It makes a lot of sense sometimes.
But it’s not what I want for us all the time.
Yes, there are days of instant ramen and episodes of Carmen Sandiego. But those aren’t as common in our house as chicken parm and magnetic blocks on the floor (not typically at the same time, of course).
And let’s be serious: I’ve got nothing at all against a good Netflix binge. If I get to rewatch The Borgias once my child is off to bed, she gets to sing along to Moana every once in a while.
I’ve got plenty, however, against blue light headaches. For myself and for my seven-year-old.
There is no such thing as perfect parenting, and anyone who says otherwise is a dirty liar. It is our sworn and sacred duty to screw up our kids somehow. My mother is a strong, smart, capable role model, and the books my last three therapists could write about her would shock you.
So, no. I have no illusions about the fact that my daughter will one day be a teenager and then an adult who will hold many things against me. Some of them might even actually turn out to be my fault.
But this is what has worked for us. We’re still finding our way. She’s my first and only kid, so while she’s the reason my rules exist, she’s also the only one who ever has to hear them. If we have to renegotiate? Okay. If we have to assess an alternative? Good by me. We’ll figure it out.
The role of the screens in our lives are, in the age of information, a big part of the figuring out to be done.
It’s not perfect, and it won’t be, but even imperfection can have guidelines, parameters. Our parameters just happen to include a little screen time with our share of screenless breaks in between. This is how I need to parent in today’s world.
Even if (and when), regardless of the guidelines we come up with, my daughter’s therapist one day has notebook pages full of me, too.