Lately a parenting theme in our house has been “getting things ship shape.” The three areas we're working on, and what I'll share here over three posts, are screen time, chores, and behavior. For all three of these categories of parenting / kiddo management I had a realization of, "Wait a minute. How did we get here?" Because our day to day reality was not matching up to our parenting values nor to the routines that we have tried to instill.
I was a bit down on myself for a couple of weeks about our eroded routines and enforcement. But with reflection and encouraging conversations with Chris and friends have come to realize that revisiting and tweaking routines is the stuff of parenting. You don't declare a new routine and proceed thus forth in perpetuity. (How amazing would that be actually??) Kids resist, your weekly routine changes, parents lose steam enforcing things – that's life! Even for myself, a lover and upholder of routines, I have to recommit every now and then to my own routines. What's important is taking the time to step back, see how things are working (or not), and make some adjustments.
So I'll start today with screen time because that seems to be a persistently thorny issue for parenting today. And I'm happy to say we're already in a better place around screens and on a more ship shape path. Let me tell you a bit more...
Our device and screen time landscape
The boys are allowed to have screen time on Fridays after school, and on Saturdays and Sundays. On Saturdays and Sundays the boys have been allowed to start screen time at 9 a.m. The boys each have their own Switch (a handheld gaming device) and their own mini iPads which we gave to them this fall.
Our decision to get them their own iPads originally came from a desire for the boys to be able to listen to music in their rooms and cultivate their own taste in music. Even though I'm not super into music now as an adult I was very into music as a tween and teen. From my cassette (!) of Boyz II Men (also !!!) to CDs of No Doubt, Third Eye Blind, Cake, and more, music was a source of escape and finding myself as an individual. I feel strongly about giving my own kids the opportunity for music to be the same for them.
We also felt that we wanted the boys to have the opportunity to use tech with training wheels so that one day when they have phones, social media, and more they will have had a lot of time using technology under our supervision. We set up their iPads with lots of parental controls, app limits, etc. and overall feel good about the situation. In an ideal situation we would have waited until Cedric was also 10 to set him up with an iPad. but because the boys are treated so equally in just about all situations, we felt that would create more conflict than it was worth if we gave one to Dash and not Cedric.
The boys' main screen time interest currently is Fortnite which we allowed them to get on their Switches a year ago. Fortnite is an online, multi-player, shooting game which is mildly to moderately violent (i.e. you shoot and kill other players but there is no graphic blood, etc.). The boys' main interest in Fortnite seems to be playing with their friends (we don't allow them to play or talk with anyone we don't know) and collecting the different "skins" or looks of characters.
Maeve also gets some screen time but overall it's limited to one show on weekday mornings while I make her hair and probably an hour or so each day on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday while the boys get screen time. Ideally she would not get that weekend time at all (the boys didn't) and we do try to engage her in other activities. But sometimes allowing Maeve screen time is the only way Chris and I get any weekend rest and that feels like a worthwhile use of screens. It's also hard to manage two older boys who get to be on screens while trying to keep the younger one off screens.
Our general approach to screens
We've been a screen-limited house from the beginning of parenting and are trying to carry that forward into the tween years while balancing our boys strong interest in screen-based content. Our boys are currently 9 and 10 and we've been trying to find a balance between allowing them time to do something they are really interested in with helping them develop self-regulation.
I've heard from some friends that they don't have any screen time restrictions and their kids have found their own natural, healthy balance of screen time. I was really hoping my kids would be that way! But alas, the more time we allow on screens the more time the boys spend. Giving the boys ample time on screens does not, at this point, lead my boys to a point of screen satiety such that they want to do other things. So it does feel that we have to be more firm with regulating screens for them.
The "how did we get here?" situation
I found myself noticing the boys' screen time use over the holidays and as the new semester got started. That's when I had the realization of, "Wait, how did we get here?"
Here's what I was observing: the boys rushing home from school on Friday afternoons to get on their Switches to play Fortnite and playing until we called them for dinner around 5:30 pm. On the weekends they would count down until the 9 a.m. screen time start time. If we had something to do or somewhere to go prior to 9 a.m. or soon after they would get moody and complain that their screen time was being affected. This would come up too if we were out and about for a lot of a weekend day. They would complain they "didn't get their full screen time."
Once they started playing at 9 a.m. they could play for hours if we didn't enforce a break. Sometimes they would take breaks themselves to go play with friends outside, etc. but playing Fortnite was the dominant activity of their day most weekend days. They also started finding videos to watch of people playing Fortnite or Minecraft which honestly I find so weird and kind of disgusting but not necessarily any worse for them than playing video games (???).
Way back when (two years ago?) our screen time rules were that the boys could have weekend (Saturday and Sunday) screen time starting during Maeve’s nap, so around noon until 2 or 3. p.m. Sometimes longer if Maeve was napping or honestly if Chris and I just needed a longer break. Then over the summer we intentionally gave the boys more screen time to see if more screen time might let them get their fill and self-regulate. And so they were allowed to start screens at 9 a.m.
What stayed was the 9 a.m. start time and honestly what hasn’t happened is they boys getting their fill of Fortnite. And so inch by inch suddenly we found ourselves with boys who started playing video games on the weekends at 9 a.m. and could continue playing literally all day unless a break was enforced. Add to that that it can be difficult to get the boys to log off and they can have surly attitudes about getting off or not feeling like they have "enough" time. All of that felt really gross and quite alarming to me which is what ushered in some new routines.
Getting things ship shape
Recognizing that the boys' screen time reality was pretty far from our ideal screen time situation was the first step. Figuring out how to pull things back was the next. Chris and I felt very on the same page and easily agreed on what new limits we wanted to roll out.
I'll admit I felt nervous about announcing new screen time limits! I really dislike conflict and want to make my kids happy, perhaps to the point of sometimes giving in too much. One of our kiddos in particular can get in quite a funk over not getting his way and I dreaded his reaction. But then I reminded myself, "Oh yeah! I'm the parent and I get to decide what's best. My child's unhappiness over something that I think is in their best interest is totally okay and does not need to affect my mood and what we implement."
So, over dinner one night two weeks ago, we shared with the boys that we'd noticed them spending a lot of time playing video games and that research says that spending too much time on screens is not great for developing brains like theirs. And so we'd be enforcing new screen time limits: up to three hours of Fortnite time each Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and a limit of one hour each weekend day on YouTube kids. We said this matter of factly, listened to some mild disappointment (but much less than we expected!), and ended with asking, "Who wants to bake chocolate chip cookies?" which helped them move on and not dwell in potential disappointment. Honestly it went so well I wish we had pulled back the video game time even more to an hour and a half.
The other thing we're also addressing is the boys' attitudes around screen time. We are now reminding them often that we expect pleasant and cooperative attitudes if we have morning activities that will delay the start of their screen time. We also expect them to take breaks from screens about every hour and to do so pleasantly.We've also let them know that we're seeing how things go and that we might be limiting Fortnite time more in the future. On our to-do list is getting the Nintendo parental control app so that we can set an official screen time limit on the boys' Switches. I wish we had known about this and instituted it from the beginning. I think seeing their screen time use would have alerted us sooner to make this change. Speak of other hindsight 2020s, I wish that when we started letting the boys play Fortnite that we had limited their play from the start to an hour and a half max per day, or even held off on letting them have the game for a bit longer. But, here we are! So we're making the best of it.
Encouraging non-screen activities
Which brings me to the last leg of getting screen time use ship shape in our house: encouraging more non-screen activities. Something I've noticed that is likely related to screen time is that neither of my boys have many non-screen interests that they do by themselves. They both enjoy playing sports with friends but sometimes friends aren't around to play. When that happens they have a hard time finding anything else to do. Neither is great at entertaining themselves alone (and I can see them coming by that honestly since they've always had a built in brother play mate) but their interests and maturity are also diverging to the point that they aren't often finding new things to do together.
At 9 and 10 they don't gravitate to toys any more, even Legos! Although this might be because they have a toddler sister and also haven't had a new Lego set in a long time. Chris is the main parent playmate and says "yes" just about any time the boys ask to roller blade, pass the football, or play basketball. But lately it's been the case, especially for one of the boys, that if he isn't on a screen then he wants someone to entertain him which is hard.
So! I am asking everyone I know who has similar aged kids what non-screen activities their kids enjoy, and any tips for encouraging my boys to find new interests. One friend said that strategically setting things out, like Mad Libs, a board game, etc. could often encourage her kids to partake. I have thought about teaching the boys a couple of easy card games (and reminding them the ones they already know). I've heard Snap Circuits suggested (which are pricey but I'm willing to throw money at this ). One boy always complains that he wants to do something active but doesn't want to do it alone so that is tricky!
I'm also not opposed to creative screen-based activities such as playing online chess or word games, or doing something creative like online drawing videos, etc. But so far when I suggest any of these I get a very annoyed, "No that's boring!" But perhaps this too is where we need to do something with them a few times to try to spark an interest.
We've also been trying to get out and about more as a family on the weekends. Frisbee golf is a new family interest that we can all do together. And we are trying to do family walks to the nearby basketball court most nights where we can play, roller blade, scooter, etc. But encouraging my boys to find more independent, non-screen entertainment is something I hope to make progress on this year.
Okay, please chime in, friends! Have you had similar screen time challenges and do you have any suggestions for me, especially for encouraging non-screen interests in very active boys? Thank you so much for any ideas!
P.S. Kids and Screen Time (The Girl Next Door Podcast)