If you feel like blaming your children or teens for their fixation on screens, just think of the times when you, as a sensible adult, have stayed up too late, against your better judgement, watching something unmemorable on television. Or the times you’ve been lured into checking out just one more Facebook post or YouTube video. If we, the mature adults that we are, find it so easy to get sucked into Screen World, just imagine how much more tempting it is for our children and teens. It’s only when we are in charge, when we are the deciders of what happens in our homes, that we are able to do our job of transmitting the values, skills and habits that we believe are important. When we are not in charge, our children’s immature values will prevail and will be reinforced.
I’m sure you’ve read or heard the advice about making parenting less stressful by ‘picking your battles’. What this usually boils down to is avoiding situations that would result in your child or teen whingeing, complaining, arguing, pleading, crying, slamming doors or throwing himself on the floor. The problem with picking our battles is that it’s the opposite of the teaching and training we need to do in order to transmit our values, skills and habits. In this context, what I mean by teaching is making sure our children and teens know what they should do. And by training I mean guiding them into the habit of doing what they know they should do.
Children often resist this teaching and training at first because changing habits is rarely easy. It’s natural for children to react to new routines and habits and rules with some complaining, crying, arguing or even tantrums – at first. So let’s not view this annoying behaviour as a ‘battle’ to be avoided. Let’s think of these negative reactions as immature ways of expressing uncomfortable emotions. A tantrumming child hasn’t yet learned how to express his upset in words, or perhaps he is so overwhelmed by the strength of his emotion that he temporarily forgets how to control his actions. Or it could be that this sort of misbehaviour has worked in the past, at least some of the time, to get your child some of what he wants. Whingeing or shouting or arguing might have bought him a bit more time to do what he wants. Or he might have noticed that sometimes you give up out of frustration or exasperation. Or maybe he’s learned that the crying and whingeing are guaranteed to get your attention.
Our job is not to avoid our children’s negative reactions, but to teach and train more sensible reactions. We will enjoy our role as teachers and trainers much more when we remember that children are, by definition, immature. They want what they want. They believe they need what they want. Let’s allow them to feel their childish feelings. Let’s not think of their upset feelings or the resulting misbehaviour as a battle. In a battle someone wins and someone else loses. But teaching and training isn’t about winning and losing; it’s about changing habits. Being in charge is not a static state of affairs. Over time you will probably refine your values. And as your children grow and develop, their needs will change. You will naturally continue to cycle back through the steps below until your children leave home.
Before you can decide to take action consistent with your values about screen time, you need to discover exactly what’s happening.
Assessing (and reassessing) the current situation includes deciding whether what is happening in your home fits with your values. This step also includes listening to your children’s opinions and wishes. However, you will always have the final say because you are wiser and because it is your job to guide children towards the values you believe are right.
In order to plan effectively, first you need to clarify (with your partner if you have one) what your values are. This enables you to decide which rules and routines will guide your children towards those values. It may not be easy to come to an agreement with your partner. Although your fundamental values may be the same, how you each tend to put them into practice might be very different. Consistency between parents can be difficult to achieve. But we don’t have the luxury of deciding to ‘agree to disagree’. It’s not fair to our children to expect them to feel comfortable with two different sets of rules in the same home.
As you put your plan into practice, you will find yourself revisiting these steps many times, assessing the current situation in your home to see the results of your actions. It’s tempting to jump the gun, but don’t assume a strategy is not working based on how the first week or two go. Stick with a new strategy for at least a month. This gives your child time to get used to the new rules and routines. If a rule or routine isn’t going according to plan after a month or so, you will need to pause to assess what went wrong and then decide what you want to tweak.
Getting in charge of the technology in your home and staying in charge probably won’t be easy. You will be swimming against the tide, and you may get criticism from your extended family (especially if your child’s grandparents believe that love equals indulgence), maybe from other parents at the school gates, maybe even from your closest friends. On the other hand, your family and friends may be cheering you on, and they may want to learn from you how to get back in charge.
Staying consistent will be difficult at times. Humans are not by nature very good at being consistent; we change our minds and our plans a lot. And getting back in charge can feel like hard work, for one thing because dealing with our children’s initial fury about the new screen time rules and routines can be very upsetting. You may feel frustrated, angry, guilty, confused. You may feel like giving up. You will need to keep your wits about you; you won’t be able to let your guard down. That can feel exhausting at first, until the new routines are firmly established.
Parenting as a journey is a popular metaphor. A journey has a starting point and a destination. The starting point is that you’re not completely happy with what is happening with electronics in your home: your child is too much in charge and your values are not prevailing. You won’t reach your destination in one giant leap. You’ll be taking lots of small steps. And to complicate matters, you and your partner may be at different points in this journey towards getting back in charge.
When you use the Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting strategies, screen time problems will be significantly reduced, and most can be eliminated. Even a severe problem can be transformed. Soon it will become a moderate issue, and then it will become a mild issue. Eventually, with consistency, it will end up a very mild issue. That is probably the best result you can hope for, given that our children will always be surrounded by the influences of Screen World. But you can live with a very mild issue because your children’s objections will fade over time.
Your children and teens will find renewed pleasure in non-screen activities. You will get more cooperation and respect. You will see more self-reliance and responsibility. You will have the immense satisfaction of seeing your children and teens developing more mature values and habits. You can make all this happen.