Want Your Kids to Turn off the Screen? Then Listen

Sep 12

Last night my 12-year-old son asked if he could stay up later than his two younger brothers to watch TV with me and his dad. Since he’d just come home from hockey (later than usual), I said yes. It would be nice to share some personal time with our oldest son. No sooner had I sat on the couch to start my DVR recording of Master Chef, he walks in with his iPod in his hand and earphones on his head.

“Whoa,” I set the remote control down. “I thought we were watching TV together?” I asked. Then repeated it. Louder. He had the volume up too high to hear me the first time.

He guffawed. “What difference does it make? We’re both watching screens, Mom.” Yes, he had a point. I couldn’t argue that, could I? Visions of sitting with my family watching Different Strokes and The A-Team paraded through my mind. Those were some good memories. Sure, we shushed eachother when the commercials ended, but still, we laughed together and shared the same appreciation for one-line quips that only a 1980′s sitcom can deliver (Whatchoo talkin’ bout Mista D?) That counted for something. Didn’t it?

I insisted he turn off his personal screen and watch Master Chef with me, despite my reservations whether this could really be considered quality family time. He groaned his consent and tossed his electronics aside. Then he took me by surprise. He started talking. Like, really talking. I held the remote in my hand, ready to press PLAY. Yet as my son continued to talk I realized what an amazing opportunity I would be squandering if I silenced his chatter with my TV program. You see, 12-year-old boys aren’t a particularly chatty bunch.

He talked about what happened during school that day, sharing information about a new student in his grade who has Asperger’s Syndrome. He’d never heard of that before, he explained. And continued to describe what he’d learned about this condition. I kept the show on PAUSE and listened intently to everything he said. I was amazed by his compassion and interest in this new student. And I was eager to let him express his intrigue and concern about her. We had an amazing conversation. I was happy to let my TV show wait.

My husband eventually joined us in the family room and started the TV show while we continued our conversation (he, understandably, fell into the habit of just turning on the screen without thinking).

As our conversation drew to a close, I marvelled at how freely my son chatted with me. (This is not a daily occurrence.) The night , however, could have played out very differently if either of us had tuned into our own screen.

Instead, he talked. Instead, I listened. If that’s a by-product of shared screen time, then I’m going to insist on doing it more often.

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If Only My Kids Could Regulate Their Own Video Gaming Habits

May 06

No video games from Monday to Thursday. Of all the family rules I have ever devised, this is the one that I treasure most, and try hardest to maintain. You can read about when I first instituted it here. It requires serious vigilance because this unpopular rule is under constant attack by its detractors (my three sons).

But like any sympathetic ruler, I offer generous rewards for their compliance. In return for their 4-day screen drought, I let them play without restriction during the weekend. Well, that’s a slight lie (what good ruler doesn’t do that once in a while!)

That’s what I had said in the hopes that they would learn how to moderate their own video gaming exposure if given the freedom to do so. Unfortunately, that never came to fruition. They would play for hours and hours, if given the chance. I’d no sooner let that happen to allow them to drink soda pop for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

When I observe they have been feeding off the IV of screen animations for too long, I will often erupt into a fit of exclamations that go something like this: “Turn that thing off! Can’t you find something better to do?” “Have you noticed how beautiful it is outside?” “Don’t you have a book to read?”

I don’t expect a response, nor do they have any desire to offer one. In fact, they’re quite skilled at ignoring me altogether (the dissidents). As their ruler (read: threatener of eliminating all things they love), I am eventually granted my wishes: they rise from the couch, release the game controllers, and march toward their new activity.

Why do video games irritate me more than any other activity? Certainly, I don’t resent my kids their copious amount of leisure time. They’re kids, after all. I never complain if they are playing a game of Monopoly for an hour. Or reading a book for two hours. And if they play outside, well, my entire body beams with parental pleasure at the joys of childhood.

I suppose a large part of my anxiety is a result of their inability to monitor their own screen time and balance it with other activities. I can’t think of any other activity that absorbs their attention so completely and for such long lengths of time than video games. Despite what my kids may think, I would be happy to let them play carte blanche all weekend long – if they could just figure out how to self-regulate the amount of time they spend playing.

In fact, once they’ve proven that ability, I will comfortably eliminate my rule completely. But I don’t see that happening any time soon. Just this afternoon, I hinted that perhaps they’d rather play a board game or go outside than continue playing on the computer. They ignored me, as usual.

It wasn’t until I forced them to shut their devices down, and they had to fill the growing void of boredom that results after an hour or so of screen entertainment, that they followed my advice and got out a board game.

Limit kids' video games

Play as long as you want, boys.

“Isn’t this better?” I asked, beaming. They nodded. Then lost interest in the game ten minutes later in search of something else to do. Now if only they could exhibit an attention span as short as that when playing video games. Then we’d all get along just fine.

More Posts You Might Like:

Welcome to the Screen Years, er, Tween Years

Top 25 Tips for Parents on Digital Safety and Literacy

Get Comfortable With Saying No

Family Battles over Video Games

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Family Battles Over Video Games

Sep 14

The kids' video game "cave"

There are various aspects about video games that irritate me, but the one that frustrates me most is their ability to create friction in our family.  While I have yet to personally experience that addictive tug that attaches one (for hours sometimes) to a video game, the effect is not lost on my three boys.

For anyone following my blog over the past six months, you may remember I implemented a video game ban in our household from Monday to Thursday during the school year.  Although not a popular decision among my kids, it helped prevent the daily battles over gaming and homework – the former always taking precedence with my kids over the latter.

With the school year back in full swing, the rule was freshly implemented.  Our first war over it took place two days ago when my 11-year-old son sparked up the Wii to play with his friend after school.  Um, remember that video game ban, son? My request to turn it off spiralled into mutterings about the “stupid rule” to angry accusations that I’m the meanest, strictest mom that he knew.  (I admit – I wavered between feeling proud and defensive about that title).  However, I did not budge from my decision, even as he berated me in front of his buddy.

The result? His friend was sent home (even though he’d only arrived ten minute earlier), my son was forced to sit in his room, and I was left stewing over the not so fabulous effect that video games have on family bonding.  Perhaps Nintendo or Microsoft might consider paying for family counselling to deal with our video game woes the way the Canadian government covers gambling addiction problems created by their casinos?

My story does, however, have a happy ending.  That very evening, my three boys asked to go to the local library.  By 8:30 pm, we’d returned home with a collection of 34 books that the kids had picked out.  Me thinks the trip to a library would never have transpired had the boys been playing Wii Wipe Out after dinner.

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Tip # 9 Set Rules That Both Parents Can Support

Jun 20

In celebration of Father’s Day, which we celebrated yesterday, I thought it an opportune time to emphasize the importance of Dad’s input in the family screen dynamic. Too often, I’ve been quick to dismiss my own husband’s ideas around video games and TV viewing, assuming he’d give them free reign over the controllers if it were up to him (as long as it did not overlap with his football game). Yet I’ve discovered over the years that without his wholehearted supported for “my” rules, enforcing them also becomes “my” job. And alongside laundry, cooking, washing dishes, helping with homework (just a small list of things that are “my” job), I realized that I preferred not to add daily arguments with  kids over screen time to my personal duties.

Besides all that, Dads know a thing or two about screens. As with many households, my husband dedicates a portion of most weekends to lying on the couch watching sports. Is his habit really so bad?According to my husband: not so much. Since we have three sons, I’ve learned to defer to my husband’s knowledge on this issue and accept that time spent with the TV is a valued aspect of the today’s “guy” culture. Who am I to fight it?

Several years back, when my oldest son started begging for a Wii, I was firmly opposed. Allow my kids play video games all hours of the day? No way. They were going to be raised as piano-playing, outdoor-loving, homework-completing robots – I mean, kids. Welcoming a video game console into our home would destroy all my plans! My husband, however, wasn’t as keen on raising total nerds. Bit by bit, he’d sneak in arguments supporting a Wii purchase. My resolve weakened. Not just because I was tired of preaching from my soap box about the evils of video games, or because I was battling ever more feebly one against four (my three sons and husband), but I respected that my husband deserved as much say as I did about how our kids spent their free time. I finally succumbed and before wrapping it up to set under the Christmas tree, we agreed to support one another in the rules – which, it turns out, would take a couple years to iron out.

After much experimenting, my husband and I have formed a harmonious and united front in how and when our kids can use the screens in our home. Still, I have a more say in this simply because I am with them a lot more than their father. (Which is also why I vetoed his recent push to eliminate the Monday to Thursday video game ban. I love that rule!)  Now that we share a middle ground for our kids’ video gaming and TV habits, we can support one another’s efforts to ensure they follow the rules. And, that gives us less to argue about. Or, at the very least, allows more time to argue other issues, right honey?

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Video Game Fridays!

Nov 19

Video Game Fridays!

Week three of the not-so-new, much-despised video game rule. 

No video games from Monday to Thursday.

So simple.  In fact, so simple a rule that even my boys cannot figure out a way to fanagle a freebie video game during the no-play period.  I can’t believe it!  I’ve finally outsmarted my kids.  It only took me ten years to do it.  Keep it simple.  Here are some examples of video game rules that will not work:

  • Video games until dinner.  (Downfall: Will end up yelling at them to stop playing and get their butts upstairs to eat dinner which happens to be a scrumptious meal of mashed potatoes, broccoli and liver.  Yep, that’ll go over just fabulously.  Guaranteed fight.)
  • Finish homework first, then play video games. (Downfall: Kids rush through their homework and studying.  Teacher calls to say their grades are stinkeroo.  And all you can pathetically do is blame those darn video games!)
  • Set a timer so they each play a half hour each.  (Downfall: Oooh, that quiet mom time is sooo nice.  Maybe you’ll just let them play another two hours so you can finish the latest Twilight book.  Then FREAK OUT because you realize they’ve wasted four hours being comatose in front of a screen!)

Simple.  No arguments.  No arm twisting or bribes or eye-rolling or stomping of feet.  Okay, there will be complaints by the kids.  I hear at least one every day or two about how much the rule sucks.  They’re wrong.  The rule doesn’t suck, because sucky rules are rules that can be twisted and broken and eventually tossed into the compost bin to rot.  The rule rocks.

Which brings me to Video Game Fridays.  Today I get to tell my boys, “Go!  Go play video games to your heart’s content!”  The build up from Monday through to week’s end explodes in a chorus of cheers and races to the Wii.  I get to enjoy guilt-free quiet time over a glass of red wine and celebrate that I have not had a single fight over video games with my kids… All.  Week.  Long.

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