Family fun

I Experimented Screen-Free Zone on My Kids

October 16, 2017 • By 7 1 2680

Let’s be honest: educational apps and even some TV shows may hone our kids’ communication skills by enhancing their brains, BUT those aren’t the reasons why we dog-tired parents “put” our darling little ones on tablets, smartphones and TV. Putting kids on sleeping pills is frowned upon, but it seems all right to anaesthetize them with electronic devices. And while they’re busy goring plants or zombies (never could figure out which ones are which), you can fiiiiiinaaalllly breathe, you are fiiiiiinaaalllly at peace. (Note that I’m not desperate; I have four kids.) Having your devices outnumbering your little rascals works like a ceasefire agreement and, at last, it’s time to help yourself to a glass of cool wine. If the early hour of the day isn’t appropriate, it’s opportune for this importunate time. Suffice it to say, parents have all overdosed on booze a time or two (or fifty), but never, even in despair, did they ever quit trying to serve and protect.

In our home, we had a Netflix-connected TV, an iPad, four Nintendo DS, a Wii, five iPhones and a Samsung. A few years back, we also had Microsoft Flight Simulator set on a computer with a heavy and expensive joystick, but it got outranked by smaller and easier-to-play-with devices. Like John Hammond, we spared no expense, and it took us a while to realize our little ankle-biters would soon bite a little more than just our ankles. Before we knew it, they had become T-Rexes, and we created them. WE created them, “the most agile monster[s] of [their] generation” to paraphrase paleontologists Henry Fairfield Osborn and Barnum Brown. They were to eat us alive, and not just financially. But more importantly, we were to witness them losing interest in all other things. It had already begun; none of their “regular” toys interested them anymore, they didn’t hear our cat meowing that they hadn’t fed her in three days, they barely wanted to go outside anymore. And each time we somehow managed to grab their screens from their hands (and run, fast), all they seemed to be able to do was yell and quarrel. Even as I suspected their Machiavellian fuss to be orchestrated (mostly because they know full well I’m an easy quitter), I couldn’t help but worry how agitated they were.

I don’t know whether these devices were responsible but I guess you can’t always blame everything on climate change or your mother-in-law.

As I was reading Gail Honeyman’s novel Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine I came across this: “Mummy called it the cathode carcinogen, cancer for the intellect, and so we would read or listen to records, sometimes playing backgammon or mah-jongg if she was in a good mood.” And it made me wonder if that’s what our kids would remember me and my husband for when their horrible parents would take away their screens, afraid that they’d “drive [our] kids out of their minds” crazier than John Hammond’s attractions.

Because, indeed, drastic times called for drastic measures, it was time we turned our house into a smartphone rehab center. I texted Michelle what we were planning to do and she was swift to reply: “Really, you took away everything? Glad I don’t live in your house …” and when I told her I would write about this, she texted back, “I just rewarded my daughter with some screen time after making her study her spelling words. How am I supposed to bribe her otherwise??” Well, she’s partly right, but “there are more things in heaven and earth” than are dreamt of in their virtual and sterile realm.

It’s really when you wean your children off of their screens that you realize how much the addiction is a real thing. On the first days, our kids were completely lost. They didn’t really understand (or didn’t want to) the concept of withdrawal and kept coming back to us:

“What time can I have the iPad?”

“You won’t, sweetie.”

“Okay, but tomorrow?”

“Nope. They are gone forever.”

“Until when?”

I must say, it did break my heart. Other than the recess the electronics offered, I liked that my kids liked them and were good at them. And now they were mostly lost and … bored. It also made me sad that at ages 7 to 13, they couldn’t find anything (else) they wanted to do. So I helped. At the beginning of detox, their minds are still shielded by some sort of a firewall blinding them to everything that surrounds them, so you have to help them with brand new ideas. (Which are old ones, really.) As a bookworm, I naturally offered to read stories to the younger ones and tried to show off with my books. Unfortunately watching your mom read a book feels nothing like being bribed with an Italian ice cream. That’s only in my dreams. So I opened my own mind wider, and planted for-the-good-of-this-house hindsight here and there: Draw, make paper airplanes or boats, build Lego skyscrapers, pick up your dirty socks all over, play a board game, play Sudoku or crosswords, mow the lawn, plant some flowers, do a puzzle, clean your room, play hide-and-seek, give the cat a shower, do your homework, take a nap (ha-ha! this one is actually the most inconceivable to them), go to the neighbor’s, invite a friend and cook our dinner, ride your bikes, roller-blade, skate, write (a journal, a story), play some music, practice your instruments together and then become the next awesome rock band à la Hanson or Jonas brothers, move your furniture around your room (clean it first), kick a soccer ball, read. Et cetera, et cetera. Ideas didn’t fail me. But it seems like kids today don’t aspire for so much quietness. They’re more into adventures, and goring, and destruction.

Here are the top 3 activities that worked right away:

  1. Machetes. Three of my four kids are boys, so it was an easy bet that offering to use machetes to clear the lower palm tree branches would turn out to be a success.
  2. Digging holes. Originally it was meant for flowers, but I put an end to it when I started to wonder whether they were digging a pool or they had something darker in mind. Do you dig holes in Plants vs. Zombies??
  3. Boredom, insistence and begging. Nope, kids don’t give up that easily, sorry to disappoint.

If detoxing kids seems like a wise decision, it’s also a fuck-you-flavored move, and if you’re considering it yourself, be prepared: you’re in for a treat. (Wait till you have to take a long drive with no screens in the rear, and let the fun begin.)

But we’re talking important stuff; about taking the time to focus on what’s important: them. And damn it’s tiring. You will be solicited a lot, you will have to play a lot, you will have to say “no, you can’t have your phone” a lot, and you will — “Gee, no! Can’t have mine, either!” … But what’s too much when it comes to your obnoxious kids? We must embrace who they are, warts and all. A mother’s love is after all unconditional, that’s well known. Her patience is yet another subject.

Nevertheless, after seven to ten days, the demands stopped; they understood we’d become inflexible. My eldest, 13, busied herself with her homework and walked more often to her friend’s; my second, 10, dived into comics and my 7-year-old twins … kept fighting over each other. Yet they were all thrilled that after hurricane Maria hit us, their machetes were upgraded to axes to clear the yard of all its broken trees. Of course, when there was nothing more to cut down, the boredom was back again.

So at one point, I realized that their being bored was good for their creativity and I let them (re)discover it on their own. A few moments later I found out they had created an assault course in the yard using the planks we had on the patio because of the recent hurricanes. Another day, they’d decided to put one bench on top of another and jump over them. It must have been fun, until I had to drive my younger boy to the ER where an X-Ray revealed he’d broken his arm.

Needless to say, we had forgotten rule number one of parenting: children shouldn’t be left unsupervised, which is especially true when they “can’t find anything to do.” But that’s the way you learn to live. You break a few bones and you learn your lesson; it hurts a little more than when a plant or a zombie kills you inside your screen. That’s (real) life, get over it, kid.