It’s breakfast time at my house, on an average weekday during the summer. I sit at the dining room table, which is crowded with books, puzzles, a sewing machine, and various other odds and ends and pressed against a window looking out to the backyard. My attention, though, is focused here, on the smudgy screen of my Chromebook where I do most of my writing.
My wife is at her desk, cozied in the corner between the kitchenette where we actually eat our meals and the living room. She, too, is working at a computer. There is an iMac on the desk that hosts the software she uses for transcribing for the Kentucky court reporting company she used to work for, now a side job for a few extra dollars. Often, though, she works on a small laptop she bought for her startup business providing bookkeeping and daily money management to individuals and small businesses.
Behind her, at the kitchenette table, our son reaches over his breakfast plate to tap at his Kindle Fire. He’s playing an age-appropriate game downloaded from the enormous list of children’s titles available through his Amazon FreeTime subscription. It’s probably a Dr. Panda game that simulates some aspect of real life (a restaurant, a town, a fire department) using cute graphics and a kid-friendly play interface.
Pushed away from the table to face into the open living room, our daughter sits in her high chair with a bowl of oatmeal. In the living room, the TV is on, playing a children’s show on Netflix. Most likely, she’s watching Mother Goose Club or Hi-5 House, shows designed for toddlers and focused around songs. Later, she will sing the songs as she plays or laying on the changing table, or she will drive herself absolutely silly putting a bucket on her head like the goofy knight Sir Buckethead who appears in an episode of Hi-5 House.
Throughout the morning, I will likely stop in an empty living room a few times to turn the TV off after a child has wandered in, turned it on and watched a few minutes, then wandered out again.
The scene at lunch (pictured above) is similar to breakfast.
After eating lunch, the kids have nap/quiet time. Li’l Boo still takes a nap, but The Dude will bring the Kindle up to his room where he plays by himself for two hours. Sometimes he plays on the device until the battery dies; sometimes he gets busy with blocks, cars and trucks, or his toolbox and workbench and ignores it completely.
Dinnertime finds us all seated at the table together, but the TV is likely still on. Sometimes the Kindle is out, too.
Around 7:00 in the evening, when Li’l Boo goes to bed, The Dude and I snuggle up on the couch for milk and graham crackers. We might read books together, or he might watch TV while I sit with the laptop and write, or he might play on the Kindle while I play a PlayStation game.
Listed out like this, it seems like an awful lot of time spent with screens. And all of this is totally okay with me. Really.
I’ll admit, there have been times when I’ve been a bit worried. Before the Kindle, my son had access to our iPad. He couldn’t download anything himself, so we knew all the apps were safe, but he would get onto YouTube and get sucked into weird unboxing videos and bizarre animations of Spiderman singing “The Wheels on the Bus” while crashing a car through a city GTA-style. And when it was time to put it away or we turned off access to YouTube, he got unreasonably angry. I was glad to see that kind of fixated attachment to tech go away after we’d weaned him from YouTube. Every so often we still use YouTube for Cosmic Kids Yoga or to learn something about an animal we like (or have a living room dance party–“What Does the Fox Say” and “Gangnam Style” are still big hits around here), but the kids never have access to browse on their own.
As a teacher and as a parent, I have a lot of thoughts (and a lot of questions) about what is important for children to learn to be successful in 21st-Century life. While I certainly prefer when my kids’ screen time is teaching them something concrete (shapes, colors, numbers, letters, emotional intelligence, how to put out a raccoon’s apartment fire when you are an elephant), a broad familiarity with tech and the mental adaptability required to navigate new and unfamiliar apps and interfaces seems pretty important in our increasingly tech-ified world. At the same time, it is my hope (and so far experience seems to support this, though I’ve read no studies and am constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop) that relatively unfettered access will lead to a demystification of tech that will help my children weigh their tech and non-tech entertainment options a bit more honestly than they might if tech has the sweet tang of forbidden fruit.
Another reason I’m okay with not putting specific limits on screen time is that I really don’t think my kids need them. They play outside every day, weather permitting. They draw and color and make music every day. They play with blocks and Play-Doh, K’nex and Hot Wheels, toy workbenches and kitchens. They sing and dance, run and jump, scream and laugh. They love to snuggle up and read books, to be pushed on the swings, and to run wild all over the back yard. I do hanker for more unstructured outdoor time for my children, more nature play in wild spaces, but the barriers and excuses preventing that have nothing to do with my children choosing screens.
At three and a half, my son could name all of the planets in the solar system, in order. He knows the names, parts, and functions of more different construction vehicles than I could have listed before he took interest in them. Without screens, I’m quite certain he would not have been able to collect and master so much information so young. Of course, books, conversation, trips to science centers, and plenty of imaginative play were also part of the process, and I would have a very hard time trading any of these for any others or picking a “most important” resource. What I can say for certain is that screen time helped him engage and interact with new learning in ways that nothing else did or could have.
I know that tech time and its potential harm and benefits is one of the most contentious issues in modern parenting, and I’m sure I’m opening myself up to a lot of judgment by broadcasting my lax approach. At the end of the day, though, my goal is not to please other parents or to present myself as a model of all that is right in child rearing. I’m just trying to raise kids who are happy and healthy under my roof and prepared to provide for their own happiness when they one day leave (which, based on current statistics and trends, seems like it will be when they’re about 35). Technology may have its drawbacks, but it is an indispensable part of modern life, and it creates wonderful opportunities for independent and self-guided learning, low-stakes decision making, creative play, and much more.
As I wrap this up, it’s after breakfast on a cloudy, wet Saturday. All of the screens are off, except the one where I’m writing this and my wife’s computer where she is shopping for school supplies for The Dude’s first year at his Montessori school. Li’l Boo colored while The Dude practiced solving mazes and writing numbers using Kumon workbooks, and now they are chasing each other around with a rather noisy motorized excavator and decorating a large cardboard box with markers and crayons. In a few minutes, we’ll get dressed and head into town to walk around and enjoy the crummy weather, or go to the local library to play and pick out new books. Personally, I would love to spend a gray Saturday on the couch watching movies, but there’s no way I could talk the kids into that.