Published on May 17th, 2016 | by Katie Tastrom4
I Refuse to Talk to Other Parents About Screen Time—Says KATIE TASTROM
Parents have a reputation for being nosy know-it-alls when it comes to raising kids. As a parent I hate to admit how often this is true. Too frequently I meet parents who know what is best for not only their kids, but everyone else’s kids too. And also some currently childless people who have a lot of opinions they want to share with me about the mistakes I am making. I don’t need you to tell me all the ways I am fucking up (believe me, no one is harder on my parenting skills than I am!) Instead, do what my husband and I do and talk privately behind people’s backs about how their kids will grow up into monsters! Kidding! (Mostly.) At least that way they don’t have to hear about it
One of the biggest modern parenting dilemmas centers around “screen time.” “Screen time” is how much time you allow your kids to look at electronic “screens,” obviously. Computers, TV, videogames, etc. If you would like far too many articles detailing the ideal amount to provide children at different ages, welcome to Google. The term itself sets my teeth on edge. Parents will engage in casual conversation sizing each other up about “screen time” and how much their kid should get and I just stay out of it. I walk away if I can. (To be honest, I walk away from a lot of conversations about the “right” ways of parenting).
Screen time is a really silly concept to begin though with because not all the time kinds spend interacting with screens is the same. My older kids read on their Kindle, play math facts games on the computer, watch fluffy Disney Channel shows, watch shows like Project Runway and RuPaul’s Drag Race with me, play Minecraft and other video games, etc. You get the idea. I’m not going to treat their math facts games (some of which are more math facts than games) the same way I am going to treat their shows about skinny-singing-superhero girls with lots of hair. But in a sense I guess I do because (when they aren’t grounded), they generally don’t have any specific limits on “screen time.” Though some shows do spur more discussions about the sexism, racism, sizeism, consumerism, etc. portrayed than others.
However, we have recently limited video games to a couple hours a day on weekends because they don’t seem to have the developmental capacity yet to self-moderate those and end up neglecting other responsibilities. Instead of specific TV or computer time limits, they have things that they have to accomplish and once they accomplish those (including playing outside in decent weather), they can watch TV or do whatever. (The funny thing is,they often choose to read or hang out with their baby brother.) I believe that their free time is theirs to do what they want with. As long as they are not neglecting their responsibilities and they get enough active and imaginative play time, they can control the rest. There is so little that kids have control of in their lives, especially how they spend their time, that I don’t want to impose unnecessary limits on it.
I also have a toddler. You know how much TV he watches? A lot. Most people would say too much. And pediatricians recommend that he doesn’t get any TV at this age, but fuck that. But he also does a lot of other things too and gets a ton of developmental and physical exercise. He’s fine. And you know what makes him even better? The fact that I am relaxed at home with him all day because I know that if I need a break I can put on Elmo and rot his brain by teaching him how to count and what letters look like. But you know what? I won’t tell people this (usually). At least not people with kids or strong opinions about how to raise kids.
Do I sound like I am trying to convince folks that my way is the best way? I’m not. I don’t really care at all how much “screen time” your kids get. Two hours a week? Great! 5 hours a day? Fine! They will never see a screen until they are an adult? Seems kind of hard to manage, but whatever, sure! Just like everything else, as long as everyone is safe and relatively happy, whatever works for you and your family is what works. If anything I feel the need to justify my own position because of (generally well-meaning) busybodies who make judgments about every parenting decision ever made.
I will admit I usually find the “I grew up like that and I turned out fine” excuse pretty unpersuasive, especially since it is usually used in a context that tells you that the person did not turn out fine at all. But, let’s get real, most of us who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s watched a whole hell of a lot of television as kids. Screen time is not like spanking or hitting your kids where it is the kind of thing where other people may need to get involved. Sure screen time can be indicative of a larger problem, for example a kid whose parents have addiction issues and are not in a state of mind where they can connect with the kid so instead just put them in front of the TV, but in scenarios like that screen time is the symptom, not the problem. If the worst thing you are doing as a parent is that your kids watch too much TV you are doing extremely well. If there are a lot of other things going on in your family that end up with a lot of TV being watched then I hope you are able to access resources to help with those.
I think that for a lot of people, including professionals, screen time is often used as a proxy for other things. The presence of screen time is thought as also a measure of the absence of other things (reading, imaginative play, parental bonding, etc.) In reality, this isn’t always the case. I understand that public health professionals need to give general guidelines to families, and I don’t quibble with that as long as they are seen as general guidelines. Like clothing, one size fits all doesn’t actually fit all.
If I sound defensive it is because I am. So much of screen time involves saving my own sanity. It is a way for me to get a break when I get too worn out by the parenting grind, so like, every half an hour or so. (Just kidding, that is an exaggeration, I can usually go at least an hour without almost losing it.)
I believe that there is no single thing better for kids than happy and relaxed parents. And if that means calling in Dora and Thomas the Train as reinforcements, that’s totally fine with me. And I don’t want to hear what you think.