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The first minutes of almost every day, until recently, used to go like this: our 5-year-old son, Mikey, stumbles to the toilet, then comes to my bedside. Suddenly, he becomes alert and focused as he spies my phone on the nightstand.
“Mom, can I have screen time?”
“No, honey, it’s not Friday.”
Three minutes later, he asks again — as he did almost every day. “Asked and answered,” I respond. (I use this phrase from Amy McCready’s Positive Parenting Solutions whenever I need to answer a question that I’ve previously answered.)
“Aw, Mom, but when can I? Just a little?”
I ignore the request. As I head downstairs, I realize that Jonny, our 3-year-old, has sneaked his way onto the computer again. I forgot to log out. He’s been on PBS Kids since who knows when, and it’s so appropriate that he’s on the Curious George page.
Not only was I growing very grumpy and resentful from the incessant begging, but our 5-year-old was moody even when he did get screen time. He whined about having nothing to do after getting screen time, wouldn’t think up his own games, and even refused to do art at our favorite playgroup because the mom wouldn’t give him screen time. When we went to the library, he would angrily ignore the books because I wouldn’t let him on the public iPads.
The screen-time dialogue
A telephone conversation with a close friend gave me the momentum and skills to begin a powerful and peaceful process I call the screen-time dialogue. What I find most satisfying in this approach is that it teaches communication skills to both parent and child. It is an honest, peaceful approach, that adapts well to all ages and puts the child in the driver’s seat.
- Help the child brainstorm screen-time concerns.
- Let the child brainstorm solutions.
- Create easy visuals which the child references daily.
- Have a simple routine and some go-tos.
1. Let the child brainstorm screen-time concerns. Directly and sincerely communicate concerns. Make sure to begin the conversation when you are both rested and calm. Our areas of concern were the brain (learning), mood, begging, reading time, exercise and socialization (playing with others). My friend did this with an older boy and had similar great results. Here was our conversation:
“Mikey, why are Mom and Dad worried about you having too much screen time?”
“Uh, ‘cuz it will hurt my brain?” he said.
“Yes, Mikey, that is part of it! Let’s draw some pictures.” I then drew a picture of a brain. We have had frank lessons in the past on how screen time affects children's cognitive function, so this was an easy, go-to answer for him.
“OK, what else is Mommy worried about with screen time?” I asked. He started listing several ideas, and I drew a picture of each as he talked.
“Me being grumpy?” he proposed. I asked him to describe his mood and energy after screen time, which is often lethargic and testy.
Next he proposed, “No exercise?” We talked about the joy of moving our bodies. (You could follow up with questions about their favorite things to do with their bodies.)
I then prompted him about reading, and he said, “Oh, yeah! It makes it hard for me to read! I gotta read books.” We drew a book on our paper.
He then said, “Begging?”
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