Does your teen turn on the sarcasm when she's kicked off the computer? Is your grade-schooler asking for more quality time with the TV?
It could be your kids are overprogrammed and overstimulated in these hectic, wired times, and your family could stand to be unplugged. Tossing the electronics, if only temporarily, provides your kids with something in short supply your undivided attention.
So nix the phone, shut down the computer and turn off the television for a "family slowdown." It may be hard to find the time, but it's worth it, said Susan Linn, author of the new book "The Case for Make Believe, Saving Play in a Commercialized World."
"Remember that your child is going to be grappling with electronic media and the things it sells for the rest of their lives," said Linn, a psychiatry instructor at Harvard Medical School. "They'll be better equipped to cope if they have lots of experience enjoying their own ability to make things happen, using their own curiosity as an impetus for actively exploring the world."
Pamela Pensock, a working single mother of twin 12-year-old boys in Brooklyn, N.Y., couldn't agree more. She provided a virtually TV-free, computer-free life for her boys when they were younger and says she can see the benefits now that they're in sixth grade.
"They still play with action figures, interact on a creative level when their friends come over," said Pensock, a freelance writer and editor. "I give my kids little talks about some of their peers, about 'Well, isn't it strange that all they can do is watch TV?' Peer pressure is big in middle school and we do have a TV now but the funny thing is they don't even watch it."
On a recent rainy afternoon, my 8-year-old daughter and twin girls she knows from school made their own snack with an ice cream ball they filled up with ingredients and rolled around on the living room rug. There was measuring, mixing, pounding ice cubes with a hammer and plenty of physical activity for the three girls and the twins' 10-year-old brother.
"It was nice because we got to pass it around and shake it. Everybody got a turn. Then we got to eat it!" said my daughter, a third-grader.
Of course, there are times when even the most attentive parents are grateful to the creators of DVDs and video recorders. But quieter activities that kids can do mostly themselves with exhausted grownups nearby can replace electronic baby sitters.
Dig into the desk for rubberbands and have them start a rubberband ball. Teach them old-fashioned hand string games, get them to think up a story and draw their own illustrations to go with it, pack travel puzzle books with enough variety to keep fresh on the road or suggest freestyle origami that encourages kids to be inventive.
Whatever suits your family, Linn urges parents to start young. In good weather, a family hike in the woods or a walk around the neighborhood can clear everybody's heads and provide a quieter outdoor alternative to noisy and chaotic playgrounds. Visit the pet shop, the firehouse and the resident cat at the corner store as you stroll.
A trip to the airport just to watch planes take off and land is oddly exciting when you're not running to and fro with luggage. For youngsters learning how to identify money, grab your spare change jar, toss the contents on the dining room table and let them create sorting and counting games of their own.
"Don't buy into the 'educational' baby video and software scam," said Linn, who lives in Boston and is the director and co-founder of the nonprofit Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. "There's no credible evidence that screen time is beneficial to babies and toddlers and some evidence suggests that it might be harmful."