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Dawn Wessman shares a step-by-step guide to help parents limit children's screen time.

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.


  1. Help the child brainstorm screen-time concerns.
  2. Let the child brainstorm solutions.
  3. Create easy visuals which the child references daily.
  4. Have a simple routine and some go-tos.
The conversation (10-15 mins):

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?”

“Yes,” I explained, “badgering.” We had explicitly taught earlier what badgering looks like (begging, incessant questions) and what the appropriate behavior is (ask once politely). Along with badgering, my son and I discussed addiction. We talked about how addiction can keep him from doing the things he loves, like hiking, and that it can injure his mind and relationships.

I thought we were done, but then he got an idea that shocked me: “How about I don’t be with other people when I’m on the screen?” It wasn’t even on my radar to discuss socialization, but this is a major concern of ours. Our children staring into glowing phones, instead of into the glowing faces of caring friends, unsettles us as parents. “Yes!” I cheered. I asked him what I should draw, and he suggested to draw a family.

2. Let the child brainstorm solutions. Next, we went back to each area, and I asked him for ideas of how he could focus on each area daily.

  • Learning. He suggested art, reading, new math, science time, playing piano, puzzles and building. “Wow, that’s almost everything I do!” he noted.
  • Mood. We went over how to act resilient when something doesn’t go his way. We developed a hand-signal to warn him that he was being grumpy (the sign for “happy” in ASL). I also say “uh-oh” once, and he knows if I repeat it, it takes one minute off his screen time.
  • Begging. He is not allowed to ask repeatedly for screen; he also doesn’t need to because he knows when he will get it. We went over the expectation for his mood and how to say, “Yes, Mom,” cheerfully when I would need to say no to a request. He also needs to cheerfully say, “Yes, Mom,” when I ask him to do something, such as cleaning or playing with his little brother.
  • Reading. He reads five books to himself before screen time. If the book is bigger, then he can sound out one sentence per page or spend a lot of time on the pictures. Reading aloud to his brother or with me counts.
  • Exercise. Twenty minutes minimum. We live in the Northeast, so a long, cold winter awaits us. He can do indoor tramp, run stairs, wrestle, do yoga, push-ups, jumping jacks, dance or go in the driveway. When the weather is good, I need to provide the outlet by taking him to the track, parks, swimming, skating, or teaching them how to dance or do push ups, etc.
  • Socialization. He needs to play with someone else for at least 20 minutes. His ideas were games with siblings like Candy Land, Gobblet or Nerf guns.
3. Create easy visuals; child marks progress. We made a really simple strip with six little boxes. Our son drew a lot of the pictures. He puts a paper clip on each box when he’s done that one for the day.

4. Have a simple routine and go-to activities. Having the go-to activities laid out saves a lot of time and frustration. Our days are fairly planned out due to five kids, school schedules, my aerobics teaching and baby’s nap times. Mikey begins “earning” his screen time after the morning routine is finished; I let him choose what order to do things in, but he needs to do them all. Between cleaning, errands, mommy-is-a-person time, car pools and preschool, it usually takes him until the afternoon to have passed off each area.

During the day, when he may ask me for suggestions of things he can do for an area, such as exercise, I refer him to our brainstorm list. Recently he jumped on the trampoline, ran up and down the stairs and wrestled with me.

When he’s done everything on his list, we set a timer for 15 minutes and he gets screen time. We agree on the game, and he plays in an open place around everyone.

After our first conversation, Mikey was so thrilled that he immediately went to work on each area. For learning, he chose art, and he created a book. He proudly handed it to me, hugged me, and enjoyed his Star Wars Angry Birds for 15 minutes.

The screen-time dialogue not only set up the framework for screen time usage in our family, but our mother-son relationship and mutual respect dramatically increased. Now we have very little badgering in our home. His physical activity, reading and learning time has doubled. Fighting or moodiness has markedly decreased. The children are also quicker to obey and are much more creative.

Now when I wake up, Mikey stumbles into my room for a hug and then stumbles over to the Tinker Toys and plays on his own.

The next step is to invite my children to tell me their concerns about my screen-time usage.

QUESTION: What has worked for your family in setting screen-time boundaries? How did your family create these frameworks? What time of day is emotionally the best for you and your family to have screen-time dialogue?

CHALLENGE: Share your family’s ideas in the comment section below. Try the screen-time dialogue or apply the communication principles of honesty, two-way communication and solution finding to another area of concern in your family.

This article is courtesy of Power of Moms, an online gathering place for deliberate mothers.