Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Seven Day Screen Free Challenge

"Daddy, may I please have something to do?  Like the Disney Coloring Game?

Our five year old had very politely asked to borrow my iPhone.  While we were riding an elevator.  Riding it one floor.  From the ground floor to the second floor of our newly renovated neighborhood library, which was exciting and fun and full of books and new things to see and explore.  And yet she expected to be entertained by a glowing screen for the 40 seconds it took to ride between floors.

Clearly, we had a problem.

Like most parents, we’d succumbed to the lure of plugging our kids into screens.  Not only is it seductively easy to put on PBS Kids or Frozen for the ten thousandth viewing, it often feels like it’s straight up necessary to tranquilize them with screens if you’re ever going to cook dinner or fold the clothes.  And the shows go out of their way to make you feel GOOD about it.

“Look how educational Wild Kratts is!” we told ourselves.  “Our girls are learning about marsupials!”  But really, we’re just fooling ourselves.  Those shows could be straight up lying and making animals up, and we wouldn’t notice or care.  (Frankly, I’m still not convinced that there’s any such animal as a “foosa,” and we’ve actually seen one in the Naples Zoo.)

As comedian Patton Oswalt says, a show could start with “Yo Gabba Gabba teaches you how to make pipe bombs, and the dangers of race mixing,” and we’d just “Sweetie, don’t make pipe bombs, race mixing is fine, daddy has to cook dinner.”

We NEED those shows so we can get stuff done!  Sometimes it’s not so much “put the laundry in the drier” as it is “Sit down and look at Facebook for a couple seconds to preserve my sanity.”

“We watched plenty of TV as kids, and we turned out fine!”  Another lie we tell ourselves.  First of all, DID we actually turn out fine?  HMMMMMM!!???  And second, the electronic babysitter that our tired parents turned to in desperation was a 70 lb box in the living room. Now it’s on a flat slab of plastic and metal that fits in a pocket. Once you had to go to the screen.  Now it’s ubiquitous.

“Well, they’re not watching videos, they’re doing interactive games!  It’s even a reading game!  She’s learning phonics!”  It’s hard to take comfort in that thought when you’ve seen a kid refuse to get out of a car or try to walk up stairs while still manipulating their drawing game or Endless Reader app.  Or dealt with the howls of protest when you try to take it away from them.

They were addicted to screen based entertainment as surely as we were addicted to the easy solution of plugging them in.

One Saturday, the girls spent the whole day on school ski trip, came home exhausted and fell right asleep.  The next day we road tripped to Baltimore to do the Aquarium and the incomparably awesome Port Discovery.

When they were in bed, we realized we’d gone a whole weekend without any screen based entertainment.  Naturally we credited our superior parenting, rather than serendipity.  After putting icy hot on the shoulder muscles we’d strained patting ourselves on the back, we decided to see how long we could keep the streak going.

Cardboard Box.  Still the champ.
“Oh GIIIIRRRLLLLS, guess what I’ve got for you!?”
“What is it, daddy?  What is it whatisitwhatisit?”
“A cardboard box?”
“Nope!  It looks like a cardboard box, but it’s actually a school for your dolls!  Look, here are scissors and markers and tape.  You draw what’s on the walls, and I’ll help you cut desks out of these LaCroix boxes.”

After millennia of human existence, the cardboard box is still the champion toy of all time.

Obviously if we don’t want the girls to have screen entertainment, we can’t whip out our phones and noodle away on Facebook or Twitter in front of them.  It’s HARD suppressing that twitchy impulse to reach into your pocket and check Facebook and Twitter for an instant hit of validation and low grade amusement. We resolved to use our smart phones only for task specific stuff such as navigation, checking museum opening times, or taking pictures..

We took the girls grocery shopping.  A quick run to the store for milk turned into a Herculean effort and we ended up buying enough supplies to outfit a polar expedition.  But the girls found a bin of bargain books at the front of the store, seized on a book of princess faces and stickers to decorate them, and spent hours placing eyes, mouths, and tiaras.

My default relaxation state is not watching TV, but surfing social media and the web in a big comfy armchair next to the fireplace.

“Daddy, you said you’re limiting our screen time, but you’re not limiting your OWN screen time.”

Busted.  I immediately close my laptop and say, “You’re right, what game would you like to go play?”

It’s devilishly hard to rewire a habit, especially one as insidious as screens. But already the girls are changing.  Now they come home from school and run to a stack of Barbies, and soon Wonder Woman is having a very fraught discussion with Merida from Brave and Elsa from Frozen about the best way to save the world from the Evil Trolls from the city Sparkle of Worms.

It’s not like the girls are neglected or lack toys.  Their room looks like a truck bombing in a Toys ‘R Us.

I tell a friend that we’re no longer handing our kids a phone to pacify them when we’re out at a restaurant.

“Dude,” he says, “That’s my MOVE!”

Later: “Daddy, can’t we PLEASSSE have some videos?”

“No, play with your toys or we can play a game called “Let’s Tidy Up The Nursery.”
The girls vanish from sight, and two hours later, they've created a club, drawn up membership lists and bylaws, and are working on the agenda for the first meeting.

I’m beginning to feel like that scene in the Simpsons when Itchy and Scratchy goes off the air, and all the kids walk outside, rub their eyes, and begin playing outdoors while Beethoven’s pastoral symphony plays.

On road trips, we used to give the girls an ipad and a pair of headphones, then revel in the sybaritic joy of adult conversation.  Today I’ve substituted kids podcasts. The girls are enthralled by WOW in the World, with Guy Roz and Mindy.

At home, my computer is still on the. table beside my armchair next to the fireplace, but it’s buried under a stack of books.  I’m rewiring my habits to reach for a book instead of a screen as my default relaxation activity.  In his book “The Power of Habit,”  Charlie Duhigg talks about how the critical step to forming habits (and thus breaking previous habits) is a reward in the activity cycle.  I give myself the reward of an small but intense burst of smug superiority whenever I pick up a dead tree resource instead of a silicon one.

On a rainy Sunday between play dates, we went to see Coco at a movie theater where they serve food.  Perhaps it’s cheating to discount this from the No Screens Challenge, but seeing a movie in the company of friends and grandparents, chowing down on pizza, crawling into our laps for the sad parts feels social and interactive.

Restaurants are one of the places we’ve most relied on phones to pacify the girls.  I’m I’m flying solo with the girls and take them to a ramen shop for dinner before a Girl Scouts meeting.  I bring along two notebooks of paper and a huge box of crayons.  Before they even ask for phones, I shove the crayons and notebooks at them, and they begin scribbling away furiously.

Here’s the Secret:  Kids are SO much better at entertaining themselves than we think. NUDGE THEM.  The just need a small push in the right direction to create their own activities instead of waiting for stimulation to be painted onto their eyeballs for them.  Sometimes The Nudge is a suggestion, such as “What kind of tower would your My Little Ponies like to live in?”  Or give them The Nudge by putting the raw materials, such as crayons and paper, directly in front of them.  Other times you have to get down on the floor and start playing with them.  Grab a toy and use it as a prop to start telling them a story.  Yes, this is more work than hitting PLAY on an iPad, but it’s so much more rewarding.  And it will help break your own cycle of screen dependence.

The Take Away: We are on Day 12 of the Seven Day Screen Challenge. Several times the girls have said, “Do you mean we can’t EVER watch videos again for the REST of our LIVES!!?”  No.  We don’t have it in us to become a screen free family, but the Seven Day Screen Free Challenge has been revelatory.  Their habits have changed so quickly from demanding screens and whining when they don’t get them to reaching for other entertainment.

My wife and I are changing, also.  We’re reading books in the living room after the kids go to sleep, instead of drinking from the firehose of internet outrage.  It’s increased our well being and state of mind.  And we’re working on curbing the worst impulses of Smart Phone Addiction.  Even with the kids are around, we’re more aware of the impulse to check our phones, not because we need information, but because we’re bored.

Try the Seven Day Screen Free Challenge.  I hope you'll be as pleasantly surprised as we have been.