Stop Parenting from the Couch

“Daddy, when can I get an iPhone?” asked my nine-year-old daughter.

“What makes you ask?” I replied, surprised.

She told me her ten-year-old friend at the YMCA has her own iPhone and tablet and “she can play Minecraft whenever she wants.”

This was big news to me since we’ve recently limited tablet time to the weekends. I felt like such a Luddite-dad. But then I read Christopher Mims’ recent article in the Wall Street Journal. Mims also limits tablet time to the weekends. Score one for the Luddite dads! I thought.

Mims reports that the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommends “children younger than eighteen months get zero screen time, and those ages two to five be limited to one hour a day—half of its prior recommendation.” As far as television, parents should watch with their children and discuss what they see, what experts call “structured joint attention.” The experts’ advice is clear: Parents should limit their children’s screen time and, when possible, watch with them.

But according to Mims, parents haven’t been heeding this counsel. “Time spent in apps from the ‘family’ category on the Google Play store doubled in the past year,” he notes. And children ages three to eleven watch 4.5 hours of recorded programming a day. There’s very little research on the long term effects of smartphone and tablet use on children. Some researchers suggest it’s not how much time children spend on devices but rather what they’re watching or playing that matters. But when you consider that every “hour of entertainment programming a child watches in the first three years of life increases her odds of exhibiting attention issues at school at age seven by 10 percent,” limiting the use of screens sounds like a good idea.

And yet, although the Luddite in me wants to ban all such devices in our house, I work from home and my children see me use my iPhone and laptop constantly. Though we’ve limited tablet and phone use for the kids, even taking a Sabbath from them all day on Sundays, what about my device use outside of work? Am I engaged with my children or distracted by a screen?

In May, the New York Times reported that adults now spend more time on Facebook and watching television than any other leisure activity: 2.9 hours a day. The average person exercises seventeen minutes a day, reads nineteen minutes a day, and attends social activities four minutes a day. Facebook wants our time, and they are getting it.

What message does that send our children if our lives revolve around our screens?

Today, many parents take the easy road and “parent from the couch,” as a friend likes to say, which usually means plopping the kids in front of the television or handing them a tablet. We’ve all resorted to this at times, of course. But we can’t let convenience (read: laziness) win. So, in the spirit of the Luddite-dad, and parents everywhere who are unwilling to surrender our children to screen distractions, I offer three suggestions to people who want to stop parenting from the couch.

First, intentional craziness. Being crazy with your kids requires you to be engaged. It also strengthens their emotional stability, their ability to cope with stress, the parent/child bond, provides positive discipline, and sparks their imagination. Craziness keeps me talking, joking, and laughing with my daughters. No screens needed.

Next, boredom. Too often we (parents) think we must keep our children entertained at all times. That’s a lie. White space proves to be a better tool for the imagination than Minecraft. Dr. Teresa Belton says, “Cultural expectations that children should be constantly active could hamper the development of their imagination.” Parents must fight the urge to turn on the television or fire up the iPad. Turns out a hammock in the backyard can provide hours of fun. A kid in a field with a stick can find activities on her own, the kind that encourage imaginative wellbeing.

Finally, adventure. Adventure dovetails into boredom. The former kindles the latter. Mike Lanza, author of Playborhood, believes “kids have to find their own balance of power.” Mike reminds us that some of the greatest moments of growth in childhood come when kids are with other kids just being kids. But the idea of letting kids alone is not new. The British educator Charlotte Mason encouraged parents to give children space, and to be careful not to impose anxious care on them.

Imagine a life uncorrupted by screens. And imagine a vigorous family life where crazy adventurous boredom ruled the halls instead of a glowing rectangle. It’s not only time to limit our kids use of screens. It’s also time to kill parenting from the couch, get crazy, and help ignite the imaginations that will shape the future.

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