If you want to know who is in charge in American households, look no further than a recent survey by Gallup. When parents were asked how they wanted kids to spend their time, sixty-two percent said they would like the kids to be playing outside and only twelve percent said they should be using electronic devices or watching other media. But when asked how kids actually spent their time, the number of hours on screen-based play outnumbered hours spent outside by almost two to one.
What accounts for this discrepancy? Do kids just wear us down with all their nagging? That’s certainly part of it. But frankly, if parents said no consistently for a few weeks, they would find that kids would get the message. Your kids don’t ask you for candy bars for dinner every night. Why? Because we have taught them not to expect junk food all the time. But screens? Well, that’s another story.
As far as time outside, one problem is certainly that in most neighborhoods, no one else is outside. When asked why their children weren’t playing outside, some parents just said their kids preferred screens. But the number one explanation for why the kids weren’t outside was “weather.” I hate to sound like a broken record but boy oh boy are we raising generations of wimps.
The idea that your kids can’t put on a jacket or a hat or even rain boots is pretty absurd. If playing outside is a priority, when they come home from school make going outside the default option. If you think twenty degrees is too cold or downpours are too much, fine. But try to stick to that standard. As every parent knows, the key is consistency. And as tempting as screens are, most kids—especially little ones—really do like being outside. They may come back dirty or wet, but remember: You’re the one who wanted them outside.
One-third of parents also said that their children were “too busy” to play outside. But obviously if they were playing on screens for almost nineteen hours per week, they probably had some time to go outside. Screens make us feel busier than we really are. Time goes by quickly when we (or our children) are on screens. If we turned them off, kids might be more inclined to stare off into space for a few minutes and then decide to do something like go outside.
Another option that parents hoped their children would choose instead of screen time was indoor free play. This, too, is sometimes difficult to encourage when screens are everywhere. And often when parents think their kids are playing, they are really on screens. Solitary indoor play is a perfectly fine option sometimes—reading or drawing, for example. But our kids also like playmates. It helps to have a bunch of siblings, but barring that, invite some friends over. Screens are often substitutes for human interaction.
Parents of younger children are often surprised when they show up to get their kids from our house and I am on my computer actually getting work done with six kids in the house. But it is exactly because there are other kids here that I don’t have to be a source of entertainment for anyone.
No one knows this better than Melissa Bernstein, of Melissa & Doug fame. The toy company that she owns with her husband actually commissioned this survey. Bernstein has six children of her own, and her company’s toys include a lot of blocks, simple costumes, puzzles, and the like. When it comes to giving technology to young kids in particular, Bernstein says, “It’s like giving a kid a little bit of cocaine and telling them to be careful,” she says.
Maybe this is a little bit of hyperbole. And obviously Bernstein has a financial motive to point out parents’ hypocrisy and weakness on the subject of screens. On the other hand, she also happens to be right.