I was in bed around 2 p.m., sick with the flu, when my 9-year-old son tapped me on the side and said, “I know you’re sick. I won’t bother you if you give me screens.”
I rolled over. He was short and stocky, in a green Minecraft T-shirt, and khaki shorts, one arm folded, the other at his side, hair brown and ruffled. He didn’t smile, or laugh, or frown. His lips were a straight line.
He meant business.
My wife, Mel, was out with our two youngest daughters. She left me with my son, Tristan. I’d been throwing up for almost 24 hours, and while I agreed that Tristan could stay with me because he didn’t want to go to the store, I didn’t realize that he hadn’t finished his list (a group of tasks he must finish to get screen time) and would immediately hassle his poor, ill father to play with the iPad.
“Did you finish your list?” I asked.
“I did like…most of it,” he said.
The moment I heard “most of it” I knew that he’d done very little of it, and now he was trying to get out of his obligations.
We bought all our children tablets early this year, telling ourselves that they would use educational apps. It would be good for them. Teach them things. But the reality was, we bought them so we could have some quiet time. There is something to be said about tossing a child an iPad after a long day at work. When I first started parenting almost a decade ago, I’d turn on Barney to get 30 minutes of quiet. But with a tablet, I can turn my kids into zombies all day, no problem.
And I must admit, when all three kids have screens, it is ghost quiet in my house. There is a stillness that for me, as a parent, is flat-out glorious.
But the thing is, with kids, those little screens are as addictive as street heroin, and while it is wonderful when I need a break, it has become a constant battle to keep my kids from using their tablets 24/7.
Managing apps, YouTube, the internet in general, is the reality of parenting in 2016. My kids don’t watch Saturday morning cartoons. They watch assclowns in basements playing Minecraft or YouTube videos of kids opening magic eggs and binging on candy. None of it makes sense to me, and all of it is far from educational. There is really no end to entertainment. Kid-friendly entertainment wasn’t available all the time when I was growing up. Saturday morning cartoons ended with daytime talk shows. But that isn’t the case anymore. There is literally an infinity of shitty, mind-numbing brain candy online for my children.
We created a work chart, a grid of sorts, all of it around earning screen time. My kids don’t worry that much about money; they want screen time. So we turned it into currency. Tristan can earn screen time for taking out the garbage, cleaning the toilets, cleaning his room. The kids have a list that they must complete before having any screen time, a baseline of what must be done each day: brush their teeth, get ready for the day, tidy their room, do something creative, active, or productive — you get the idea. Screen time has become the primary motivator in our home.
I will admit, my kids will do anything for screen time. Last week I had Tristan picking up dog poop in the yard, a smile on his face, because I promised him 45 minutes. But on the downside, it has, more or less, turned my children into little lying opportunists and manipulators who seem to know all the cracks in our screen time regulating system.
Since buying tablets, my daughter has faked sick multiple times because the one time she was actually sick, we let her have the iPad while resting on the sofa. My son has lied about finishing his list so he could get screen time. I have found my children hiding in the bathroom, claiming to be pooping, but silently playing games. I’ve had them reset the iPad timer when my back was turned (the clock above the stove) so they could get additional screen time. My son has come to me with backdoor arrangements, telling me that if I let him have screens, he won’t tell Mom about the time I sprayed her flowers with weed killer (last time I trust him with a secret). I’ve had my daughter offer to let me take a nap so she could have screens (that was tempting).
Sometimes extra screen time has become something similar to bartering with a street vendor, a negotiation of how much time they could get for doing this or that. Sometimes it’s a flat-out argument. All of it, though, I have to say, shows ingenuity and negotiation skills on the part of my children, but the reality is we’ve created screen-obsessed monsters.
Thus, my son somehow realized that his father was sick and weak, and if he stayed home from the store I’d be easy prey.
I sat up in bed and looked at Tristan. His arms were folded now, and when I looked him in the eye, he tried to hold my gaze, but then looked down. It was then that I felt queasy and had to lie down again.
“If you didn’t do your list, you can’t have screens. You know the rule.”
His shoulders went slack and he started to whine. “Please,” he said. “Please, Dad.”
I put up my hand. “Tristan,” I said. “I am so sick right now, and you know it. I don’t appreciate you trying to get me to give you screens when I’m down. You don’t kick a man when he’s down.”
He went to say, “That’s not what I’m doing,” but I stopped him.
“We both know that’s what you are doing,” I said.
He looked down again.
“Tell me what you have done from your list,” I said.
He told me, and suddenly we were going back and forth, figuring out what he needed to get done. I helped him realize that what he had left to do wasn’t all that much, and I told him I’d give him some extra time if he microwaved me some soup.
“You help me, I’ll help you. That’s the way the world works,” I said.
I could tell that he wasn’t in love with the arrangement, but he’d live. And by the end, we shook hands, as if we’d made a serious arrangement.
“It’s been nice doing business with you,” I said.
Tristan smiled, and went into the kitchen to make me soup.