My parents never set limits on how many hours I spent glued to the boob tube. Honestly, I don’t think they wanted to be bothered. Still, despite little pressure about school, I did well—well enough to graduate from an Ivy League university. Despite not being required to read for a certain amount of time each day, I was—and continue to be—an avid reader.
Despite having a rather unique lack of structure growing up, I’ve become a relatively happy, connected, fulfilled adult. And, interestingly, I now rarely watch TV. Without making a big stink about it, my parents just expected that I’d do well. And I did.
I’ve taken a similar approach with my son and the iPad (we don’t have a TV), and I have to say, I’m pretty happy with my un-strategy.
Each family is unique, and unlimited screen time might not work for everyone. But I think there’s a case for it, and that we adults can learn a few things along the way, if we’d be willing to loosen our grip just a bit.
1. Learning to Trust
My son is 4 years old and developing his preferences—learning what he likes and dislikes and why. He’s been allowed enough space to become a pretty discerning kid. This is awesome, because not knowing what you want is tough, especially once you reach adulthood and accepted 100 percent responsibility for your life.
Unfortunately, kids don’t have the opportunity to just be themselves anymore. Instead, they’re constantly supervised, directed, redirected and corrected, and they’re learning to rely on that ongoing supervision and validation well into adulthood. By letting my son choose—as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone or himself—I’m showing him and myself that he can be trusted. He learns that he has an inner instinct—a natural guidance system—and he can practice developing it. And it turns out, his personal preferences aren’t just OK, they’re great!
If his inner guidance system is telling him to watch Curious George, or even—gasp—Power Rangers, for a while, that’s not a terrible thing. His preferences are what make him who he is, and they’re what will hopefully guide him towards a fulfilling and happy life as he grows up.
2. Learning to Stop the Struggle
For a while, I was uncomfortably concerned about iPad use, so much so that I’d say the iPad was in control, instead of me. I was afraid of the damage I was doing with every minute of screen time. I was angry at him for wanting to use the iPad at all, angry at myself for letting him do it, and angry at my partner for not fixing the whole frustrating predicament.
On top of that, my son was suffering from the the classic Forbidden Fruit Syndrome (FFS). His (very normal) desire to watch his favorite shows was upsetting the people he loves and respects most, and the resulting confusion and frustration over having his desires labeled as “bad” and “wrong” only contributed to him wanting to escape more and more into the screen.
One day, I wondered what would happen if I relaxed with the “shoulds” and “coulds,” and the results have been great. My son no longer believes that he’s doing something wrong when he watches the iPad. And, when we’re at home and he’s left to his own devices, he lets his preferences naturally dictate what he does with his time.
Sometimes that means watching a screen. But just as frequently, it means letting his imagination run wild with him, dressing in one of his many costumes and losing himself in a world of his own creation. Sometimes it means creating something cool with Legos, or playing with his action figures, or learning letters on his LeapFrog. Sometimes it means imagining a family in his toy house, or caring for his baby dolls. Sometimes, like right now, it means exclaiming that he “wants to take a bath!” and then sitting in the tub for an hour singing songs and playing with his bath toys.
He’s learning to march to the beat of his own drum, and that’s great.
3. Learning to Be Happy
I don’t feel like a bad parent anymore. Instead, I focus on being happy and appreciating this wonderful gift of motherhood. Instead of struggling with “how much is too much” and what arbitrary rule or guideline to follow, I trust my inner guidance and let my son trust his.
Best of all, when I let him decide for himself and don’t make a big, dramatic deal about it, it turns out he doesn’t want to sit in front of a screen all day. His inner guidance system knows that already, and it’s fun watching him find his own balance and rhythm.
Now I try to guide my son less by limits and more by my example. I focus on being a good mom. I answer his never-ending questions thoughtfully. I try to be the happiest person I can be, for myself and so that he can see adult-sized happiness in action.
Most of all, I give him all the love he can stand. My end goal is only that he’ll feel whole, know he’s loved, and have enough love for himself to be clear about who he is and what he wants out of this crazy, amazing life.
And I don’t think I need to limit screen time to do it.