Ask Scary Mommy: My In-Laws Constantly Criticize Our Kids' Screen Time

by Cassandra Stone
Paula Daniëlse/Getty

Ask Scary Mommy is Scary Mommy’s advice column, where our team of “experts” answers all the questions you have about life, love, body image, friends, parenting, and anything else that’s confusing you.

This week: How do you handle constant criticism of your child’s screen time habits when it’s their grandparents doing the criticizing? Email

Dear Scary Mommy,

My parents live in our neighborhood and have been really hands-on with our children while my husband and I have been working throughout the pandemic. I’m very grateful for their help and that they’re able to be part of our lives safely. And I know free childcare isn’t free. But one thing that’s really been bugging me lately is how much my parents (my mom especially) gets on my a*s about my kids’ screen time. Our kids, age 6 and 3, both have Kindles that they use for games and movies, etc. We don’t really have a set schedule for them on their tablets, and my mom guilts us to no end about how our kids need to be “busy” during their downtime so they don’t get lazy or “fry their brains.” It drives her absolutely bonkers when they’re content playing their games on couch and not doing…whatever task, craft, chore, or activity she thinks they should be doing. Are we lazy parents for letting our kids have unlimited screen time? They’re not screen zombies or anything, but I don’t know if we’re wrong or if my mom needs to back off.

Well, the first thing I’m going to tell you is that I have good news: We’re in the middle of a pandemic and you don’t have to guilt yourself about anything that isn’t actively destructive when it comes to your kids. If you’re all surviving without hurting one another or endangering others, you’re doing great.

What I’m about to say next will likely be deemed “controversial” in some parenting circles and that’s perfectly fine. I genuinely, wholeheartedly, fervently believed that the outrage and hyper-concern over the length of time children sit behind screens is unnecessary.

Let me be clear about some things first: I do believe in parenting controls, being fully aware of the games and content your children are consuming on said screens, and I do not believe in giving children their own iPhones. I also believe kids should develop other hobbies and interests outside of said screens. But I am not in any way concerned about children who spend an hour playing puzzles, watching Daniel Tiger, or laughing at Blippi trying to sink random objects in a tub of water.

Think about why you binge a Netflix show. Because it’s relaxing, because you enjoy it, and it’s a way to unwind. It’s escapism from the realities of the day, right? Well, the same goes for kids and their iPads/Kindles. Why is it okay for us to veg out for a bit if it’s what we need, but we all fly into a tizzy over kids doing it?

It sounds like your mom’s “busy-ness” is her issue. I have friends who grew up in households where their moms always found things for them to do and guilted them for wanting to loaf around and watch TV. They now struggle immensely with being able to simply relax in their own homes without a little subconscious Guilt Fairy making them feel like they should be folding clothes, cleaning the kitchen, running errands, or doing whatever task will keep them from literally just resting for a bit. It makes me sad.

People who constantly fill up their schedules and have something to do every minute of every day are, most likely, staying “busy” as a trauma response. Regardless of the origin behind your mom’s issue, she’s projecting it onto your kids. That’s not cool.

Tell her that your kids do not have underdeveloped brains or interests simply because they like to unwind and escape through technology. This generation of children entered a fully digital age and won’t ever know a day without technology at their fingertips. As long as they’re getting some fresh air in between Blippi episodes, and have hobbies or have fun in other ways, too, they’re fine. I promise.

Especially right now, we need to let our kids recoup however they need to. I’m hopeful your mom will understand this better after an honest conversation, or, at least, will keep her opinions on the matter to herself from now on. Free childcare is never free, you’re right, but your kids also don’t need to internalize her issues.