We Banned Screens (Yes, Really), And It Changed Our Entire Family

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 

We banned screens the day we went out to Peachtree Rock. It was a perfect early fall day in the South: no humidity for once, t-shirt weather. My boys and I, plus two families of friends, tramped down a long, twisted trail to the only waterfall in our part of the state. It’s small, just a trickle really, but it leads to a small stream perfect for small kids to muck around, with boulders to climb and limestone cut-outs full of fossilized worm tunnels.

My 5-year-old, Sunny, trotted down happily, jumping logs, and looking out for poison ivy. When we got to the waterfall and the clearing, the moms rolled out our blankets, and I told them all to go play. The other kids scattered, but Sunny said he wanted to go home so he could play his iPad. I told him to go look for salamanders. He said he wanted to leave. I told him to build a bridge. He said he wanted to go home. I said he should go play in the waterfall, and did he want his water shoes? No, he wanted. To. Go. Home. Now.

And then he started screaming.

I ignored him and began talking to the other moms, because: omigod, we are in the woods and kid, go play with a freaking stick.

Sunny screamed and cried for an hour and a half, stopping only when a friend offered him a book on knot-tying, which occupied him for approximately fifteen minutes before he began screaming again.

The reason for his wails? He wanted his iPad.

I was appalled. I’m a huge advocate of free play, of wilderness play, of the value of nature. I believe kids need the woods to thrive. And here was my own four-year-old screaming non-stop for his iPad.

I banned screens on the drive home.

Sunny cried, “But when me watch Paw Patrol and Hilda and the Troll?”

“You don’t,” I said through gritted teeth. I apologized to my older sons. But they understood. They had, after all, heard the screaming.

So we banned screens. No TV. No tablets, except for educational purposes pre-approved by a parent, and only then if no tantrums were thrown when we removed them.

The first day, Sunny spent a good deal of time draping himself at my feet and demanding, “What me do now?” I offered multitudes of activities, from drawing to playing Legos to reading books, from blocks to costumes to playing with neglected toys. By the afternoon, he was playing imaginary games with his brothers.

By the second day, he and his middle brother woke up, got out their bucket o’ action figures, and played for an entire hour. They put on a dinosaur play using blocks, houseplants, Spinosaurids, and Predator X. They jousted with light sabers up and down the hall. They played Legos and Legos and Legos. They drew almost constantly and spent time outside.

But something else happened, too.

My kids fought less. They were kinder to each other. My oldest was always offering to read to the younger ones, and I found myself explaining that no, he could not read the new salamander book to them over lunch because he had to eat himself. Whole days began to pass without major rough-housing incidents or arguments. Instead, they helped each other with their school art projects. I had to stop them from helping each other too muchwith each other’s school work. My youngest began bringing us all books to read to him, which he had never done before.

When I asked them to pick up their toys, they actually picked them up instead of moaning and complaining, then waiting to get yelled at before they’d comply. When I needed to get the house clean, stat, for a visitor, they helped me. My littlest ran things into various rooms; my middle son picked up the living room; my oldest helped sweep. And lay down rugs. And this was them offering to help, not my asking.

Since our screen ban, they are pleasant to be around. They aren’t angels — I really wish they’d quit the lightsaber battles and wizard duels in my hallway, and the playroom is still a federal disaster area — but they are nicer, kinder, more fun versions of themselves. They show more initiative in independent play. Their drawings are more detailed. They try harder in school. They encourage each other more.

I may take the TV out back and smash it like an Office Space computer.

The truth is, I’m scared to turn the screens back on. Obviously, I can’t keep them shielded from tech forever. I know this. My oldest is learning to code with Scratch and loves it. My youngest uses a math program that has him learning at a remarkably fast pace and loving it. But I don’t want to lose the vibe we have going on right now. My house is peaceful. Paw Patrol doesn’t scream in the background all day. My youngest son doesn’t cry endlessly for his iPad when we are out of the house.

My nerves don’t jangle like they used to. I am calmer. I can give my best self to my kids, somehow, and they can give their best selves back. I am afraid to change that.

So the screen moratorium stays for now. We are about to go on a three-hour drive, and there will be no tablets, no DVDs. The kids will draw or read or look out the damn window and play car games. It’ll be more work for my husband and I, but it will be worth it.

Because banning screens? One of the best parenting decisions I have made, and I don’t want to go back. Honestly, after all this peace and quiet, I’m afraid to.

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