The Sliver, or How to stop fighting about screen time

Published by Lori Pickert on May 15, 2013 at 08:08 AM

Sub-subtitle for this post: Why you need to move from a scarcity to an abundance model.

One of the most frequent things I’m asked is how to deal with the struggle between parents and kids over limits on screen time.

Parents want something better for their kids than TV, movies, and video games — they want their lives to be full of better-quality activities, like playing outdoors, reading, playing, and building.

Many parents approach the subject of screen time — or other kid activities they don’t like, like reading comic books — by placing a strong limit on it. They say to their child, “We want our lives to be lovely and full of all the good things, so we are cramming all the stuff you love that we don’t like into this sliver.”

The child hears, “Blah blah blah, you love the sliver.”

Then the parents get to experience the ever-burgeoning frustration of having their child riveted on that sliver of time. The kids want to talk about it. They want to bargain for more of it. They want to argue about whether they got their fair share of it. Why? Because the sliver is where all the good stuff is.

What we need to do is flip it around. Instead of making the sliver the garbage chute on Star Wars that everyone dives into for blessed escape, we need to allot the sliver to ourselves instead.

We say, “We want our lives to be lovely and full of all the good things, so we are going to allot a portion of our day to the stuff that really matters — the stuff we think is important.”

Now put it all in there. Make time every day to read, to play outside, to play a board game together, to build with LEGO or blocks, to spend time together in the art studio. Work on your projects together, side by side. Go for a hike, fly a kite, sit on the steps and eat an ice cream cone. Read aloud to one another.

As if by magic, the stuff you care about is now part of your everyday life. Magically, your kids are no longer riveted by the tiny sliver of time when they get to do what they want — therefore, they are free to enjoy all the good things instead of bitterly resenting them. Magically, you have just negotiated a life that respects both what is important to you *and* what is important to your child.

When you set up a scarcity situation, you are always going to whip people into a frenzy to get whatever it is that’s hard to come by, whether it’s a dancing Elmo, a Beanie Baby, or a half-hour playing Minecraft. That’s just human psychology. Make it rare and people want it desperately. And when you limit what your child wants to do and push them toward something else, saying THIS is better than THAT, you create conflict where there doesn’t need to be conflict. They should be able to love books *and* TV, computer games *and* playing outside. But because you have put these things in competition with one another, they have to choose — so they end up rejecting the very things you want them to embrace.

When you force your child’s interests into the sliver, you are denying them the opportunity to get good at what they care about. You are denying them the chance to relax and enjoy themselves. And you are saying, flat out, “I don’t care about this thing you like. I don’t like it.” That’s a path toward having them not talk to you about it anymore. You are forcing them away from you just when you should be pulling them close.

If they love Minecraft or playing a video or computer game, they can’t accomplish anything in a tiny slice of time. The way these games work, it usually takes a lot of time just to learn how to play and then it takes a lot of time to slowly progress to mastery. The games make you put in the time; they don’t let you jump straight to the fun part. And the kids are willing to do the work — but if they don’t have enough time, they can’t do the work.

It takes a lot of time to understand, grasp new concepts, figure out rules, learn, practice, and master. Kids whose screen time is limited are living in constant frustration because they can’t build their skills, they can’t watch the YouTube tutorials another kid made, they can’t learn what they want to learn, and they can never relax while doing the thing they enjoy most because they always have one nervous eye on the clock. They can’t experiment, they can’t explore, and they can’t practice — and those are the key steps of learning that you want them to experience, even when it’s doing something you yourself aren’t interested in.

Some parents say they’re really frustrated because their child seems to spend all of their available screen time watching *other* kids play — and they’re tempted to reduce the amount of computer time even more. But watching others is a crucial step in learning. What’s the fastest way to learn to ride a bike — reading a booklet about it or watching someone else ride? Plus, watching tutorials and watching friends play are community aspects; that observation helps them learn how to teach and mentor, how to collaborate and socialize. If you only get X minutes a day and you really want to learn, you are going to forgo playing yourself in order to try to cram in more learning time — and learning requires observing. So cutting back on their computer time actually forces them to do less hands-on experimentation. Learning by doing takes a lot of time, and they just don’t have that luxury.

One of our higher goals as parents should be to help our children become independent — not just physically, but intellectually. If we reject their interests because they seem stupid or because we don’t understand them or enjoy them ourselves, we are rejecting our kids themselves. Do you remember what you liked when you were 11? I’m pretty sure that’s the summer I played Monopoly nine hours a day, six days a week. On the one hand, it was very sedentary. On the other hand, I do own some real estate now. I haven’t built a hotel yet, but don’t count me out. I also watched a lot of “Love Boat” that year. Yet I still managed to start a company, open a school, and write a book. If “Love Boat” can’t kill your intellect, believe me, nothing can.

In our home, we limited screens naturally when our children were little by having a routine that just didn’t include them. When they got older, we employed generous limits. We didn’t use screens for entertainment (our family word for this is actually “sloth time”) until 3:00, which made their morning and early afternoon the focus of project work and play. As they got even older, we shifted that time to 2:00, but we also allowed computer use for project-related work because the boys were now researching independently, making films, writing books, and so on.

During the day, we worked on projects, played outside, read, played LEGO, took photographs, made art, and all the other good things. The kids never watched the clock; they never dropped a book or a squirt gun to dash to a computer or a TV set. They experienced balance and they enjoyed everything they did. There was no competition between computers and nature or between books and TV. Screens were fun, but the kids never riveted on them because there was no need to. If they wanted to get to level 47 of some game, they had plenty of time to do that. Employing generous limits means you have plenty of time. You don’t worry — there’s no urgency. You aren’t hyper-focused on it, and your mind is free to focus on and enjoy other things. And we made sure they had plenty of other things to focus on.

We need to shift from a scarcity model (there’s very little time for you to do those things you love to do) to an abundance model (there’s plenty of time for us to do all the good things, including that stuff you love to do).

You can’t really fix the sliver problem by, say, making the sliver a little bigger. It really takes a complete flip-flop. You have to stop curtailing what your child loves and instead focus on building a routine and a family culture around the things you believe are most important. Get those things in there — do them every day. But if you want your child to see them, appreciate them, and relax enough to enjoy them, think about getting rid of the sliver.

See also:

Why I Don’t Worry About My Kids’ Screen Time, Part 1

Why I Don’t Worry About My Kids’ Screen Time, Part 2

Parenting with abundance vs. scarcity

Why I don’t worry about my kids’ screen time, Part 2

Published by Lori Pickert on November 8, 2011 at 08:02 PM

Yesterday, I wrote about one reason I don’t worry about my kids’ screen time — because reading, the outdoors, and video games are not mutually exclusive.

Another reason I don’t worry about my kids’ screen time:

What they consume, they produce.

Project-based homeschooling is about working actively with knowledge. When they were small, my boys dug into their interests and drew, painted, built, constructed, played, wrote, read. Now that they’re older, they still approach every interest with the same mind-set — a mind-set of ownership and control.

Their reaction to their favorite video games and movies? “I want to learn to program my own games.”

“I’m writing a story about these characters.” “I’m writing a comic book.” “I’m going to make a movie about this.”

They don’t just passively consume — they actively produce. They take ownership over ideas and work with them, build with them. They take what interests them, what they enjoy, what they love, and they make something new.

They treat the producer of the content as a partner and an equal, the same way they treat their learning mentors and their peers. “That’s interesting — now watch what I do with it.” They even get into a dialogue with some of those producers — writing and e-mailing some of their favorite writers and artists. They put their work out into the community and share it with other people. They actively participate; they make a contribution; they’re part of the big conversation.

My younger son used to watch the Star Wars movies on videotape on a tiny little TV set we had at our office. He would advance the tape a short distance then laboriously draw the scene. He filled reams of paper with drawings. He’s grown into an artist and cartoonist, a writer and filmmaker. He still loves Star Wars; he creates stop-motion LEGO films using his own Star Wars-inspired characters. He writes chapter books. He spends hours making stop-motion films.

My older son has always been a history nut. At age six, he stumped a friend with his spontaneous history quizzes — a friend who had a master’s degree in history. It was a deep interest, and he’s sustained it over many years. He loved the computer/video games Civilization and Age of Empires. After playing Civilization (which was too complex for me to figure out — I apologized for buying him a game beyond his years, and he waved me away and taught it to himself), he said he needed new history books that were specifically about the different countries and people in the game. He wasn’t just consuming the game; it was engaging him in a dialogue that sent him running to the library for more knowledge.

I know that not all children have this ability, this tendency to work with knowledge, think critically, and apply their own spin. But if it’s important to us, we can help all children develop it. There’s nothing a homeschooler can do at home that schools can’t replicate with their bigger budgets and long days. Schools can be havens of reading, writing, making, producing, and critical thinking; they can offer up natural playscapes and organic gardens and long-term projects. They can do everything I’m doing at home. If they don’t — if it’s just not an important enough priority for us as a community — then it’s a little hypocritical to expect the kids to make up for it during their very limited free time.

My kids’ ability to confront ideas actively rather than passively is what project-based homeschooling represents to me, and the way my children react to their ever-changing world is what reassures me that we’re on the right path. 

The technology is always going to be changing and evolving. If our children are active learners and creators, they’ll master it, they’ll control it, and they’ll make it their own.

Read part one here:

Why I Don’t Worry about My Kids’ Screen Time, Part I



Why I don’t worry about my kids’ screen time, Part 1

Published by Lori Pickert on November 7, 2011 at 09:08 PM

There’s a billboard in my town that makes me grind my teeth into dust. It shows a kid’s hands holding, on the left, a video-game controller and, on the right, a turtle. Then it says something along the lines of “unplug”.

I was ranting about it the other day and one of my sons rolled his eyes (nicely) and said, “Mooooom, they’re just telling people to, you know, go outside more.” And yes, I get that. But they are doing it in a way that makes me crazy.

The whole either/or mentality is what gets to me. By positing the game controller against the turtle, the message is “video games: bad, playing outside: good.” Why isn’t this a good way to get kids outdoors? Because if they reject the left side of that equation, they may automatically reject the right side. This kind of shaming argument runs a serious risk of turning kids off the outdoors.

It won’t bother my kids — they’re die-hard readers and campers. But I worked for years in a school environment, and I constantly had to take kids and convert them into readers — convince them that they were wrong about hating to read, about not wanting to read, about wanting to do anything but read. When you try to promote something good (reading, playing outside) by pitting it against something kids love (comics, video games), you REDUCE the chance they will approach that good thing with interest and an open mind.

I tie this to the “books are broccoli”* approach. Imagine a cartoon where a teacher is handing two parents a sheet of paper and saying, “Now, the way we introduce children to hating learning is to first get them to hate reading. So require your child to read 30 minutes every night and then fill out and initial this form.”

If you want to suck the fun out of anything that your child enjoys doing, I suggest you force them to do it for 30 minutes every night, fill out a form, and have you initial it.

What is the message there? Reading is broccoli. It’s good for you. You won’t do it unless we make you. Eat your broccoli. Read!

The kid who liked to read sees reading turned into an assigned chore. He gets the message: Reading isn’t cool, dude. It’s something no one would do if they weren’t forced to do it — or rewarded for doing it. And by the way, you don’t get to pick out what you read anymore. That book is too young for you; that other one is too old. And neither of them are leveled readers. Here, read this flat, melba-toasty book for a half an hour and then I’ll initial your form. Make sure you get your form signed or I’ll make you read it again. It reads or it gets the hose.

Who is that billboard for, anyway? And does that method work? If parents love the outdoors, if they hike and camp and garden and play outside, their kids are likely to be spending time outside having fun. Many parents, however, seem to be of the “do what I say and not what I do” camp. They are indoors on the computer, watching TV and movies, maybe even reading (!), and they are waving their kids outside. In this scenario, no wonder the kids are bitter, their pale little faces pressed up against the window watching Dad play Halo and Mom skype to Grandma.

The billboard seems to be a vague scold toward parents. “Tsk, it says — make your kids go outside. It’s good for them.” But would the billboard work if the kid on the left were holding a book? Or homework? Or art materials?

Adults want to control kids. They want them to do the things they want them to do, and they want them to enjoy the activities they want them to enjoy. In the 70s, bespectacled children everywhere were being told they were “reading too much” and they needed more fresh air. Banished to the outdoors, they might climb into a treehouse with a copy of “Treasure Island” in their back pocket only to see an angry parent down on the ground, yelling at them to get down here and put that book away, mister. You will run around and play whether you want to or not. Childhood: You’re doing it wrong!

These days, parents research on their iPhone for ways to get their kids to read more and limit their kids’ screen time as though it were a magical alchemy: Less Minecraft = More Jack London. Either/or. You can’t read and play video games. You can’t play outside and watch TV. By pulling this string, I cause the reading activity level to rise.

You’re never going to convince an adult gamer that video games are bad for kids — not because he’s clinging stubbornly to his addiction, but because he’s amassed enough anecdotal evidence to know you’re wrong. Kids who play video games read (sometimes they learn to read so they can play the games), they problem-solve, they have raucously good fun with their family and friends. Trying to explain that it’s all bad, bad, bad just makes you sound like the Luddite codger you are.

Does it ever work to encourage activity A by denouncing activity B? Books are broccoli and kids need their broccoli so that makes TV and video games candy. Sweet, delicious candy. I’m in my 40s but even I know: candy good, broccoli bad.

The either/or approach focuses on scarcity. The glass is half empty, your day is almost gone. Your free time is as scarce as hen’s teeth. Don’t waste it on things you enjoy! Invest it in these more intellectually valuable pursuits instead!

An entirely different approach would be to present books as candy, the outdoors as candy. Wow. I think I just blew my own mind.

How different it would be if, instead of scolding children to stop doing A and go do B whether you like it or not, we just shut up and took them on a hike in the woods, then came home and read “Treasure Island” aloud while drinking hot chocolate.

How different it would be if, after playing video games together as a family, we read “The Hobbit” aloud.

How different it would be if we read a book together then watched the movie version. Together.

Part one of why I don’t worry about my kids’ screen time? Our glass is three-quarters full. We have plenty of time — time to read, time to play, time to hike and camp and garden, time to play video games and watch a movie together.

Exposed to all of these activities, my kids love to read. They like to camp and hike and play outside. They like to take long dog walks. They like to play video games, and they love family movie night. They like TV.

I don’t worry about their screen time because it doesn’t negatively affect their love of literature, and they will happily “unplug” to play catch in the yard or go on a walk in the woods.

This is partially due to the fact that we have structured our life to allow time to enjoy all of these things. We haven’t pared their free time down to a thin shaving and forced them to decide how they want to spend their spare half hour per day of relaxation. It’s also partially due to something I’ll discuss tomorrow in Part 2.

Whenever you make it about “give up this thing you really love,” you are probably going to lose. Even if you win on paper, you are still losing in the ways that count. You’re losing credibility. You’re losing their attention. You’re losing their trust.

You are sending all kinds of subtle, between-the-lines messages about what’s broccoli and what’s candy. You’re sending those messages every day when you choose how to spend your free time, too. Before they learn how to velcro their shoes, kids know when your words don’t match your actions.

We have to change our entire approach and start saying, “If these things are really important to us — as a family, as a community, as a society — then we need to start enjoying them, together.”

We need to show our kids by example and as cohorts that reading and playing outside and all the other healthful things we value are the absolute bee’s knees, the epitome of fun, the best possible way to spend a Thursday night or a Saturday morning. We’re unlikely to convince our kids if we don’t believe it ourselves.

So step one really is: Rearrange your life to match your values. Then you won’t have to preach anymore, because your kid will already know.

*Once again, I am using “broccoli” as code for “something good for you that you personally don’t like”. Feel free to substitute spinach or brussels sprouts or whatever doesn’t suit your fancy. Just remember whatever it is, it has to be good for you as well as something you have to choke down against your will.

Read part two here.

The Sliver, or How to stop fighting about screen time

Parenting with abundance vs. scarcity

Limits can be so ... limiting

Published by Lori Pickert on January 20, 2010 at 04:28 PM

There are some great comments on my last post, In Defense of Reading ... Which Should Need No Defense, touching on the topics of self-regulation and limits.

Daniel points out the similarity between this issue (video games and reading not excluding one another) and project work: it’s all about the connections, people.

We have a tendency to assign “good” and “bad” (or at least “not as good”) labels, not just to media, but to all kid activities.

Playing outside is better than playing video games.

Reading books is better than watching TV.

Playing educational computer games is better than playing non-educational computer games. (Reading is better than playing computer games at all, of course.)

There are a lot of “shoulds” in childraising, from how they should be socialized to how they should play to how they should entertain themselves. Some of the shoulds come from other people (who are always *so* generous in sharing them with you!) and some of them come from ourselves, from our fondest hopes about what our child’s life will look like.

So we sit down with the giant Richard Scarry color-it-yourself poster of all the things kids *can* do and we carefully start blacking out the parts we would prefer they avoid so they can instead spend all their time doing better, more valuable activities.

Spongebob, no. Nova, yes! Drawing manga characters, no. Drawing birds at the birdfeeder, yes! Running around inside whacking each other with cardboard tubes, no. Nature hike, yes! Garfield, no. Elevating literature, yes! And so on.

But here is the rub, people. Everything is connected. When you carefully black out some pathways, you aren’t just eliminating a less-desirable interest or activity — you are making it more difficult for your child to navigate from here to there.

I have written before about very controlling teachers and their strict, purist ideas hobbling kids and keeping them from doing big, vibrant, exciting work because they insist it *must be done this particular way*.

When you stand in a child’s way and prevent him from making connections — by *limiting* what he has to work with (materials, ideas, methods, interests) — you are setting limits on how much he can learn. You are trying to decide what he can and cannot be interested in. You are trying to decide what will and will not set fire to his imagination.

Of course you should make decisions for your family that match your family values. But don’t be afraid to put society’s prejudices to the test. Find out for yourself. What’s really bad for you?

If we are going to help children build their own path, we need to clear away the obstacles and open up as many possibilities and opportunities as possible. We need to go along with our children as their learning mentor and support system while they explore the world.

If we try to send them down a narrow chute toward the results we want, we may be shutting them off from the experiences that would help them figure out their own interests, their own strengths, their own path.

If we shut down their interests and their ideas, we may find that we didn’t just kill off their interest in video games but we accidentally shut down their curiosity altogether.

Sometimes we are so focused on controlling the how, we forget what we were aiming for in the first place: the why.

You may also be interested in:

I Am the Boss of You

Homeschooling Infrastructure

Control Issues

The Sliver, or How to Stop Fighting About Screen Time