Taming the Screen Monster

Taming the Screen Monster

Managing electronics in a busy Solo Mom household

When my kids and I finally moved into a home of our own, we were too busy arranging furniture and exploring our new neighborhood to think about screen time. For the first year, in fact, I left the TV in a box in the basement and told them it was broken (only a partial lie). My father had given us the large black box when he found out I was getting divorced, so I would “never have to be alone.” I accepted it to relieve his anxiety, but I didn’t like it. In the move, I’d lost the remote, and it is one of those modern devices so sleek it has no actual on/off button.

Two years later, while unpacking an overlooked box in the basement, I discovered the remote. My kids were delighted to have a living room with a TV in it “just like everyone else.” The bunny ears caught PBS and nothing else. Perfect. They had permission to watch Curious George and Arthur while I slept in on Saturdays. Screens weren’t so bad, I thought. They allowed me time to check a few extra things off my never-ending to-do list. And on Saturday mornings, I slept more deeply than I had since before my son’s birth.

Another year later, their father figured out how to stream Netflix on the TV, their grandfather gave them an iPad, and the teenage babysitter gave his old Xbox to my son. By then the kids were five and eight, and our home morphed into a screen-lover’s nirvana. I had to think up some tricks to manage the many electronic options—and fast.

  • No screens before school. That was the first rule I set. We reserve weekday mornings for breakfast, toothbrushing, lunch packing, and visiting.
  • After school, have a list of age-appropriate tasks that earn them screen time. My eight-year-old, for example, must do his homework, empty his lunch box and put it in the dishwasher, pick up his personal items from shared living areas, and do 30 minutes of active or creative time. (This can be Lego building, art making, bike riding, playing ninjas with his sister—anything that engages his brain and body.) Often he gets so engrossed in active time that he forgets to ask to play his Xbox or watch a show.
  • Bring a pen and paper wherever you go. My kids frequently ask to play games on the phone or iPad while waiting in restaurants or doctors’ offices. Though that is sometimes all right with me, especially if the wait is excessive, I do like to play interactive games with them whenever possible. Too often screen time means disconnection. So I’ve made a habit of packing pen and paper wherever I go. Now the kids ask to play hangman or tic-tac-toe before they ask for my phone.
  • Engage your kids in daily tasks. Ever let your kids watch a movie and realize it earned you two whole hours of housecleaning, bill-paying, dinner-making time? As a Solo Mom, I often need the kids to be occupied so I can get things done. But I don’t want them to think dinner is cooked by elves while they watch movies, so I try to engage them in as many daily tasks as possible. At dinner time, I might give them easy food-prep tasks such as grating cheese, washing the produce, creating personalized place mats, or setting the table in a new and funky way. One of my daughter’s favorite things to do while I sew is to sort my button collection by color and then size. My son loves to clean the baseboards in the bathroom whenever I scrub the tub. While I do yard work, I challenge the kids to build rock towers or beautify the sidewalk with chalk art. These small activities keep us connected through some of our busier moments.
  • Don’t underestimate a well-stocked art box. My kids will often reach for the art supplies before asking to watch a show. And they’ll usually accept art time as a fun alternative when screen time isn’t permitted.
  • Visit your public library. My kids read more when we go to the library regularly. There’s something about the calm vibe of the space, selecting their own books, and sticking to a due date that increases their respect for reading.
  • Stock up on board games. The challenge here, of course, is the kids need me to play with them. They’re still too young to manage the rules by themselves. This means I have to stop everything for game night, but it is entirely worth it. They love having my complete attention so much that they will always choose game night over screen time.
  • Make a list of screen-time alternatives, and post it where your kids can see it. When screen time isn’t an option, point out the list and have them pick another activity.

Although I sometimes joke that the moment I “fixed” the TV was much like inviting a vampire into our house, I also believe that developing screen rules and encouraging alternate activities will help my kids make healthier choices as they mature. And did I mention I get to sleep in on Saturdays?

If you have any of your own ideas regarding kids and electronics, share them on our Sister Chat page.

Melissa Stephenson is a writer, runner, and solo parent to two amazing children. All three are happy to live in Missoula, Montana.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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