Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Battle for Screen Time Rages On

The showdown at the OK Corral happened here almost two months ago. I really didn’t think they had it in them to hold out like this. My children have been without computer games for so long now, I’m not sure they even miss it. They could hold out indefinitely. I’m losing this bet, but I’m beginning to realize this may not be such a bad thing.

Two months ago I had a Mommy Melt Down Moment. I’m sure you’ve had one yourself, so I don’t need to make excuses (but I will anyway). I got up one morning and I didn’t know it but I had reached the breaking point. As I made a pass through several bedrooms picking up towels off the floor and tripping over the baskets of clean clothes yet to make it in to their drawers, my blood boiled over. When I encountered them in the kitchen where they had left their dishes on the table, pencils on the floor, and shoes abandoned in front of the door I began my assault. They retreated to their default positions of “It wasn’t me”, “I never touched it” and “I was going to do that when I finished (fill in the blank)..

When my verbal assault produced no action, I had to go for the heavy artillery. “No computer until you start doing your share!” I spelled out a lengthy peace treaty which involved them doing their part (i.e. the dinner chore assigned to them, putting away their clean clothes, picking up their belongings, etc.) and in return they would be given their computer privileges. Until then the computer would stay locked down.

As I said, that was two months ago. In the beginning they stubbornly tested my resolve. I fumed, they whined, but I didn’t weaken my position one inch. If they wanted this hill they would have to acquiesce to my demands. Which they didn’t. At first I was outraged – all I was asking them to do is not be slobs and pick up their own things! It’s not like I was asking them to scrub the kitchen floor or clean a toilet (or a chicken cage for that matter!). Ridiculously lazy! Who did they think was going to pick up their belongings? (Yup, the only person who cared that their things were strewn all over in the first place.)

So I did the picking up and I put things away, although I did hold the line on the laundry and hid my daughter’s clean clothes until she begged to put them away herself. And then a funny thing happened. My husband and I noticed that the kids were fighting less. They were playing together. They were exploring the woods again. They re-discovered the joy of the zip line. They wrote stories. They played games. They played legos. They talked to each other and to us. And they stopped even mentioning the computer and all the exciting games. They acted out their favorite fantasy game Balder’s Gate all over our property. It was as if a fog had settled over our battlefield and made all the soldiers peaceable.

My oldest son does use a computer for homework and I’ve taken to giving him 20 minutes before the others get home from school to play Balder’s Gate, but only because he’s finally putting his laundry away the same day I put it in his room and refraining from leaving his vast quantities of stray papers (he would say stories, theories, ideas, strategies, etc.) all over every surface of the house. It’s a very thin truce.

I write all this as a reminder to you – you hold the power as the parent. You decide what you allow and what you don’t. There is no constitutional law that says your children have the right to watch TV, play video games, computer games, whatever. You give them that privilege (and I bet you purchased that privilege) and you can take it away. That gives you tremendous leverage. Remember that you only have leverage if the child in question values the privilege you are holding over them. We don’t have TV or video games, so my leverage lies with the computer games.

If you don’t want to fight with your kids about what they eat – don’t buy it. If you don’t like the clothes your daughter chooses to wear to school – don’t provide them. If you want more help around the house create some consequences. If you don’t want your kids to spend endless hours in front of screens – don’t let them. I think we forget that, at least for now, we hold the power in these relationships. Everything is not negotiable. We have lots of opportunities to teach our children about dealing with frustration, boredom, personal responsibility, unfulfilled wishes, and shattered expectations. Handling inevitable disappointments and logical consequences are life skills many adults I know don’t own.

I know this might sound hard and you don’t really want to be the “meanest parent in the world”, but here’s your out - when you create and clearly explain consequences you can stop being the bad guy. That’s why my standoff over doing your part is working and no one’s holding it against me (well, OK, my daughter occasionally argues the finer details of “doing your part”). I think they’ll cave eventually. I know I won’t. There is peace in the land because there is no bad guy here. There’s just a set of decisions and logical consequences. They know that it’s within their power to regain their computer privileges and they know that the only reason they don’t have them is not that their mom is so mean (that’s a given), but because they don’t want to pick up their things. It might be frustrating, but it’s fair.

It might be shooting myself in the foot, but I’m hoping they never get their computer privileges back. Without the technologically induced emotions of the screen, they are much nicer children. And they have discovered how much fun they can have without electronics. It’s funny, since we took away the computer games I’ve hardly heard my kids say, “I’m bored” once. They’ve remembered how to create their own fun.

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