An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.
I sort of love having so much family time right now. But I don’t love the reason, of course. Also, the kids need their peer group and they are struggling. S is 13 and does a pretty good job at connecting with her friends on Facetime, etc. E is 16 and I find him getting stuck watching Youtube or tv for hours. They both like to read, but have a hard time settling into a book with screens around, so I have tried to implement reading time everyday. Reading for me has always been the best escape from my world and myself… getting engrossed in someone and somewhere else.
I’d love some parenting advice… or a mom griping session or to brainstorm ways to keep them and us sane when their activities are so limited. How can we be more loving in our family and help create better communication among the four of us, and a more harmonious relationship between the kids? XO E
This parenting in a pandemic thing is no joke. Trying to manage our kids’ time all day, every day, while also managing our own stress, jobs (assuming we’re still employed), and needs, is way more than any of us signed up for. When I became a mother my head was full of so many ideas about what kind of parent I would be in all sorts of situations, but at no point did I anticipate this moment. Also, most of my ideas of what kind of parent I would be were just… wrong. But that’s a conversation for another time.
It seems like there are two different, but related, questions here, so I’m going to try and tackle them separately. First of all, SCREENS. There is no denying that our kids are addicted to screens, and sometimes I despair at the state of their poor, saturated brains and teeny, tiny attention spans. I worry that they’ve lost the ability to allow for boredom, which is fruitful both creatively and emotionally. As a kid I came up with so many ideas simply because I was listless and bored and got tired of feeling that way. As an adult I mostly get bored of my own bullshit, which is not too terribly different. I have taken steps to improve my life and try new ways of being just to get relief from being bored of myself.
I have also spent weeks worth of time, cumulatively, bingeing Netflix and scrolling through Facebook to avoid dealing with my bullshit, which I try to remember when I decide to wade into the issue of screens with my kids. My kids aren’t the only ones with an affection for screens around here.
I actually have much less concern about screen-time than some parents because I spent an inordinate amount of time watching tv when I was a kid. My mom worked more than full-time from when I entered preschool. I was a latch-key kid starting at six years old. The tv came on when I got home from school, and stayed on until dinner time. Then it went back on until we went to bed. Every. Day.
Saturday mornings? Hours of tv.
Sunday afternoons? I was watching whatever sport was in season with my mom while we folded laundry, or sighing resentfully while my older brothers watched yet another Planet of the Apes movie. Until my parents got a second tv in their bedroom, at which point I could say screw Planet of the Apes and watch Dr. Who.
Sick days? Good Morning America, Donohue, and more soap operas than you could shake a stick at.
I watched so much tv it’s kind of surprising I didn’t actually meld with the couch, never to be seen again.
And you know what? Here I am as an adult, and I’m a sustainable, mostly unmedicated level of sane. No shame in mental illness, ever, but even for those of us without a diagnosis the plain truth is that living in the U.S. at this time in history is dangerous to your mental health. So, a sustainable, mostly unmedicated level of sane is remarkable, and plenty good enough, if you ask me.
I’ll also tell you that when my kids were small they watched a lot of tv, too. I was never very good at imaginative play with my kids, and I was often busy managing the house on top of working more than full-time. The electronic babysitter saved my ass many a day, especially once I became a single parent.
Watching tv, when I was overworked and exhausted, was a thing we could do together. It also felt like being willing to hang out with them while they watched whatever they were into at the time meant that when they were ready to talk they wouldn’t have to come find me. What I began to call the Ministry of Being With meant so many hours in front of Dora the Explorer I thought Swiper would swipe my soul, but it also meant snuggles, giggles, and inside jokes.
Later, when my kids moved into what I’ll call the Zack and Cody phase, it created space for teachable moments about my expectations around kindness. Did your kids watch The Suite Life of Zack and Cody? God help me, my kids loved that show. Even more they loved the sequel, The Suite Life on Deck, which involved a small cast of incredibly entitled, extroverted, manic, ostensible middle schoolers who all treated each other like crap while inexplicably living full-time on a cruise ship. It made less than no sense.
I hated that show. I could handle Swiper and that freakin’ Backpack, but I could not handle those little white boys and their cadre of hangers on. I’d established such an expectation with my kids that I would sit and watch tv with them, though, that it gave me a certain kind of leverage. I told my kids they could watch it if they really wanted to, but they were going to have to listen to why I refused to. I talked to them about privilege and I talked to them about kindness. I pointed out the ways in which the kids always seemed to be laughing at each other’s expense. I can’t watch people being mean to each other, I told them. That’s not entertainment to me.
They still watched it, and other inane drivel besides, but they had to do it without me, and the difference in the amount of time we spent in touchable proximity to each other was noticeable. They didn’t like it, and it made them think. Long before they aged out of that sort of tv, they started steering themselves towards shows that were more educational, more creative, more kind. And mommy came back to the couch, and they were glad.
What seems to me different about the way that my kids are engaging in screens at this point is that it seems to largely separate them from actual human connection, not to mention engagement with life when things are actually happening. It’s one thing to spend a bunch of time watching tv, or falling down Youtube rabbit holes, or whatever it is you do on TikTok (which I do not understand at all), when you’re decompressing from a busy life. It is another thing to sit alone in your room all day, every day, staring at your phone, and then when you do emerge from that cave of isolation to bring your phone with you everywhere you go and be checking it constantly.
To never disconnect from the screen or to use it as a constant intermediary between you and the rest of the world will make you sick in your head. When we’re barely holding on to sanity at the best of times with the world as it is, choosing to do something that will make you crazier and lonelier just seems like a bad idea to me.
But what are we to do, especially in these pandemic times when so many of the activities that our very engaged, social, and active kids love and need are unavailable? I’d be lying if I said I had the answer to that question. But I can tell you what I am trying to do. First, I make my kids do something physical every day. In the spring when they were still in school, I made them take walks with me once they were done with their class time. Now that it’s summer and it’s so damn hot, I mostly don’t want to force march them anywhere. Except for the heat, I really love my walks. You add in the heat and moody whining? No, thank you.
So, we swim as many days as we can. We’re lucky that we live near so much beautiful, fresh water. I can get them into a swimmable creek five minutes drive from my back door, and a creek you can wade in five minutes walk. I’ve also walked to the closest park with the right kinds of trees and laid in the shade while they climbed to their hearts content. The Ministry of Being With is still my best idea, every time.
The important thing is that they move their bodies, that they play, and that we do it together, without being on our phones. I don’t know enough about your neighborhood to know what is possible there. Walks? Gardening? Playing with the dog? Just lying on the ground watching the clouds and seeing what shapes you see?
Teenagers are particularly prone to surly resistance. Certainly in my house that is true. So maybe you start small, with a fifteen minute walk after dinner as a family. Ask them about the shows and Youtube videos they’re watching. Ask them what music they like. When you get home, get them to show you some clips. Sit through it, even if it makes you want to stab yourself in the eye, like I almost did when Vines were a thing. Good god. But expressing interest in what their interested in, even if it is inane and mind-numbing for you, is the teenage equivalent of saying thank you as if they had just put the goddamn Mona Lisa in your palm every time they handed you the latest scribble they’d made with their fat hands and chubby crayons when they were three. They feel seen. Isn’t that what we all want, to feel seen?
As for the second part of your question, which is about how to be more loving to each other, I think you have to acknowledge to yourself, and out loud to them, that you’re all doing the best that you can in the midst of an absolute dumpster fire of a world moment. Our kids are dealing with an unprecedented situation. They are losing time they will never get back, and so are we. It sucks. Not every day is going to go well. You are not always going to feel connected or friendly towards each other. If everyone needs extra alone time, or extra screen time, or extra anything, no harm, no foul. We’re all just trying to get from one end of the day to the next.
Still, you are the crew you have for the time being to sail your ship, and you love each other. Talk to them about what you want which may be different than what is happening. Ask them what they want. See what you can each do, concretely, to help each of you get more of what each of you want. Make them aware of how important they are in steering the ship.
Every day remind them to be kind- to themselves, to you, and to each other. You can’t make people feel loving, but you can ask them to be kind. Some days committing to being kind leads to more loving feelings. Some days you only manage to not increase the world’s store of unnecessary suffering, and that’s enough.
Apologize to them when you aren’t your best self, when you are impatient, angry, or unkind. Acknowledge when you are struggling. Our willingness to be vulnerable in our imperfection helps our children learn to be more honest about and patient with their own, and other people’s, humanity.
If our children can come out of this experience a little kinder, a little softer, or a little more patient with themselves and other people, then I think we’ve done some pretty amazing parenting. If we manage to become a little kinder, softer, and more patient ourselves, too? Gold stars, baby.
Thank you for walking this journey with me. Sending you and yours love.
Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s walk each other home.