I grew up on a quiet cul-de-sac in the suburbs. We had one tv that my sister dominated from 3pm onward to watch The Young and The Restless, a name which perfectly characterized my situation.
I had best friends. We walked to each other’s houses to choreograph dances to the Lion King soundtrack and Michael Jackson’s Black & White album. We played with our toys. We walked to the convenience store for popsicles. We fought with our siblings to stop stealing our friends. We stayed at each other’s houses all day. I coveted dinner invitations to avoid yet another night of chicken at the Blum household.
My parents helped me with schoolwork. They taught me how to do important things like ride a bike and boil pasta. They kept me safe and fed and drove me places. Outside of that, they busied themselves with adult stuff.
My kids are growing up in the city. We live on a busy throughway with prying neighbours. The first time I let my kid run the block alone someone asked him if he was running away from home.
They lived through 3 years of on-and-off virtual school, virtual playdates and virtual parties.
And now, my kids have virtual-ly no ability to entertain themselves without a screen.
We call the basement the toy graveyard because it’s where non-screen items go to die.
A few months ago my son’s friend asked him to play after school. We were delighted to see a kid initiating a plan. That is until she said “Great! Log on to Minecraft at 4:00!”
The question “Can we watch something?” is on a continuous loop at our house. And if we stand our ground it’s immediately followed by “Then can you play with me Mommy?” and a more desperate “bUt I hAVe NoThInG tO dO”.
And admittedly, while refusing to let them use their screens, we are almost always on our own screens. Because the demands placed on us are never-ending. Or at least, with our personal interruption devices at arm’s length, it sure feels that way.
Sometimes I send the kids down to the toy graveyard to make a donation pile. It’s pointed and maybe a little immature and almost always triggers a temper tantrum. Because who wants to part with their favourite-can’t-live-without-giant-elsa-doll-that-she-never-touches-ever? But if I’m lucky it buys me 5 minutes while my 8-year-old searches for the one happy meal toy she is willing to part with. And if I’m really lucky, she may even accidentally stumble into playing with one of them.
It all feels so unnatural.
I worry almost constantly about how much time my kids spend indoors, at home and with us – their unfun, overstretched, distracted parentals.
Recently we resolved to do something about this, by forcing our screen-addicted kids to go outside alone.
While my anxiety ran through its mental Rolodex of all the things that could go wrong, I let my kids go off on their own.
Now my 8-year-old loves running to her friend’s house to play street hockey. She knocks on his door, they do their thing, we grab her at dinner if she hasn’t returned before then.
My tween son has been initiating plans with friends, setting a meeting place and time, sometimes even using a screenshotted map to find his way there.
When the kids return home sweaty, sunned, and a whole lot less angsty, it feels like we’re doing the right thing here.