Unlimited Screen Time.

Television and video games seem to have been my arch enemies in parenting thus far, and being amoral things, it has really bothered me that they’ve stolen so much of my attention. Consequently, since they are really the only thing we limit in our children’s lives, they’ve become the focus of many battles. They boys especially seem to have zeroed in on that part of their lives, and the other exciting, amazing things about our world have faded into the background, as this one “can’t-have” has taken precedence. Again: amoral things. Not good or bad. So why, then, is my gut reaction to the question of, “Can I play/watch something?” disappointment, frustration, anger even? I wouldn’t react the same if the request was for books, the park, or a snack, would I?

In an effort to resolve some of these issues, we are doing something drastic and radical: unlimited screen time. (YIKES!) This means that rather than setting times or making rules, we are having an ongoing discussion about Wii, computer, iPad, TV, and DVDs. We are letting the kids, even our two-year-old, decide when they want to play/watch and for how long, and we are talking, drawing them out, and making suggestions along the way. (It’s hard work and very different than using “screens” to get a break from mothering.) This is in hopes that the always-available nature of unlimited screens will bring it down from its pedestal in their minds, to sit level with all the other fun, amazing, interesting, and amoral things about life and our world, while opening up for discussion the moral topics that come up (relationships, sharing, selfishness, etc).

We’ve been at it for two weeks, and honestly, they are drinking from the deep well of electronics as if they’ve been dying of thirst. They are bingeing, big-time, and I am regularly fighting panic and a desire to pull the plug, literally. Toys are left unused, new library books, untouched. It’s extremely disturbing for me, as I’ve gravitated toward a Waldorf, Montessori, “natural,” wooden-toy, homemade, handmade, books books books kind of childhood. The first few days, when the kids woke up and went straight for a device, I was like, “Whatever, its a new thing! They’ll get over it.” Well, its been two weeks now, and my sentiments are changing. When they wake and open the iPad first thing, I feel angry — a deep, abiding anger that makes me want to snatch that thing out of their hands and make some damn limits — BIG limits. So I have been thinking about this anger, wanting to get to the bottom of it. What I’m discovering has been shocking, really, and it has less to do with electronics, and more to do with control.

These are some of the things I’ve uncovered in my heart in the area of “screens”:
-I want my children to make the choices I would make in life.
-I want them to be MY version of them, and they are THEMSELVES.
-I think more of what I want them to do, than how to help them do what they would like.
-I think they make bad choices.
-I give arbitrary values to books, toys, and games, based on whether or not they are “educational,” while learning is to be had from all the things in life.
-I also give approval or disapproval to my children, based on whether or not they enjoy or choose the books, toys, and games that I have decided are more valuable than others.
-I look down on them and judge them for liking and enjoying something that I have little value for.
-I coerce and cajole them into valuing what I value.
-I shame them for enjoying something I don’t enjoy, through words, facial expressions, and arguments.
-I do not meet them where they are, but instead demand that they grow up, this very instant, and make wise, Christ-centered choices NOW — and if they don’t, then I’m going to MAKE them, with RULES and LIMITS.

This is not at all what I imagined would come up as we considered removing limits in this area. Right now, my children are young, and they can survive the above thought-patterns by changing to get my approval and hiding what it is they really like, or who they really are. Eventually, though, they will stop wanting to do that, and they will feel angry at having been made to do that at all. The above statements are the stuff of rebellion, disconnect, and wounding — basically, the opposite of my hopes for my family.

This has not been an enjoyable foray into the inner-workings of my soul. It has been ugly and sad, and I’ve been disheartened by the judgments I’ve lorded over such small children, even if in my own mind. Of course they find great joy in being able to jump as high as they want in a game, and accomplish things their still-growing bodies can’t yet do! They will not make the best choices in this area, or any other, but that’s why life is long and God is patient. I, however, need to grow in my patience and my letting go.

The kids are experiencing real-life limits, like leaving the house, a dead battery, meal and bathroom breaks, or siblings that necessitate sharing. Jones and I had a great talk the other day, when he hurt my feelings by constantly putting me off while playing a game — we talked about saying what we mean, looking people in the eye, how people can feel unimportant and devalued if we ignore them, and how relationships need fostering and care. If I was in my limits mindset, I would’ve just punished him for “breaking rules” or not doing “the right thing,” and he would’ve felt offended and angry. As it was, he felt really sad and gave a genuine apology (as opposed to the conditioned, drawn-out, punished-for kind) because he understood how his behavior had affected the feelings of another person. Screens were not the issue, but I have wrongly blamed them for some of our relational problems in the past, thinking that if they were just blotted out of life, things would be a whole lot easier. Lets just live in the pioneer era, where life was simpler, because it was easier to hide our sin then (or so we think). In reality, this issue brought our family grime right up to the surface — and we all know, that is never pretty to look at. We’d rather shut down whatever is causing all this nastiness to stir up, than actually work on cleaning it and getting rid of it.

Despite my continual fears that this will backfire, we are moving forward with unlimited screen time. I have learned that I started it because I thought it would give me what I wanted, i.e. kids who are less focused on screens. Instead, this has revealed a lot about ME, which has made me angry. I am going to deal with this anger, as well as my fears that they will never put down the controls, in hopes that they can discover more about themselves. And maybe they will choose screens less often, and maybe they won’t — but either way, we can dialogue about it, and I can practice letting go.


  1. What an interesting post. Really enjoyed it. I struggle with the same thing, wanting them to play instead of watch and feel guilt that I let them watch too much. But then there are times that hit me when I realize, like you’ve said, that it is an amoral thing, not bad in itself, and I find moments of peace. Soon after, though, that changes. I’ve never thought of the reasons screens make me angry but as I read your list it seems my reasons would follow basically with yours. Thanks for the insight. Really appreciate it! Do post what continues to happen in the house and how the unlimited rule plays out.

  2. Wow. Thanks for this honest and powerful post. “We’d rather shut down whatever is causing all this nastiness to stir up, than actually work on cleaning it and getting rid of it.” Ain’t that the truth. How many times was I more interested in just shutting things down, rather than deal with the underlying heart issues. Too many times.
    I myself have swung back and forth on this (certainly my older children had more limits, and my younger children fewer–was that because I learned more about how we should do things/we were more graceful parents, or because I am a lazier parent than I was earlier? or a combination of the two? I honestly don’t know). Peeling back the layers of our motivations and our hearts is a good thing. Keep us posted. 🙂 Love you.

  3. You should read this poem.

    Television (by Roald Dahl, from the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)

    The most important thing we’ve learned,
    So far as children are concerned,
    Is never, NEVER, NEVER let
    Them near your television set —
    Or better still, just don’t install
    The idiotic thing at all.
    In almost every house we’ve been,
    We’ve watched them gaping at the screen.
    They loll and slop and lounge about,
    And stare until their eyes pop out.
    (Last week in someone’s place we saw
    A dozen eyeballs on the floor.)
    They sit and stare and stare and sit
    Until they’re hypnotised by it,
    Until they’re absolutely drunk
    With all that shocking ghastly junk.
    Oh yes, we know it keeps them still,
    They don’t climb out the window sill,
    They never fight or kick or punch,
    They leave you free to cook the lunch
    And wash the dishes in the sink —
    But did you ever stop to think,
    To wonder just exactly what
    This does to your beloved tot?
    ‘All right!’ you’ll cry. ‘All right!’ you’ll say,
    ‘But if we take the set away,
    What shall we do to entertain
    Our darling children? Please explain!’
    We’ll answer this by asking you,
    ‘What used the darling ones to do?
    ‘How used they keep themselves contented
    Before this monster was invented?’
    Have you forgotten? Don’t you know?
    We’ll say it very loud and slow:
    THEY … USED … TO … READ! They’d READ and READ,
    AND READ and READ, and then proceed
    To READ some more. Great Scott! Gadzooks!
    One half their lives was reading books!
    The nursery shelves held books galore!
    Books cluttered up the nursery floor!
    And in the bedroom, by the bed,
    More books were waiting to be read!
    Such wondrous, fine, fantastic tales
    Of dragons, gypsies, queens, and whales
    And treasure isles, and distant shores
    Where smugglers rowed with muffled oars,
    And pirates wearing purple pants,
    And sailing ships and elephants,
    And cannibals crouching ’round the pot,
    Stirring away at something hot.
    (It smells so good, what can it be?
    Good gracious, it’s Penelope.)
    The younger ones had Beatrix Potter
    With Mr. Tod, the dirty rotter,
    And Squirrel Nutkin, Pigling Bland,
    And Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and-
    Just How The Camel Got His Hump,
    And How the Monkey Lost His Rump,
    And Mr. Toad, and bless my soul,
    There’s Mr. Rat and Mr. Mole-
    Oh, books, what books they used to know,
    Those children living long ago!
    So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
    Go throw your TV set away,
    And in its place you can install
    A lovely bookshelf on the wall.
    Then fill the shelves with lots of books,
    Ignoring all the dirty looks,
    The screams and yells, the bites and kicks,
    And children hitting you with sticks-
    Fear not, because we promise you
    That, in about a week or two
    Of having nothing else to do,
    They’ll now begin to feel the need
    Of having something to read.
    And once they start — oh boy, oh boy!
    You watch the slowly growing joy
    That fills their hearts. They’ll grow so keen
    They’ll wonder what they’d ever seen
    In that ridiculous machine,
    That nauseating, foul, unclean,
    Repulsive television screen!
    And later, each and every kid
    Will love you more for what you did.

    1. Wow. That poem was… interesting.
      Interesting, the idea that looking at words on a page somehow makes one smarter than looking at pictures on a screen, or hearing words from speakers. What makes a rectangular accumulation of pages and words better than the rectangular thing that pictures form on? Honestly, its a critical and harmful opinion, I think. Anything can be a waste of time, and anything can be used for the betterment of oneself.
      Spending a day on the couch reading a novel, or spending it immersed in a movie, documentary, or video game, doesn’t seem that different to me anymore. Both are rather sedentary activities. Both require thought and some concentration to really participate (i.e. you can stare at the page and have to read the same paragraph over and over, just like tuning out what the TV is saying), and both offer you the chance to enter an imaginary world.
      I think that quote needs to die a quick death.

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