Ever since my daughter discovered screentime at two years old, I’ve been thinking about how to set limits around it, and although I discovered some good solutions, I have never felt completely comfortable with the way I was handling the screentime dillemma. No matter what I tried, I always remained feeling anxious that I wasn’t making the right choice.
I experimented with the unschooling approach to screens (allowing our children complete freedom) and learnt a lot about trusting children to self-regulate. I saw many times that my daughter did put her screen down to do something else, and I learnt a lot about how important it was for me to be in good emotional shape to have the energy to offer her alternatives and to be there to connect.
Her screentime wasn’t excessive. Screentime hadn’t destroyed her imagination, and there were still many things that she often preferred to do other than watch TV. But I still felt that she was using the screen for emotional reasons and for boredom. When she wasn’t sure what to do, she seemed to automatically gravitate towards the screen.
I did offer alternatives, but I didn’t want to be constantly entertaining her by having a long list of fun activities we could do together. I wanted her to be happy to play alone, sometimes, and to come up with her own ideas.
As time went on I became convinced that she did need limits about screentime, and I began to use the Hand in Hand Parenting approach to do so. Sometimes she’d get upset, have a big meltdown, and then her mind would clear and she’d think of something fun to do that was completely her own initiative. At other times she wouldn’t feel particularly upset about the limit, and for some reason I didn’t feel good about setting a limit.
I kept questioning whether I was right to set that particular limit, that I was depriving my daughter of a learning tool, something that she loved, something that actually did inspire her creative play. So I seesawed between allowing freedom and setting limits, and never felt completely comfortable either way. When I allowed her freedom I felt scared, and depressed. When I set limits, I felt uncertain.
Then something happened. Over the summer when my husband was off work, I started to get more relaxed, I started to get more of my own needs met, and feel more present. I bought a book that I couldn’t wait to read every morning when I woke up before everyone else (the rest of my family does not like early mornings!).
It had been my habit to grab my phone every morning, and scroll through my facebook feed before my eyes were even properly awake. I’d look at my messages and notifications throughout the day, often when I was feeling low and needing connection. But this book was so addictive I forgot about my phone.
When I finished the book, I was tempted to pick up my phone again when I woke in the morning, but I tried hard not to. I stocked up on some of my favourite magazines from the UK and read them instead. Or I just tidied up the kitchen, or did some Pilates.
And then I noticed something interesting. I began to feel more confident when to set a limit and when not to. And when I did set a limit it felt right. When it comes to screentime we don’t live our lives by the clock. My daughter doesn’t have a set period of time to watch each day, instead I go with my gut (not my fear) about when it feels right to set a limit.
As much as technology is useful, and has changed our lives in many positive ways, it is addictive, and that addiction is widespread. I realised I was in no position to help my daughter with her addiction, until I’d begun to figure my own. Of course how could I possible know when to set limits with her and how, if I couldn’t even set limits with myself!
Parenting really is a healing path that we walk with our children. When we have a difficulty with our child, often the first step is to look at our own behaviour and emotions, and why we find their actions particularly challenging. It is always just as much about us as them.
If you are struggling with screentime in your family, I can totally relate! It is scary, watching our children disappear into the screen world, and wonder how to balance their genuine desire and interest for screentime with it’s addictive quality.
If you can find ways to handle your own screen reliance then you may find that like me that your mind becomes much clearer and you can see how to help your children. Listening time (one of the Hand in Hand Parenting tools which you can read about here) can really help.
If you have a tendency to grab your phone first thing in the morning, or feel you must check your messages last thing at night, then why not phone a listening partner instead. Set a limit with yourself and talk about how desperately you want to check those messages. What feelings come up for you?
Screens do make our lives richer, but they also create disconnection. When we want to build a connected world between our hearts and minds rather than our wifi signal then we need to begin with ourselves.
Find out more about how to set limits in my book, Tears Heal: How to listen to our children
You might also like to check out these articles about the Hand in Hand Parenting approach to screentime, Setting Limits Around Screentime, and Setting Limits On Screentime With The Help Of My Parent Rescue Squad