“He’s watching too much TV,” my husband whispered as we piled into the car.
Yes, I’d noticed how long it took to pry the remote control from my 7-year-old’s hand before we left. These days, I didn’t recognize my son unless he was holding the remote. They were inseparable, like he and that drool-drenched frog he loved from his toddler days. Still, I brushed off my husband’s comment. I mean, how bad could it be? Later, in the drive-thru line, my kid sobbed from the backseat, “I just want to go home and watch TV!” I guess it could be that bad. When had screen time become his everything?
Lately, the only real change of scenery my son finds is when he changes the television channels. After gently reassuring him that the TV would be waiting for him when we got home, he found his happy place. In the quiet after the emotional storm, I felt my guilt rumble around in my stomach along with my hunger. My son’s recent descent into high amounts of television watching certainly hadn’t been in my parenting plan.
In the before times, I tried my best to keep a balance in my kid’s activities. It was a plan he was happy to take part in, because along with screen time, he enjoyed Lego building, reading the satirical works of Dav Pilkey, and long walks on the beach. Then the pandemic entered and all the plans changed. As my family turned to one another for comfort, my kid also turned on a screen. The world outside had become unpredictable, but our TV remained in its dependable spot right here at home.
It goes without saying that isolating can feel … well, isolating. At first, his elevated screen time wasn’t such a brain-frying leap because he could still remember how to turn off his shows to play or talk to humans. Then, when it became clear we’d be isolating at home much longer, instead of turning the volume down on screen time, it slowly crept up into the 11’s — and I let it.
I watched my son use the screen as a way to self-soothe, and I’m the one who handed him that remote. Some days it was out of guilt because he couldn’t see friends or remote learning had been rough. Then other times it was because my husband and I had deadlines, and inviting a babysitter over during a pandemic wasn’t an option. I was embarrassed to admit there were situations when I needed the screen for him as much as he did, so I didn’t tell anyone. I felt even more off track when I’d talk to friends who’d tell me about their “all-day family baking adventures,” and I’d think, Well, he’s watching shows about baking. I’d tell myself tomorrow would be different, but then I’d get lost in the manic pace of the day, and nothing changed.
After the meltdown in the car, I reassessed. I knew he loved watching his programs, but now I could hear the panic when he shouted, “Mom, have you seen the remote?!” With all his structure constantly being rebuilt, he’d come to depend on these virtual friends that showed up with only the click of a button. All of his other interests had fallen away, and I wondered if it was too late to step in and remind him turning off the television could feel OK?
So, I took the remote and tenderly mentioned all those games and actives he’d once loved. But my only child was inconsolable when asked to step away from the screen. If he wasn’t a hot mess of tears, he tried impressive bargaining tactics like offering to vacuum everything if he could finish his program.
It was the desperation behind his reactions that broke me. More often than not, my resolve crumbled and I gave in to his anguish. My parenting shame soared each time I was inconsistent, which admittedly might have been a lot of the times. I couldn’t bring myself to take away another joy when so much had been taken already. Even so, with screen time out of balance, so was our connection. I felt it glitching. So before setting up super strict rules that might move us further apart, I wondered if there was a better way to plug it back in.
“Hey, Kiddo, can we pick a show to watch together?”
My kid and I cuddled on the couch discussing our show options. After we picked one and watched the first episode, I looked at my son who gave me a big smile and a thumbs up. It was a hit. That’s when we made a pact that he couldn’t watch it without me and vice-versa. He liked this special deal. This show was reserved just for us, and it changed everything.
My 7-year-old suddenly emerged from his screen-time cocoon. I remembered what his voice sounded like because we had actual conversations after every episode about the plot and what might happen as the show progressed. He giggled when we talked about certain characters and just kept on talking. I’d found a way back into his world, and our connection was rebooting.
What shocked me the most was his willingness to take lengthy screen breaks to discuss show elements. Then when the conversation gradually shifted, I found I could reintroduce those non-screen interests he’d once loved in a way that didn’t feel so forced and jarring. This was the plot twist I never saw coming. He discovered he could be happy away from the TV, and the guilt that had been sitting in my stomach weighed a little less.
It took some doing, but my kid is now comfortable stepping away from the television. Instead of screen time being a time to check out, it helped us check in and actually create a stronger bond. Finally, my kid remembered that connection, fun and Lego, all exist in this 3-D world beyond that flat screen.
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