As the Family Goes

JP II Quote

"As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live." John Paul II

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Screens, Self-Governance, and Monkeys on your Back

Screens can be a tricky subject for families.  On one hand I don't think anyone can deny their adverse effects on modern children, especially if you have a child with a particular disposition to want to be on them all day, all the time.  In a lot of ways I suppose it would be easier to just not have any technology in the home, to avoid the constant fighting, the back and forth, and the occasion for temptation.  It's a subject each family needs to discern for themselves, how they are going to relate to technology and, more importantly, how to raise children who know how to be a part of a world where technology is a reality without completely losing themselves to it.

We have done a full 360 on this subject many times, and I suspect there will be more revising and reconsidering as our children get older, and we figure out what works and what doesn't.  I will start by saying I am that person who would lose herself all day behind a screen.  So I understand this behaviour when I see it in my children. But just because I understand it doesn't mean I'm okay with it, so in the same way that I am constantly trying to be aware of how I can set limits and discipline myself, I wonder the same for my children.

For us as a family we try to maintain a middle ground.  We have screens, but only in main areas of the home.  We don't have network TV, but we do use Netflix and online TV that allows us to view shows on our own time, and doesn't suck us in with fixed times and advertising.  We have assigned times of the day for screens (generally the last hour before bed) and other than that they stay off (unless it's a special occasion).  I limit my own personal time as well, saving my phone time for first thing in the morning with my coffee or after supper when I am unwinding from the day, because otherwise I notice I have a tendency to always be wrapped up in my phone, and snappy with the kids.  We used to let all of the kids play the Wii in the evenings, but that became too difficult to manage because all six of them wanted a turn, and were not satisfied with a ten-minute turn.  So to keep it from turning into a two-hour marathon every time someone wanted to play the Wii, we gave each of the kids their own day.  Now one person playing the Wii doesn't mean they all get to, and it gives us the freedom to allow them to play without feeling that they all have to, and that the screen will take over.  So far, these small things have been working.

Our oldest son recently turned 12, and for his birthday his grandparents gifted him with a tablet. This guy loves technology, so it was the perfect thing for him.  They asked us first, and we both thought that since he is a bit older, it was a good opportunity for him to exercise a bit more freedom and self control. With the smaller kids right now everything is about setting parameters and controlling their access to technology - we're all happy when there's less of it.  But with my oldest, I'm concerned with making the shift from us doing all of the managing to him learning to govern himself.  I don't want him to leave our home as an adult and get lost to technology because he's never had an opportunity to train himself.  And I know from our short experience with him so far that he will not remain faithful simply because we want him to.  And so we thought this might be just the thing to get us started down this path.

You guys - it has been a struggle!!! No surprise I'm sure to many reading this, haha!  We are figuring it out daily and constantly adjusting, but I have been on the edge of giving that tablet back more times than I can count!  And finally this morning, I saw some encouragement that I wanted to share, in case it is of value to anyone else.

Because we are in summer break, our days lack routine.  This particular boy doesn't enjoy going outside, and as such is constantly wandering in and out, asking for something to eat, something to read, something to do.  And of course much of that involves asking for screens.  He is clever about the way he asks, he doesn't come out and ask if he can play games because he knows I'd say no.  But he'll say, "can I just look up this thing we're talking about?" or "can I print off a colouring page?"  "I just thought of this thing, can I email my friend about it?"  "I'm missing our dog, can I please print a picture of her?"  "It's so-and-so's turn on the Wii, can they play it now?"  I get tired of the constant requests for screens, especially from our oldest who knows that we don't use screens during the day - this is not a new rule, we have been living this way for years now.  So this morning I told him that if he asks for screens in any capacity one more time before lunch time, he would lose them all for the rest of the day.  Within a half an hour came the request, "can I check my email?" And I just looked at him and said, "Oh no, what does that mean?"

I should pause here to say that 12 year olds are completely new to me, and in addition to his desire for screen time (which has pretty much been constant for the last seven or eight years) there is also emerging a certain unpleasantness with behaviour and attitude, which I'm sure is to be expected but is nonetheless difficult.  Whereas in younger years I could enforce compliance with minimal argument, as an older child he is learning how to voice his displeasure, in ways that are sometimes respectful but often not.  I think he is also more prone to anger now than he was when he is younger, and arguments happen much easier now than when he was younger.  So naturally there was a confrontation over this issue. I often find when this happens we get locked into a circle of back-and-forth arguments, that do nothing but escalate and end in me losing my temper.  I did not want to go there with him.

Without getting into particulars, he was insistent that there was no way for him to control this.  That he simply forgot, and he couldn't control his memory.  Feeling pushed to the wall, my first response is often to say that we never should have gotten that tablet.  But immediately I know that while getting rid of it might solve more of the current problems we have, it will do little to prepare him for being in a world without Mom and Dad's rules once he is older.  In those few short minutes that seemed like eternity to me, it was abundantly clear that I am the one shouldering most of this burden.  I have been asking myself for years, "how do I teach him? How do I prepare him?"  In that moment, with him so quick to offer the excuse "I can't help it," as justification, I realized that was the wrong question.  Instead, I need to give the burden to him, and let him figure it out for himself.

So I confirmed with him what he was saying, that it would never be possible for him to remember not to ask for screens every five minutes, even when he had promised he would, and even if there was a consequence for doing so.  When he confirmed that yes, this was what he was saying, I told him in that case that maybe he was not yet mature enough to have screens, and that we would have to take them away for the summer.  He protested as I wrote on the whiteboard that he could not have screens for the summer, and I told him that it is not an option to be so screen addicted.  I told him that we had consented to his having a tablet because we thought it was a good opportunity for him to learn how to set his own limits, but that if he felt completely unable to do so then we would put it away until he was older and more capable of doing this.

At first, he rebelled.  He was very defiant and angry, and insistent on me to find a solution for him, but I felt a real freedom in letting go of this.  I realized for too long that I had been carrying the monkey on my back with regards to technology and this boy.  I have spent many tortured hours wondering how to do right by this boy - how to allow him to experience joy in the things he loves, how to know that enjoying video games and tv shows and emailing your friends is not a bad thing, how to let him grow up a little and make his own decisions within certain acceptable limits.  He in contrast has spent no time worry about these things, only trying to find the right thing to say to get Mom to give him more and more.  So I shut down every argument he sent my way by saying simply, "if it is true that you cannot go the day without asking for screens every five minutes, you are not mature enough to have screens.  If that is not the case, you need to come with you own plan to follow that shows me you will be able to do this."  I left the punishment written on our whiteboard, and told him if he came up with a plan of his own that was reasonable, we would erase it and he could write down his screen plan in his place.

In the beginning, he was too vague.  "I just won't do it," he said. But I told him that wasn't good enough.  This is what he had just finished saying he couldn't do!  So then he reverted to the plan I already had in place, which I also told him wasn't okay because clearly he wasn't good at following that one.  I pushed through many moments of disgruntled anguish on his part to get him to articulate his own, detailed screen plan.  He sat silently for a long time, then settled on, "well I'll only use screens in the morning and in the evening."  I told him that was a good start, but it needed more parameters.  I didn't want him getting up three hours before me and being stuck on his screen the whole time, and I didn't want him grabbing his tablet right after supper and thinking he could play it until bed time (and I know that I would have been fighting over this with him if I had left it like that). So I pressed him further, and he refined it to include a half hour in the morning, and a half hour in the evening.  This seems reasonable to me so I consented, and he erased his punishment and replaced it with a plan, one I hope he will remain faithful to not because it was something I imposed, but something he took on for himself.

I'm not certain how this road is going to look going forward, and I'm certain there will be much reworking and revising as we encounter new issues.  But for me the biggest issue will be to let that monkey rest not on my back, but on his. It's sooooo tempting as a Mom to just shut down arguments in the easiest way possible, and I was very close to just getting rid of his tablet all together because I know that would eliminate the argument.  But in the long run I could see that it was better for him to figure this out for himself, even if it means a little (or more than a little) more grief for me in the short term.  I am happy to say that following that discussion, he went downstairs to play without a screen and I haven't seen him for two hours.   I'm not saying all our problems are over, but for me it's an encouraging start. If he can put technology in its proper place, if he can set his own guidelines for how to enjoy it and stick to it, that's a good thing.

This is the most significant growth I've seen in his maturity in a long time, and that is so encouraging.  Because I know that God made him with his exact personality - with things that he loves, with desires, and the ability to live in harmony with those desires without being lost to them.  Technology really is small in the grand scheme of life, I know.  And yet for him, it has been the vehicle to challenge him in the most significant way so far, and to propel him towards significant change. It is too easy for him to just accept the way things are and not desire to do the personal work to change the things that are not good within himself. But having this powerful incentive (and remaining firm in the decision to take it away if he is not demonstrating he can set his own limitations and stick to them) for me is a parenting tool I have been wanting for so long and thinking just did not exist - something that is worth working for. My prayer is that this exercise will help him grow more into a mature young man, capable of controlling his desires and inclinations so that they will bring him to true happiness and not slavery.

I know this is a grand task not to be accomplished in one argument on a cloudy summer morning, but I feel encouraged that it is a step in the right direction.  And for me, perhaps the biggest lesson has been learning to let go just a little, and trust God to work through my boy. I hope this is the first of many steps he will take towards Him and that, in letting go of my hand just a little and learning to navigate the world for himself, he will take Our Lord's hand as his help and constant guide.

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