As a parent, what is it exactly you are trying to do? Maybe you are trying to help your child excel academically. Perhaps you are trying to raise your child to be responsible with money, or great at sports, or fabulous on a musical instrument. Perhaps you are trying to raise your child to be charitable, or community-minded. Whatever specific hopes and goals we may have in mind for our children, surely most of us as parents have the same end goal in mind: we want to raise our children to be happy.
Funnily enough, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle says the same thing about how human beings in general try to live life. He believes that all of our actions – even those which seem mundane –are ultimately aimed at trying to achieve happiness in some way. However, even though we all aim for happiness, Aristotle thinks that many of us will fall short of that goal. That’s because we misunderstand the nature of happiness. For Aristotle, not just any old way of life will make us happy. No, Aristotle believes that you have to live a certain kind of life – indeed, even become a certain kind of person, in order to be happy.
Restrictive Parenting and the Unhappiness of Children
So often my children seem unhappy. Let me talk about the issue that seems to cause a great amount of unhappiness in our household: restricting ‘screen-time’.
Like many other parents, I have a pressing concern about ‘screen-time’. I do not wish to stop the march of technology – knowing this to be only a futile exercise – but at the same time, an ipod, iphone, ipad, smartphone or whatever in the hands of a child or teenager can be a very destructive thing.
First, there is the addiction issue. I have teenagers who live to socialize. If they lived 30 years ago, there would have been natural limits to the socializing during their waking hours. But now, from the minute they awaken to the minute they (don’t) go to sleep, they have instant access to hundreds of ‘friends’. Since socializing is the end of their existence, they see no reason whatsoever to detach themselves, at any point in the day, from the many forms of social media. There is no other activity they particularly want to pursue, such as homework, family time, reading a book, learning a skill, or practicing their music. If an addiction is defined as something which takes over your life, then most teenagers I know seem to be addicted to their screens.
Second, there is the privacy issue, which spills over into what I will call the ‘appropriate’ issue. With FaceTime, my children can speak face to face, for free, with anyone, at any time, and more to the point, in any location. So I worry when teenage boys call up on FaceTime, from their bedrooms, scantily clad, wanting to have a very long conversation. With Snapchat, anyone can take a picture of themselves, clothed or otherwise, in whatever pose they choose, send it to their friends, and then a few seconds later the image is deleted, leaving no way for parents to check up on what their children are doing. The ‘screen’ has introduced us into a bizarre world in which what is private becomes public, and my children seem oblivious when I explain to them that there is a difference between the two.
There are many other concerns I have with screens which I won’t discuss here, but even these most basic ones are enough for me to be setting restrictions for when the children can have their screens and when they can’t. No screen during homework. No screen during music practice. No screen during family mealtimes. No screen in the bedroom after 9pm (it comes into Mom and Dad’s room for the night), and so forth.
The rules, however, are perceived by the teenagers as harsh, demeaning and punitive. According to them, we as parents are engaging in the extremely brutal exercise of screen extraction – a practice quite unknown to anyone else in the western world.
Aristotle’s Happiness: Align Actions with Values, Not Impulses
Often I feel alone in this battle. So many other kids seem to have their screens all the time; I know, because they try to contact my kids in the middle of the night! There have been times when self-doubt has crept in. Am I doing the right thing by insisting on these restrictions? Am I fighting the right battle? Is it worth it to make my children so unhappy?
I take heart from Aristotle, who takes a longer term view of happiness than what is happening in the here and now. He believes that happiness is something that needs to be learned over time, rather than something that comes about through indulgence of whatever we want to do at any given moment.
Aristotle thinks that happiness will come to us when we achieve what he calls the ‘human good’. The human good is best described as a particular kind of life: it is the kind of life that human beings are meant to live, what they are designed by nature to live. According to Aristotle, nature has given humans the ability to reason, which enables us to govern the irrational parts of the human soul, such as our passions, emotions, instinct and impulses. A characteristically human life will be one where we ‘act according to reason’, that is, where we control our passions and impulses etc. with our reason, rather than let our passions control us.
Aristotle says that the happy man is the man who acts according to reason well. It isn’t enough for a happy life to sometimes act according to reason, and sometimes not. Acting according to reason must become a habit for us; it must become part of our character. So, achieving happiness for Aristotle is a process. It comes as we gradually develop our reason and learn to be good at using our reason to govern our actions.
Aristotle also thinks that reason is the faculty that enables us to act for an end, or a goal. Impulses and emotions make us focused on what is happening right now, and can blind us as to the ‘bigger picture’ – for instance, my child has made me very angry, and I lose my temper, but I haven’t thought about how losing my temper is going to damage my relationship with that child. It is reason that enables us to look past what our impulses are urging us to do at the present moment, and plan for a longer term goal based on our values – on what is really important to us.
How to Help Children Be Happy
Now, what about the child that has a strong impulse to engage constantly (and I do mean constantly) with social media, or play computer games for hours on end? To state the obvious – although perhaps for some it is controversial – these impulses can interfere with some important longer term goals. Achieving a good education, developing the ability to concentrate on tasks which don’t provide immediate rewards, building up family relationships by actually talking to them when they are sitting right next to you, keeping physically fit, and so on –these are all part of a fulfilling life, and they are all adversely affected with too much screen time.
Following these impulses may make our children feel as though they are happy, and all of their friends may be unrestricted in following their impulses. Furthermore, your child may throw a major temper tantrum when you get up guts to tell him that enough is enough, and it’s time to get some fresh air and interact with the real world. Yet, no matter what your child’s reaction is to the enforcement of restrictions (and I’ve witnessed some pretty awful ones), I think as parents we have to be confident in the knowledge that the restriction of indulgence is a prescription for long-term happiness.
When it comes to any issue where our children’s impulses can infringe on their deeper happiness and core values, it can be helpful to take the time to discuss the very points in this post as we work WITH our children to come up with restrictions and boundaries. Children can be quite reasonable when we take the time to really explain our thoughts and concerns and listen to their point of view.
Stay strong, fellow warriors, and remember that Aristotle is on to something when he argues that true happiness comes from acting on our values rather than on our impulses.
The author, Holly Hamilty-Bleakley, has a Masters in Philosophy and a PhD in Intellectual History and Political Thought from the University of Cambridge (Cambridge, England), as well as a BA from Wellesley College (Wellesley, MA). She is also the mother of six wonderful, challenging, energetic, demanding, unique children, who range from ages 15 to 4. To read more of Holly’s excellent writing, visit her blog, Philosophy for Parents (where this piece was originally published).
* Photo by Ambro at freedigitalphotos.net
Thank you for this post. My son is only 6, and currently does not watch TV or use any electronic devices except for the computer at school and occasionally at home (like at Christmas time when we have the electronic Advent Calendar). He does not complain about the lack of media right now, but I know it will be more of an issue when he’s older. I applaud you for setting limits that are unpopular. I hope I will be able to do the same. And, it’s not just teenagers who get addicted to their devices. My father, who is in his 70s, is on his I-phone constantly. He lives across the country and we only see him once/year, but it is like pulling teeth for him to look up from his iphone and have a conversation. Actually, it has gotten better; it was his visit two years ago that was really extreme.
Rebecca Young says
So glad to meet a fellow warrior! I feel very alone in this also. I look around and it seems like we are the only parents that really restrict screen use. I have an 18 year old in college and she got her very first cell phone on her graduation day. I have two teenagers in our home right now and neither of them have cell phones. We have no electronics on schooldays and it causes a lot of “unhappiness”…but I am so glad for this reminder and encouragement. It is worth the effort!
Tasha Bradshaw says
Great article. Screen time is a tricky subject. I appreciated your thoughts!
Such a timely article. I have a 14 and 12 year old and this is a definite issue in our home. ONe thing I have found that works is that instead of me setting the boundaries, they help define the boundaries and when they “buy in” it is much less of a battle between us.
So glad to see other parents starting to question the use of technology by children. I am an occupational therapist and a mom of a 6 year old boy. My child developmental training and my “mommy gut” told me early on that this explosion of technology was something to guard against. I love that the author pointed out the fact that so much of what kids do with technology is impulse, “here and now” driven. There are even studies starting to come out that show the areas of the brain that light up on an MRI with drug use, also light up when kids are gaming. If you have ever been around addicts of any kind you know how destructive their seeking behavior can become. I am afraid we are “wiring” entire generations of people to become impulse driven. I’m trying to find ways to balance this overwhelming influence with my son and I know it will only get harder. I also agree with Claire, this isn’t just a problem for children. Both my father and father in-law sit in front of a screen (computer or TV) for more than 1/2 the day, even when family/friends come to visit. Both were hard working men and had hobbies they enjoyed but now it is much easier to push buttons to be stimulated. And that is really what it comes down to, technology allows us to get lots of stimulation with little to no effort and with almost no restrictions. I think technology is amazing and can improve the efficiency of many things we do but when we allow it to “drive” our lives and our children’s lives it can only cause problems.