One exhausting morning, when I was seven months pregnant with my son Spencer, I set my four-year-old, Ethan, at the computer with a couple of CD-Roms, and I dozed on the couch next to him. Three hours later, I woke up with a start and saw Ethan happily twisting in the “spinny chair,” his eyes glued to the screen.
“Oh, Ethan,” I said with anguish in my voice, ‘I’m so sorry I slept for three hours. I didn’t realize how tired I was.”
He responded with a smile, “That’s okay, Mom. You can take a three-hour nap like that every day!”
Ten years ago, I read the compelling ideas in The Plug-In Drug by Marie Winn, and I have tried to limit my children’s use of screens ever since (of course, right now my four children are watching a movie so I can finish up this post, which is kind of ironic). It’s not that I think televisions and electronic games need to be banned, but this 24/7 access to electronic stimulation generally works against my goals of deliberate motherhood.
When I was young, cartoons came on in the early morning, and then the “boring” shows graced the screen until the after school programs aired. I filled those non-screen hours with roller skating, cupcake parties with my Cabbage Patch dolls, and story-writing sessions with my Peanuts notebook. I know I watched a lot of TV, but it’s those hours away from the screen that hold my favorite memories.
The first Nintendo generation has now grown into adulthood, and while there are many who still spend their lives absorbed in electronic games, I hear story after story (particularly from boys) who wish they’d been more productive during those formative years. One young man who is now trying to break into the music industry said, “I wish I’d spent all those video-game hours practicing the guitar (Guitar Hero doesn’t count).” Another friend of mine confided, “I wish I’d read more books, practiced the piano, or done something productive. One of my friends invested thousands of hours gaming, and all he got out of it was carpal tunnel.”
So here’s my question for today: How do we teach our children to balance their time?
I have a few ideas to share, and then I’d love some help from you in the “Comments” section below.
(1) Help our children balance what they do during “screen time.”
In our house, screen time is allowed in the morning for a little while, and then for about an hour in the afternoon. (During the school year, it’s more like 45 minutes a day, total). Before we embark on our “electronic play,” we talk about how that time will be spent. My husband and I ask our children to use part of it investing in themselves. These are two resources my husband picked up at our local office store (one is a fun, 3D floor plan design software, and the other is for typing instructions):
Our children have loved these, in addition to dozens of educational websites that provide online music lessons, language lessons, memorization skills, etc. (I keep an “Approved Quiet Time” list in our “Favorites” menu so they can easily find them). Then the remainder of their screen time can be spent watching a cartoon on Netflix, playing with their Webkinz, or visiting another approved game site. We don’t claim to have the perfect system for this, but it’s generally been working for our family.
(2) Teach our children that electronic play is just one kind of recreation.
My friend Emily Layton shared a brilliant idea she uses in her family. She diagrammed the different types of play–active play, imaginative play, friend play, brain play, and electronic play. When her children have been spending a lot of time in one type of play, she encourages them to look at the diagram and choose a different type. I’ve adapted that idea to my own family, using a beach ball as the image.
Active play includes things like jumping on the trampoline, playing at the park, or riding scooters. For imaginative play, we get out the puppets, dolls, army guys, and kitchen food. Friend play can include all types of play, but it involves a back-and-forth, cooperative experience. Brain play is all about puzzles, creative writing, reading, and solving problems. Electronic play includes all the “screen time” activities listed above. This has been fabulous for us, and I love having a tangible way to teach these ideas to my children.
(3) Teach balance in what they read, hear, and eat.
Clearly, balance is a principle that needs to be applied in all areas of our lives, but these are three areas we’ve been working on lately.
- When we go to the library, we try to check out a balance of fiction and non-fiction books. My friend Tara Lewis taught me this years ago. Her three-year-old knew more about dinosaurs and sea creatures than I did, and she told me it was because they checked out books that would strengthen his mind. Sometimes I have to physically steer my children over to the non-fiction section, but they always get excited once they see cool books about sharks, calligraphy, or astronomy. Everyone did laugh, however, when I called Spencer up for his nap and said, “Come on, honey! I’m going to read you a story about your digestive system.”
We also try to incorporate a variety of music into our home (though I still have a long way to go here). I’ve noticed that school friends have a ton of influence with this, and I don’t always love their choices, so my husband and I do our best to expose them to the uplifting, powerful music that’s shaped our lives. We sing songs around the piano, play classical CDs, and dance in the kitchen to music with great beats and positive lyrics.
- Nutrition could be a whole post of its own, but I’ll just mention that we’ve encouraged our children to keep a food journal, so they can see if they’re getting enough vegetables and protein, amidst the cereal-and-cracker diet that’s so easy to fall into.
The lesson I’m hoping to teach is that everything we take into our body–whether through our eyes, ears, or mouths, needs to be balanced because those things make us who we are.
(4) Do housework as a family.
Housework is one of my passions (when it’s done as a family). I want my children to learn that there needs to be balance in creating messes and cleaning messes.
Appliance commercials make it seem like the housework practically does itself while the children sit on the couch watching TV and catching the cookies that come flying through the air.
Even though the media makes it look as though housework is easily accomplished alone, I don’t know of any mother in the world who wouldn’t appreciate it if her children helped out with the housework. This picture gives me warm fuzzies:
There’s a great article on The Power of Moms called, “If I Had Four More Arms and One More Brain.” In the article, Karin Brown reminds us that “Kids CAN clean bathrooms.” She says, “Most of the time I feel like I’m a juggler, center-stage, trying to balance too many plates on too many tall, fragile poles. However, when I’m able to remind myself that I’m doing my best and spreading responsibility to my capable children, I feel like the balancing act is a little more doable.”
Deliberate mothering is sometimes exhausting. Encouraging balance in the lives of my children, while simultaneously keeping balance in my own life feels near impossible at times. Some days the screen is a lifesaver, but most days, keeping the screen off enables us to have beautiful experirences together. In spite of the difficulties and added stress, I’m opting for a little more mess, a little more chaos, and a little more work as I invest in the future of my family.
QUESTION: What do you do to help your children learn about balance?
CHALLENGE: Choose one way to become a more deliberate mother and increase the amount of balance in your home.
Photo by Amdandfiebing at www.flickr.com.
Originally published on July 21, 2011.