Archive for January, 2014

Through the Looking Glass


What is screen time anymore, anyway?

(No…seriously. If you have a good handle on this, please contact me. But read on before you answer.)

I know the simplistic, medical perspective: time spent staring at screens is neither active play nor imaginative play. I get it. Do I think the Collective should spend six hours a day staring at anything? No. But the further along we go, the more the lines begin to blur, and the more convoluted I’m finding screen-time rules to become.

Just to toss out the dog’s breakfast of issues we’re contending with: is a Kindle the same as a book? Does a book simulate screen time, or is the imaginative component of reading a sufficient stand-in for ‘imaginative play?’ What about interactive video games, then? And, within that category, is Mr. Crab in the same category as The Room? What if they’ll work up a frothing sweat playing Kinect Sports or Just Dance, but I find them quietly drawing with chalk if I send them outside?

What about board games turned into iPad games? One thing we worry about video games is the isolating effects of constant, solo, immersive time. So if I come across them playing Monopoly on the iPad – and Monopoly, like Ticket to Ride and Scrabble and Small World and Risk, are just better-executed, more fun games on the iPad – am I supposed to call those proceedings to a halt as ‘screen time?’

And then there’s the even more convoluted category of consumption versus creation. Where, for instance, does writing fall on the ‘screen time’ continuum? What about coding? If coding and writing are both creation, does that equate video-game time with reading as consumption? Do I need some sort of insane ratio system for consumption time versus creation time?

The reality is that nothing is cut and dried any more when it comes to allocating and monitoring screen time, because what kids are doing on those screens is very different – sometimes active, sometimes passive, sometimes creating, sometimes consuming. Nor is it really a viable option to expect kids to play outside for the full balance of their free time. My kids love a bike ride, or an afternoon playing in the pool, as much as the next kid, but it’s not realistic to think that they’re going to spend the entirety of their days in those activities. They love to read, to come up with new, imaginative play worlds, to nap by the fire.

Moreover, what am I telling them about how screens are going to integrate into their adult lives by centrifuging out ‘screen time’ as kids? I can’t count the times I’ve seen the person next to me at the gym reading on a Kindle or an iPad while exercising, and tech like Google Glass is only going to further integrate the concept of the screen into their everyday lives. We live in a connected, data-driven world, and while it’s fun to unplug from that world for periods of time,  it’s tough to leave that world on a permanent or even semi-permanent basis.

When many of us were kids, screen time was an easy issue for our parents to manage; it came down to “turn off the TV and go outside.” But increasingly, as parents in 2014, we find ourselves stopping short to consider the circumstances involved in screen time. I don’t have any easy answers on this front, and I suspect many of us share the same question: with screens involved in nearly everything we do and nearly everywhere we go, is it even possible – or desirable – to police this concept anymore?

I find it easiest to subscribe to the Let’s Move! standard of sixty active minutes per day. There have been many, many days we’ve started with 60 as our baseline and gone on to 120 and then 180, and those are good days. But the days they’ve come home exhausted from a hike or a tennis match and proceeded to invent a society of sentient cats in the basement, or collaborated on writing a Doctor Who script, are good days too. And so I come back to a saying that’s helped our family in virtually every area of our lives: everything in moderation, including moderation. 

Walking on the Moon

Moon walking

For a first time in a long time – probably since before preschool – they are happy. They are intensely, exuberantly, singing-at-the-top-of-their-lungs happy.

I don’t know when I first noticed it, but this “school year” is different. Sure, I’m not dragging them out of bed every morning, dropping them off (sullen) at school, then picking them up (even more sullen) to come home, coercing them through homework, and forcing them get to bed and repeat it all over again. No, this ” school year” has been full of discovery, pajamas, projects, plays, singing, strife, emotions, intensity, and happiness. And that just covers the first two hours.

I couldn’t have predicted the complete change in their behavior at this point in the year. We had been part-time homeschooling both girls for the last two years, so I figured we had seen both the benefits and drawbacks of homeschooling gifted kids. I assumed we would see more of the same – content, less-stressed kids with a general love of learning.

What I got, however, was happy.

They are playing in the playroom downstairs, engaged in intricate play between the three of them that involves something along the lines of singing a favorite song, while one of them plays the accompanying keyboard. For H, this means a Police song – she asked for a DVD of a Police concert for Christmas – and she’s singing her rendition of “Walking on the Moon” with the piano. Their music teacher would be proud (and thank goodness she is OK with them doing pop songs for their music lessons.) It’s the type of thing I would have heard them doing at age 3 or 4, but that slowly melted away as they went to school. Once they moved beyond preschool, the monotony of school ground the playfulness out of them, and they came out the other end, as a Pink Floyd face. It happened so slowly, so insidiously, that I barely noticed.

This happiness in my house has made me question everything that I thought I knew. I used to think I understood, without a doubt, the benefits of education, acquiring knowledge, and training for a profession. I knew the right way to study, the right classes to take, the right way to get into school. But thinking about happiness, and what that means to a human life, has made me realize that I have much to learn. How do I guide my kids through an environment that I never knew existed, one so vastly different from my own experiences as a child? How do I focus on their happiness as an end point, not as an unexpected side effect?

How do I teach them to walk on the moon?

Or maybe – and probably – they should teach me. The good news is, I’m never too old to learn, especially from my kids.

I’m heading downstairs to start singing.