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“A Summer Unplugged: Shutting Down Screen Time”

We are trying to cut down screen time this summer to one hour a day. It is incredibly difficult, and even more wonderful.

In a house with four young kids aged 6-12, it seems electronics are sometimes the magic spell saving our family from utter chaos. At times when the kids are quietly watching TV and Laurie or I say, “Time to turn it off,” the volume goes from one to ten. Even when the kids get along, they’re just so loud — and destructive.

“How about you guys head outside?” I say.

They all groan. “It’s too [fill in the blank – hot, cold, windy, wet, boring].”

I say, “Quit whining. It’s a beautiful day. Go act like kids.”

They go outside, act like kids for 10 minutes, then ask to come back inside.

I know my kids watch too much TV. I also know “too much” is unspecific. At a recent well-check appointment, the pediatrician asked how much TV the kids watch. Too embarrassed to answer, I turned the question back on the doctor. “How much do you recommend?” I asked.

“Maybe an hour a day.”

Laurie and I left the appointment dejected. An hour a day seemed insurmountable, especially during summer vacation. But now that two of our kids have diagnosed ADHD and a third is showing clear signs of the same, Laurie and I feel more motivated than ever to make it happen. “What do people do these days to limit their kids screen time?” I asked.

Laurie said, “Let’s look it up.”

We found ideas like puzzles, board games, word searches and coloring books. “So really the same things we did as kids,” I said to Laurie.

Later that day, Laurie visited some dollar stores and bought a number of activities. When she got home with bags of what looked like “kids’ stuff,” they got excited. “This is stuff for you all to do so we cut down on TV time,” Laurie said. The kids looked less excited.

That Saturday, we made our first attempt at one hour per day. The kids woke up and asked immediately if they could turn the TV on. They didn’t seem surprised when we said no, as we commonly said something like, “After breakfast.” So they asked again after breakfast, and we again said no. “Go look through the activities we got,” Laurie said.

The younger three chose a puzzle. I set up the card table, and then left the room. Almost two minutes later, the first fight broke out. “She took the piece I was about to do!” someone shouted.

Laurie said to me, “Let them work it out.”

An hour later, they were still working on it. The fights continued, but they were brief and no one tattled to us. Meanwhile, our oldest son, Isaac, looked through the bags and told us he didn’t feel like doing anything. “Maybe I’ll go back to sleep,” he told us.

“I don’t think so,” Laurie said. “I got other stuff for you.” She pulled out a new Lego set she’d bought used off a Facebook garage sale site. Isaac’s eyes lit up. “Thanks, mom!” When he left the room, Laurie handed me a small bottle of super glue. “I read if you glue the pieces, it will take him longer to complete it. Plus the young ones won’t destroy it after he finishes. You should go do it with him.”

“Nice!” I said. Issac and I worked on the set together until lunchtime. “Can I help you make lunch?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said. I showed him how to cut a tomato and grill onions. When the younger kids heard Isaac and me talking, they rushed in. “Can we help, too?” I had one kid set plates on the table, another silverware, and another condiments. When everything was ready, Laurie came in and all four kids ran to her and shouted, “We helped!”

“I can get used to this,” Laurie said.

I was so surprised how engaging the kids became once they got used to the TV staying off. They talked more to each other and to Laurie and me. They still ask to watch TV, and sometimes get an attitude when we say no, but then they find something to do. And sometimes, ten minutes after finding that something to do, they come to us and ask when they can watch TV.

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