True Parent 3
A confession: I have not actually read the full text of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations on screen time for children. I’ve never felt the need, because from the moment my son could lift his head, I’ve received enough dire caution from doctors, teachers, and urbanMamas posts (read aloud to me by my loving wife) to know that it probably says something like this:
Do not allow a screen of any kind within a quarter mile of your child. It’s been medically proven that every supervillain’s origin story begins with exposure to video screens before the age of two. (Yes, that includes sports.) (Yes, that includes Real Housewives reunions.) (And no, you can’t just “mute the commercials.”)
Like you, my wife and I are good people who don’t want to raise supervillains. So we try to set a good example. No, seriously. We really do. We really try to resist the urge to give in to our three-year-old’s increasingly headstrong demands for Yo Gabba Gabba and selfies. But—of course—we fail.
Soooo... those who can’t do, lie.
A nurse administering a three-year health visit questionnaire recently asked us how much screen time our son gets daily, and without missing a beat we chirped “about an hour.” We were rewarded with a congratulatory “perfect!”, but as soon as the nurse was out of earshot we debriefed on our technique.
“A little less eager next time?” my wife wondered.
This is the guilt-saddled parent’s version of fibbing about your weight or how many drinks you have in a week. When it comes to screen time, you always shave off an hour or four. Why? Because maybe on a warm sunny day when he sleeps until 8 am and we have back-to-back playdates scheduled with no chores to take care of because we are an independently wealthy family with a live-in nanny in San Diego, that is absolutely a truthful accounting of the average daily screen time he gets.
I know you know what really goes on in my house... because it’s probably the same thing that goes on in yours. I see the flicker of relief in your eyes when I accidentally let slip my excitement about our son’s latest milestone—the ability to queue up another episode of Peep and the Big Wide World on his own at 5:45 am on Saturday. Because, yeah, we got a sitter and finally went to Pepe Le Moko last night for a few hours of feeling like sexy animals, and you and I both know there isn’t enough strong coffee in Portland to care about helping build another Lego tower at that hour.
And if you know this, then you also know that screens are an amazing modern parenting tool—especially when wielded in whatever way works best for your own household. Sure, there’s an analog, wilderness-loving slice of my brain that fires a little pang of grief for saying it, but sometimes a little screen time makes us a happier family. Every road or plane trip need not be a tortuous journey into the heart of Whine Country. Those months of dark stormy winter days need not feel like an extended director’s cut of Panic Room.
With a near constant bombardment of parenting advice assaulting us—much of it, ironically, emanating from screens—it’s so easy to feel terrible about ourselves. But it’s time we clear the air, fellow parents; who is more expert than us? We are the generation of badasses who not only love our kids the mostest, but also basically invented the consumption of cable TV as well as videogame obsession (to the chagrin of our own parents). And to borrow the mantra of everyone who has ever shaken their cane at societal change: We turned out great!
Screens and the sweet, sweet content they deliver aren’t going anywhere. Whatever screen time rules you’ve established and are semi-enforcing, whatever daily battles you’re waging with your own screen addiction, none of the details matter—because if you’re talking about it and thoughtfully integrating them into your family, you’re setting your kids up to thrive in whatever virtual reality lies ahead.
I’ll be holding on to my guilty conscience though, tighter than a pilfered HBO GO login. I’m going to need those anxiety stores to stay sharp because, brace yourselves... teenagers are coming.
Sloan Schang is a writer and digital strategist in Portland. Find him online at swelldone.com.