Would you like some pictionary with your soup?

Editor’s note: This post was published originally on Oct. 25, 2008, and it continues to give timeless inspiration to parents seeking connection at meal time:

soup-1414949-mAll this talk about presence has made me re-examine some of the good, and bad, habits my family has fallen into.

When I was a new mom, and therefore full of boundless optimism and energy, I promised my family would never watch television during dinner. I swore that we would use that time to talk about our day, connect with each other over world events, get reaquainted with the people we lived with day to day.

Then I went to school, got a couple years of solid and consistent sleep deprivation under my belt, and had another child. His existence contributed to the growing sleep deficit — basically insuring that I can’t finish a thought, much less a sentence, most of the time.

It began with quasi-educational programming, followed by a discussion of said programming. We would watch “Mythbusters” and discuss the physics and science behind the tests they did, or “Survivorman” and discuss the problem-solving techniques he used. Sometimes we would watch “Dirty Jobs” and talk about the importance of a good, solid education.

Then it became whatever show we wanted, and the discussions stopped. Eventually I realized we were training our children to watch television over dinner. I would ladle out soup and hear, “What are we going to watch tonight?” from my daughter. This awoke the long, slumbering power mom who swore the TV would be relegated to an hour total each day, never during dinner. She woke up mad that I had let this family slide into it’s current state of disconnection through television.

So the other night, I made my family play rudimentary Pictionary while we ate.

It was a huge success. We all drew a picture of something, movie, book or thing and let each person guess what it was. Most of the meal was spent laughing at each other’s renderings and misunderstandings. When dinner was over, there was a small pile of “art” on the table and a sense of reconnect in the family — one we hadn’t felt in a while.

We are still exhausted and crazed, and I am transitioning from stay-at-home mom to work-from-home mom, so I am sure there will be days when we slip back into our bad TV habits. However, I am hoping we can toss in more days of board games and conversation, allowing us to reconnect with each other and be more present in each others’ lives. I am also going to encourage a return to educational television during dinner, followed by a discussion, as that allows a similar connection to occur on days when TV seems like the right answer.

I hope my decision appeases the power mom inside me. I hate to disappoint her too often. She has fantastic, if sometimes somewhat unrealistic, goals.

Using TV as Sanity-Saving Tool

My kids are bugging me a bit today. Yes, I’ve said it: Every parent has moments when they’re discontent with their children. I think that’s important for everyone, especially parents who are new to Attachment Parenting or who are struggling at this moment, to remember – even the long-time, forever AP parents have their moments, or days, or weeks.

What are they doing? The usual kid stuff. Pulling all their toys out of their bedroom and then dilly-dallying when it’s clean-up time. Taking a bite out of an apple and then deciding they don’t want to eat it after all. Complaining that her sister got the fuller cup of juice. Eating a couple pieces of Easter candy and begging for more. Not using soap while hand-washing right after I’ve sent them back for a second try. Nothing extraordinary, and usually nothing that I can’t handle without a smile and patience and compassion. But today, it’s just not working for me…

Oh, I try not to let it show. But kids are perceptive, and I’m sure they notice. So, I’m taking a break.

Certainly, since I work from home, I can’t go too far. In fact, I’m still in the same room. I’m on my computer, writing this, and the girls are watching a movie. The baby is with me.

We don’t watch a lot of TV. I try to limit it to the evenings when my husband is home. Not only does this serve the original goals to reduce screen time, avoid inappropriate media, and increase imaginative free play, but when the kids do watch TV, they really value that time. So, I use TV to keep my kids occupied while I’m on conference calls that require more of my participation than listening…and on days like today when I need some me-time (well, me-and-baby-time since I don’t expose babies to direct viewing until about three years old). I prefer DVDs, because there are no commercials to monitor, and there is a definite end time.

Then, I take my me-time. Sometimes, I work on a project that really needs some undivided attention. Sometimes, like today, I write something purely for emotional release. Sometimes, I don’t work at all. I sit down to nurse, with a book and a glass of iced tea. If my husband’s home, I might take a bath or a nap. But I find that whatever I do that I’m in the mood for at the time will rejuvenate me. If I try to ignore that I need me-time or, alternately, I try to something that needs to be done but that I’m not in the mood for, like folding clothes or washing dishes, I only get more wound up and that’s when I’m in danger of losing it. Balance is so important for all moms, work-at-home parents, too – perhaps more so, sometimes, since we’re working on high-pressure deadlines while trying to maintain the slowness that it takes to raise children.

I, like any mother, put a lot of pressure on myself to be better, smarter, wiser… On one hand, what does that say about me that I use TV as a babysitter? On the other hand, should I care what other people think if it works for my family?

Goodnight iPad: Cutting Down on Screen Time

I flipped through this book at the counter of our local toy store the other day. It’s a humorous take on the classic “Goodnight Moon,” which my kids and I have read together countless times. And it is funny; an apt exaggeration of how virtuality has replaced so much of what is “real.”

But it makes me a little sad, too. That our world has become so plugged in that there exists a market for this kind of parody. That there exist gadgets for reading and being read to, for listening to music and making music, and for communicating with people without having to see or talk to them.

So many gadgets, so short a childhood.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the convenience of technology as much as anyone. Our family certainly has our share of gadgets. But the idea of “Goodnight iPad” does hit close to home for us.

Me: Goodnight iPad.

My son: Nooooooooooooooooo!

Not quite, but pretty close. The difference is I’m not smiling when I pry the iPad out of my 5-year-old’s hands.

Recently, we’ve been keeping closer tabs on our screen time, both grownups’ and kids’. It has become way too easy to allow some type of screen to keep us entertained on a whim. Between iPhone, iPod, iPad, laptop, and the good-old-fashioned TV, our kids are always only a finger touch away from easy entertainment. When they’re bored, it is only too easy for them to turn on a device instead of playing with toys.

And it’s too easy for me to want to. When days are filled with stress (either theirs or mine) because of school, work, household tasks, or the emotional upheaval of a 5-year-old’s growth spurt, it’s tempting to turn on a device that will allow them to relax, keep them busy, and stop the bickering. Gadgets are always an easy solution to stress.

But when we start to become dependent on them, something needs to change. When I say, “No iPad today,” and they don’t know what else to do with themselves, something needs to change. It means they’ve become to accustomed to a screen as their go-to to-do, and that needs to change.

I used to read the AAP’s recommendations for appropriate amount of screen time for young kids and think, “Oh, thank goodness that isn’t us.” We never used to have issues with keeping screen time to a minimum, but lately the accumulated hours have crept up on us.

So, goodnight iPad. Goodnight TV. Goodnight iPhone-in-restaurants. Goodnight video games of any kind.

Hello conversation. Hello toys and games and books. Hello puzzles and mazes. Hello blocks, Legos. Hello wrestling matches, swords flights, and dress up. Hello sketch books, hello colored pencils. Hello creativity and imagination.

Also hello whining and complaining…at first. In my state of exasperation with our screen situation, I eliminated every trace of them from our day. It may have been a little extreme, but cold turkey seemed necessary. Oh yes, there was withdrawal. The symptoms included angry faces, sad voices, confusion, boredom, chronic whining, and constant shouts from Mom to, “Go do something!”

And then eventually…contentment. Cooperation. Ingenuity.

It’s been a few weeks now, since we said “goodnight” to the screens, and the kids haven’t been asking for them. They get up in the morning and go to the pantry for cereal instead of the iPad for games. When they’re bored, they don’t immediately think of watching a show. They go to the bookshelf or the game cabinet. Our arts and crafts supplies are dwindling, the playroom is a happy mess, and my son always has a toy in his hands.

Will screens eventually creep back into our day? I’m sure. But I’m contented to have come to a point where they don’t seem necessary for engagement. Without the devices, we are engaging more with each other…imagine that! I know that technology affords us the convenience of connecting us to the world, but I see healthier connections made without it. Skip the digital connections please, I’ll take the interpersonal ones any day.