Your living room at 7pm:
You are reading a book. Your child is engrossed in cutting out pieces of cardboard to make colourful spinning wheels. The room is littered with bits of paper, toys, an upturned box of circuit making for kids, clumsy hand -made paper bands that say ‘Spiderman’, colour pencils, glue sticks, mountains of Lego and more colour pencils. Yet there is a sense of calm and involvement. There are no screens glaring anywhere, no sounds of video game fights and screeching cartoon characters. You look up from your book occasionally when your child wants to show you how he’s managed to create a paper ‘fidget spinner’ (because you didn’t let him have the real thing) and you smile in appreciation. Your child’s hands are stained with glue and sketch pen marks. He has even made a spider tattoo on his arm. You don’t tell him to wash up.
This is what most evenings are like in your house right before the scramble for dinner and bedtime begins- peaceful, creative and satisfying. You realise things were not like this when your kids were hooked to the TV or I Pad. It was a constant struggle to negotiate screen time and manage tantrums. Your child is watching a lot less and doing a lot more. You are screaming a lot less and smiling a lot more. You clean up the mess together. You feel closer to your kids. You are present (because your smart phone is also out of reach most evenings).
Are we dreaming? No. Is this possible? Yes. How?
Most of us have given in to the demands that the invasion of media and gadgets make on our limited patience as parents and we justify our increasing crankiness in dealing with the screen wars at home with a sense of resignation because well, ‘There’s nothing you can do about it. This is the age of technology and you can’t stop your kids from spending too much time on gadgets’. Right? Wrong. You can limit screen time for your kids at home by following a set of simple rules that all of you follow as a family. These rules are realistic, doable, and reduce stress levels inside the house while increasing meaningful interaction and presence.
You learn to say NO to your kids when they pester you for the latest X Box/I Pad/ laptop/ gadget and introduce them to mechanical toys from a young age that encourage making (and breaking) things. Toys like circuit making kits, Lego, blocks of all shapes and sizes, puzzles, carpentry kits, 3D structure making sets and such like. You reinforce the fact that you’re captain of the ship and learn to not engage in arguments or negotiations. While regulated TV time is okay, toddlers and young kids spending half the day seated on their bums glued to screens is not okay. Please understand that.
There is a no gadget hour or two hours in the evening that EVERYONE in the family follows. This could be in the evening when you get back from work and you need to create a calm atmosphere in the house to catch up with each other, wind down for bed time and really talk as a family. Grumpy fathers and TV serial addict grandparents are not exempt from this rule. It will take you a lot of time and patience to achieve this but the benefits will convince everyone eventually.
Dining tables and mealtimes are no phone zones even if that means putting up a poster that says ‘PHONES OFF THE TABLE’ on your kitchen wall. You will have to control your own notification anxiety to be able to achieve this but look at the upside- all of you pay attention to the food and each other, there’s chatter and arguments and a lot of assorted noise none of which includes pings of any sort. You can expect a lot of laughter, giggling, spilling and whining about who gets dessert first. Not too bad, huh?
RULE NO. 4:
There will be books in the house- lots of books. Picture books, wipe clean books, pull out books, books with magnet letters, diaries, scribble pads, cut out books, colouring books, sticker books, bed time story books. For those of you who haven’t started doing this yet, it’s never too late to inculcate reading in the family with a daily bedtime story routine. Sacrifice one TV show and read to your kids before bedtime, from the time they are a year old and keep doing it until they pick up reading themselves. Buy books on themes that interest your kids and let them pick book themselves. The amount of money you spend on books will compensate for the amount of money you may have to spend on blood pressure, anxiety and depression meds for yourself or others, not to mention counselling and tech de-addiction services for your children if they continue to behave like they were born with a gadget glued to their hands.
RULE NO. 5:
Your children will have one hour of physical activity or free play every day out of the house if you have access to the park or cricket/badminton/swimming/skating lessons. Establish this from early childhood and treat this time not as an hour of Dangal induced intense parental sports training and guidance, but as a leisurely hour or two where you watch, nod, play and encourage in turns as your kids get all sweaty and red. Play need not necessarily be about training or achievement. It is also about well being, recreation, stamina building and community bonding for kids. Even good old fashioned gully cricket is the best life coach there is.
You will not allow your kids to take gadgets to restaurants so that they learn how to interact like normal human beings and participate in choosing menus and actually pay attention to the food and company. Long distance journeys may be exempt from this rule to maintain general sanity in the car/train/bus but do set a limit to how much time your kids spend on screens. Take along books, play riddles and silly games like spot and count yellow cars or who counts the most weird place names and milestones. Trust us, this will be a lot more fun than taking your kids to an orthopaedic specialist when they suffer from strained necks and stiff fingers.
Mobile data allowance and WIFI passwords will be strictly subject to general co operation and completion of household chores for older children who may have their own phones or gadgets. Once again, you’re the parent and you have the right to say no till your kids become independent and learn how to spend their own money on things they want but may not necessarily need.
Your personal laptops and phones will be password protected and your kids will need permission to use them for research or limited recreation. There will be age specific search engines installed on all devices that your kids can access to limit inappropriate content and ensure general safety and well being.
Cyber safety, online bullying, internet privacy, pitfalls of too much tech usage will be commonly discussed issues in your households with enough room and openness to hear and speak for both parents and children. Your relationship with your children is one of the best safeguards you can install in place and it doesn’t cost a thing!
You will be consistent. There will be slip ups and frustration and angina inducing shouting matches but if you want to invest in the long term happiness and growth of your child, stay calm and stick to timelines, warnings and consequences in case of time limits not being followed. Your kids will look at you like you’re Godzilla but you’ll have the long term benefits of being proud parents of more evolved, well rounded and active kids. Not to mention the increased number of skills and activities your children will be aware of.
Resist the urge to hand them gadgets as pacifiers so that you’re free to Watsapp and Facebook or whatever it is that you want to do at that moment. This is what you’re going to be doing anyway when they’re all grown up and there’s more free time than you can tolerate(remember the twenty good morning and Jai Shri Ram messages your mum sends you? Yeah well, lots of time for that later). Make the most of your kids’ childhood. Childhood is short and being an adult is forever and boring. You might as well learn to roll on the floor with your children before your knees give in and get used to the taste and smell of glue and paint.
It’s never too late to start creating a healthy, happy home environment and these ten rules will help you get there. Start slowly and stay strong. Happy parenting!