Recently, my husband received military orders that moved us and our kids across the country. Of course, this came with a ton of changes—thankfully, the flexibility of my job allowed me to continue working, just with reduced hours, which then meant my full-time daycare kid had to become an (almost) full-time, at-home kid since we couldn’t hack the costs of childcare in our new location anymore. So, I suddenly had to figure out working with both of my kids at home with me. This sent my stress levels through the roof.
Trying to juggle my priorities as a parent and working remotely at the same time was my personal hell. This is a reality that parents across the country were facing during the pandemic. And understandably, parents turned to screens for help.
Unfortunately, even though most school-aged kids have returned to school, screen time statistics are still alarmingly high. In fact, two recent studies done by Jama Pediatrics indicated that post-pandemic kids under the age of 18 are spending an average of 4 hours per day on screens, with teens spending an average of 7.5 hours per day on screens.
Pandemic habits die hard. The thing is, now that the country has opened back up and lockdowns have ceased, working with kids at home is still a continued reality for parents the country over as childcare prices are through the roof, remote work has become more accessible, and the habits we started during the pandemic are hard to change.
Now, let me take a pause to say: I am not passing any judgment on parents who use screens or to what extent they use them. Let’s be realistic, my mental health wouldn’t survive if my kids didn’t have any screen time. It is a great tool to use when you need to do something undisturbed (especially if you have a kid like mine—please send help). If copious amounts of screen time are what you need to get through the day, then by all means; unfortunately, copious amounts of screen time tend to result in scream time at my house, and when my son is overstimulated, it turns me into an absolute monster.
But I think it’s wise to consider what the recommended guidelines are. There’s a reason the smart medical people at the American Academy of Pediatrics set forth these guidelines. You can check out their guidelines for young children here, and their guidelines for school-aged children and adolescents here. So if you’re worried about your kids’ screen time, I would love to share some of the strategies I use to peacefully curb the amount of time my kids spend in front of a device.
Audiobooks and kid’s podcasts. This is my number one strategy for parents out there with preschool-aged kids. My 4-year-old loves listening to his kid’s podcasts, most of which are kid-centered audio stories. If he’s playing, eating, sitting in the car, or doing anything that does not involve screens, he’s asking for one of his podcasts. There are tons of great recommendations out there appropriate for all different ages.
There are plenty of audio players that are kid-friendly as well. For example, the Yoto player or Tonie Box are popular choices. These are great for parents who want to encourage their children to be able to select and play their own stories independently. I find it’s great when I’m tired of hearing my son scream at Alexa because she can’t understand his requests.
Spend time outside. I see this recommendation all the time, but I could not bring myself to omit this for the sake of being different since it is great advice. At the risk of sounding like a terrible mother, I will confess that I struggle to play with my son (I suppose my inner child grew up too). So, my solution is to go outside. My son will find something to do if I just go outside with him. He’s enjoyed playing with watering cans, looking for interesting bugs, and riding his scooter back and forth. Plus, we all need sunshine in our lives. Spending time outdoors is good for your kids and great for your mental health too!
Encourage independent play at the park. For a long time, I struggled to figure out how to get my son to play at the park without him constantly begging me to play with him. I’m sure some of this is also developmental and depends on age, but one trick I discovered is to bring a bag of toys or, most recently for us, superhero capes and masks to share. When my son has things to share, it becomes easy for him to break the ice with other kids, and suddenly, I’m blissfully left to sit on the park bench in peace. I keep a close eye on my son, but it gives me that much-needed mental and physical break.
Get your kids involved in household duties. “How do I get anything done around the house with my kids?!” I’ve seen this question posted countless times in my motherhood support groups, and my answer is always to relax, try not to worry about getting everything done, and safely involve your kids in as much as you can. For example, my son loves to help me “wash the dishes” (mainly because he loves playing with the water). Yes, when he helps there is a lot of water to clean up afterward, but kids are messy and water is easy to clean! I also try to involve my son in cooking. He loves using his child-safe knives (who knew they existed!?). Right now, our favorite cooking activity is making pizza together. It’s screen-free, involved, and gives plenty of opportunity to teach about being careful around hot stove tops and ovens.
Setting reasonable limits and routines. Most kids thrive on routines, but I struggle with maintaining them. However, even though I can’t stick to a routine, some limitations in our household have become routine. For example, I am emphatic about no screens in the morning and no screens after dinner. I occasionally make exceptions, but the more consistently I stick to it, the less my son will beg me for TV first thing in the morning. Of course, some mornings are still wrought with whining and begging, but most mornings he does well. Find what limits work for your family, make it your rule, and do your best to stick to that rule.
Lead by example. I know that this may upset some people, but Jesus did say, “Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5, NKJV). As parents, we need to lead by example, and I’m sure if we all examined our habits closely, we would see room for improvement. I struggle with this a lot. Especially when I’m stuck in one spot nursing my youngest or at bedtime when I’m waiting for the kids to fall asleep before leaving the room. However, our kids are always watching us, and we really should be doing our best to live the way we expect them to live as well.
Manage your screen time expectations for yourself and your kids. To my anecdote about when we first moved across the country, I was trying to keep my then 3-year-old’s screen time limited to one or two hours per day while I was working on my own screen for five to six hours per day. My expectations for my son were just too high—I couldn’t truly expect him to play by himself and not interrupt me for five to six hours each day. Eventually, for my mental health, I took my mom’s advice: give my son and myself some grace and let it go.
So, I did—or I try to. That doesn’t mean I just let him watch TV all day long, but I needed to find a way to balance our time better and have more reasonable expectations. Yes, my son’s screen time has increased to allow me the time and focus to work. And yes, I’ve had to reduce my workload to focus on being the parent my kids deserve.
If you’re struggling to find that balance that works for your family, remember to give yourself some grace and just do what you can. We are only human. But the fact that you’re even reading this shows that you’re trying, and I think that effort will go a long way in your kids’ lives.