A couple months ago I woke up in a sweat at about 4am. My heart was pounding and my thoughts were racing with all the things I was doing wrong as a mom. It’s a familiar feeling for this mom who is figuring out parenting while also battling anxiety. This time I was unusually focused in my worries that typically bounce all over the place and never settle on any one thing. This time, in my 4am grog, my thoughts were all landing on one specific thing – the screens that were running my house. But this time was different.
This time I couldn’t turn off that inner voice telling me something was wrong. It wasn’t really a feeling of guilt in my gut lying to me and trying to convince me I am a terrible mom. No, it was conviction and it was nudging me to acknowledge what I knew was true: my kids were spending too much time in front of screens and it was hurting our family.
Instead of being greeted with sleepy smiles and silly chatter in the morning I woke up to, “Where’s your phone?” Rather than stories about recess and class and friends and art work, I picked up the kids from school and heard, “Can I have your phone?” Meals were rushed through because a movie had been paused to come to the table and the kids were eager to return to it.
Attitudes were affected and the kids were bickering more than usual – over which movie to watch, whose turn it was to play with my phone, and who had the volume up too loud. Whining was at an all time high. So was anger and frustration.
Instead of playing “I Spy” or singing along to the radio or listening to “Polar Bear, Polar Bear” on audiobook, road trips consisted of faces staring into glowing blue boxes – only interrupted by exasperated cries when the battery died. Those glowing rectangles had become a place of rest and refuge and escape, and not just for the kids.
I found myself staring at my own phone until my eye lids drooped and I set it on the nightstand before falling asleep, only to reach over upon waking up in the morning to check any notifications before starting my day. When anxiety hit in the 4am hour, I would reach for my phone to distract me until the panic passed. Instead of including my kids in dinner prep I handed them the iPad or turned on the television so I could work uninterrupted.
The screens were occupying too central a role in our home and it was changing our family interactions.
As a mom whose main mantra chants “connection, connection, connection!” I’m disappointed in myself. But I’ve learned to tell the difference between guilt that condemns and conviction that guides. I’ve learned to speak truth to the former and listen to the latter.
So I listened to what conviction was telling me and I knew it was time to get rid of the screens. Not because they are evil. Not because our way of doing things is the best way for everyone. But because they were hindering the health of our family and taking them out of our lives is what’s best for us.
It’s been a couple months and in that time my children haven’t touched an iPhone or an iPad. Their television time is limited to an hour per day and has to be done before dinner time or it doesn’t happen. I deleted any midnight games (candy crush) off my phone and only left the apps I use to communicate with my people.
The first few days were tough, I won’t lie. But we kept in mind the reason we made these changes: our family values of kindness, community, connection, creativity, imagination, education, and heart/mind/physical health were at risk.
A week later I wrote down a few reflections on the fruits of going screen-free. The kids were splashing in a tub filled to the brim with Elmo bubble bath and warm water. The oven was preheating and so I could pop in a frozen pizza. John hid in our bedroom trying to finish writing the next day’s sermon.
That day we had eaten chocolate chip cookies, built a rocket that fueled by vinegar and baking soda (which turned out to be a colossal fail, but brought a ton of laughs), and strung beads on shoelaces to make “family hug bracelets.” (Trolls, anyone?)
We played 4 games of Candy Land, 3 games of Chutes & Ladders, and built a Lincoln Log village. M and I watched and rated a Barbie Fashion Show A put on for us. Then I read a few chapters of a new book while the kids watched an episode of Diego.
The previous week had looked pretty close to the same and the weeks following continued the pattern. We painted butterfly refrigerator magnets and rocks to hide in our community. Friends came over to play out back while us parents ate a fresh batch of naan. We went to story-time at our local library and A “wrote” her first book. M made a space ship out of legos and they spent two hours making mud pies in the backyard the other day. We go to the pool and the playground and walk the dog.
It’s not perfect, but it’s working. Attitudes and sleeping habits have improved. Creativity and imagination are increasing. And most importantly, our connection and communication is growing and strengthening.
There are still moments when I think screens would make life easier. For instance, the nine-hour road trip we recently took as a family would have been far more enjoyable with some phones in the back. But as chaotic as it was, hearing “Are we there yet?” and “What state are we in now?” brought back memories from my own childhood and made me laugh. And nothing could stop my smile when I heard A pipe up from her car seat, “Let’s play I Spy Something Red!”
Dinner takes twice as long to cook, the cleaning the house is like brushing your teeth while eating oreos, and getting work done in these summer months has been… challenging. Sometimes I wonder if I’m adhering too strictly to this “screen-free” thing. And perhaps I am, but the change in my family has been worth it, so for now it’s what we’re sticking with because it works for us.
What works for you and your family might look different. But if something is waking you up at 4am, and it sounds more like conviction than guilt, try listening and see if it might be showing you to try something new in your home.
** This is not a prescription for all families! I understand and agree that technology has many good uses and I am grateful for it. If screens are helping your family and using them meshes with the values and the mission of your home, wonderful! You do you and I’ll do me and we can all be friends!