Red Lights and Glowing Screens

October 30, 2022

Each weekday, I pick up my three-year-old daughter, the younger of my two children, up from her Montessori Children’s House community at noon. Our commute home can range from five to fifteen minutes in duration, because of five sets of traffic lights. On the days when every traffic light turns red, the journey can be less than smooth sailing. “Drive, mama, DRIVE,” she begs as I come to a halt. I look back at her tired eyes, and there’s nothing I want more than to keep moving. With empathy and firmness, I respond, “You don’t want mama to stop the car. You really, really wish I could drive so we could be home quickly. But the light is red and it means stop, and I will drive when it turns green.”

One of the key components of parent-child relationships is encounters such as this one at red lights. There are negotiations that are relatively easy to endure because of the known harmful effects of what my child is demanding, like when that tiny voice gravely pleads for a sip of the wine I am drinking. In those instances, I can calmly acknowledge my daughter’s point of view and let her experience disappointment. “I hear you,” I say, “You want what I am drinking and the wine is not available. Would you like water or milk with your dinner?” Other negotiations are not that simple, because of my own ambiguity or the fact that I’m treading in uncharted waters. I have wondered, for example, how bad it could be if I give my child an iPad so I can get a few things done. Maybe even distract her from all those red lights. After all, it’s pretty much the norm these days.

As my husband and I reflect on almost a decade of parenthood, the most challenging area of boundary setting we’ve had to navigate is our children’s access and exposure to media. Imagine what it is like for us in a restaurant waiting for our meal to arrive, surrounded by other families all of whom have children sitting still, eyes glazed with the eerie glow of the electronic screen in front of them, while we pull out crayons and offer a game of “I Spy.” Who would have thought, even a few years ago, that such a scene of crayons and “I Spy” would be an oddity?

Let me backtrack a little by stating that a screen-free childhood for our offspring was never one we set out to achieve when we began our parenting journey. While pregnant for the first time, I accepted a collection of “Baby Einstein” DVDs from a friend without giving it a second thought. After all, they were “educational,” right? (Research-based answer: Wrong).

The table began to turn when we started attending Prospective Parent classes at a local Montessori school. These were the days before smartphones and tablet computers, and the school put out a very strong advisory against children (aged 12 and under, but particularly below age six) viewing television, playing video games, and using computers. Most of the advice offered was based on the vast experience and anecdotal evidence of the school’s founder, Donna Bryant Goertz. In the late 2000s, there was relatively little scientific research available on the long-term effects of children’s screen usage. We were struck by Donna’s notion of childhood experienced in a way that supported the self-development and self-education of the child, both at school and at home. While Donna never derided a parent for not living up to the ideal she prescribed, at one point she was unrelenting: screens had no part in the life of a Montessori child either in the classroom or at home.

Fast forward a decade and studies on the effects of screen usage on children are slowly but surely unfolding. For the past year, I have been closely following “Parenting For A Digital Future,” a three-year research project at my alma mater, the London School of Economics and Political Science, which has been exploring prevalent attitudes and advice to parents in relation to children and screen time and questioning its relevance in today’s world. And I have never seen a more conclusive or compelling compilation of scientific evidence of on-screen usage as that presented in Dr. Nicholas Kardaras’ book, “Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids – and How to Break the Trance.” These studies are an affirmation that by making the choice to eliminate, as much as possible, our children’s screen exposure, for as long as possible, my husband and I have given them the best opportunity possible for optimal brain and socio-emotional development.

So, how do we navigate those “red light” conversations with our children when it comes to the topic of screens? The answer again goes back to Donna Bryant Goertz who challenged us as very young parents to consider what we valued most, and the kind of culture we wanted to evolve for our family life. The family life we currently enjoy is one that revolves around the richness of real-life experiences. Congruent to having all media turned off while our children are awake is a carefully prepared home environment that supports their independence, and parents who work hard to be consistent with each other. “Why don’t we watch TV in our house?” my older daughter asked when she was four years old. “Every family is different,” I responded, “It’s not that television is bad. In our family, we just prefer to do other things which your dad and I believe help grow your brain.”

Interestingly, since that occasion, the conversation has not arisen. Children identify their parents’ lack of decisiveness by a mile, and these are the areas in which they test boundaries the most. Once my husband and I made a commitment to minimizing electronic screen usage in our home (and this includes our own), there was no going back.

This past summer our family went on a road trip. When we arrived at our destination, the children ran into the condo, our abode for a week. I watched as they explored each corner, curious to see what they would make of the three giant television screens. After a while, one of the screens caught their eyes but the girls dismissed it as their attention settled on the two remote controls below it. The rest of the week they spent using the remote controls as pretend phones. What could have been a passive activity in front of a glowing screen made way for some very creative and engaging conversations with imaginary people!

The thing about traffic lights is that red always gives way to the green. Next summer, my husband and I plan on taking our daughter (who will be almost 10 years old) to a movie theater for her first movie. What a thrilling experience that will be! Someday there will be the age-appropriate need for a cell phone when I hand her car keys. There will even be the time when the tiny girl who implored a sip of wine at the age of three and I will both be adults enjoying a glass together. Life will most certainly unfold, but for the present time, I am determined that my children will not join the ranks of what Dr. Kardaras terms “glow kids.” I am willing to wager that that would not be my children’s preference either; they are having much too good a time experiencing their childhood as, well, just plain kids.

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