A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bonnie Harris, author of Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids and When Kids Push Your Buttons about her take on the modern phenomenon of screen time. As usual, Bonnie had some wonderful insight on the root of this problem; she gave me a lot to think about when it comes to handling screen time with my own kids. I’d like to share a piece of our conversation with you…here is just a bit of what she had to say:
Kelly: Do you see the issue of “screen time” as a big problem for families?
Bonnie: I think the main problem is how parents react. And I think that, as parents, we need to get some perspective on it. We’re reacting because we’re immediately afraid that our children are never going to want to do anything else. We really don’t understand the culture of new technology, and we jump to all kinds of conclusions.
Changing our reaction to screen time is one piece of the pie. If we can do that, a certain percentage of the issue would go away. Imagine being a kid. You’re playing a game that you love. It’s really fun, and your parent starts yelling at you to get off the computer; you’ve been on too long. For the child, the immediate thoughts are, “You don’t understand me! All you want is for me to do what you want me to do, and you don’t get what I’m doing! You’re telling me this is bad, and I’m having a ball. You don’t know how to connect with me.”
So then the child is in reaction mode and you get a power struggle. It’s really important for parents to understand how much fun kids have with screen time; how enjoyable it is. And as much as we may not like it, this is where kids in today’s culture are going. So parents should get into it with their kids, at least a little bit of the time by saying, “Show me what you’re doing; I would really like to know about this game or program you like.” When you adopt a blanket “this is bad” attitude, you miss out on getting to know your kids better. You miss out on opportunities for connection.
And if you know what they’re doing, and they know that and they trust you, you can have a conversation about time spent on screens. You can ask, “What are some other things that you think are good to do? If you had all the time in the world, what are the things you would like to do?” And together you can figure out how some of the child’s interests can replace some of the time on the screens. It’s more constructive than simply hating all the choices they’re making.
Kelly: You mentioned that this is just one piece of the pie. Are there others that come to mind?
Bonnie: Another piece is that video games may be an area of a child’s life in which he feels successful. That’s really important. If a child does not feel empowered, has no control, does not feel significant in his daily life, but gets those feelings when he plays a video game, there will be a draw to want to be playing because he wants to feel successful at something. Screens might be one of the only things he feels good at.
Also, parents are often afraid that what their kids do, watch, or enjoy on TV will define who they are; that because they enjoy games or shows about a certain type of character, they will follow that example. It reminds me of when my own son used to like to play with army guys. At one point I asked him, “So does this mean you want to be a soldier when you grow up?” And his reaction was, “What? No way! What are you talking about?” It was a really good lesson to me that a child’s play doesn’t have anything to do with what he wants to be like as a person. Parents are absorbed with this fear of what games are going to teach our kids, but kids see them as just fun to play.
The other thing that I’ve heard from many parents is that as soon as kids get off playing video games, they’re more aggressive, they’re angrier, or they’re in a fouler mood. When I first heard this I thought it was an indication that the video games themselves are not good. But a mother in one of my groups said, “Yeah, that happened with me too, so I stopped fighting with him.” She learned was that it was the argument she had with him about getting off the computer that lead to the foul mood. Once she let go of how much time he spent on the computer, that all went away.
Since we talked, I’ve made 3 changes in how I approach video games in our house: 1) Embrace that this is something my kids (and I!) enjoy; not try to fight it so much. 2) Let go of the fear that video games will take over our lives. And 3) Sit with my kids while they play games for a bit and ask them to tell me about what they’re doing.
The rest of this interview with Bonnie Harris on kids and media will come out in publication later this year.
Bonnie Harris is the author of When Kids Push Your Buttons and What You Can Do About It and Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With. She is the director of Connective Parenting and conducts workshops and trainings for parents and professionals. Learn more about her work at www.bonnieharris.com.