This is the third installment of this series on how to deal with the demand of electronic media in our kids’ lives. Part 1 acted as an introductory post based on the question: how are we as parents supposed to guide our children in an aspect of their lives that didn’t exist when we were children ourselves? Part 2 described how my perspective on electronic media has changed from mostly negative to a mix of very positive and very negative aspects. It ended with the following:
“To recap: We live in a different world, one whose media is largely focused on our kids, one in which we may have to adapt a bit (or a lot) as parents. The prevalence of media options is chuck-full of benefits. And entertainment is good.
Great. Now what? Because that doesn’t help me with my children’s addiction to electronic media.”
Here is our personal list of thoughts that have helped our family include entertainment media in our lives in what we believe are healthy ways.
Limits, Options, and Responsibilities.
We focus a lot on living balanced lives in our family. We discuss the importance of creative time, reading, playing, physical activity, spending time with friends, piano practice, and community service (contributing to our family’s everyday needs, aka: chores/picking up/cleaning). We have even used this list as a posted requirement before enjoying “screen time.” Seriously. It is posted on our wardrobe, which houses our television. We also have a no-screens policy for school nights (except for our teenagers – rules are a little different for them as we are trying to give them more decision-making power for many reasons, the main one being a respect for where they are developmentally, or feel they are). One of the approaches that works well most of the time is asking our children (including our teenagers) to set their own boundaries when they have permission to have screen time (how long do you think you should play Zelda? How many episodes do you think you should watch?). They make even more conservative decisions than we would surprisingly often, which gives us the opportunity to give them a little more time if we choose to.
Age-appropriate Experiences Versus Relevant Experiences.
It’s tough to be the one kid in your class that hasn’t read Harry Potter 5 when everyone else has (ok not everyone, but it feels that way to our 12 yr old). We don’t want our kids to feel left out because of media limitations. At the same time, what we want even less is for them to have experiences before they’re ready for them. So we have helped our 12 yr old find ways to cope with feeling left out from conversations happening with her classmates at school. And we are always on the lookout for maturity-appropriate experiences for all of our kids. I would say age-appropriate, but we have noticed that each of our children is maturing at a different rate. So 13 is not the magic number that allows each of them to watch all PG-13 movies. It’s more of a guideline and we base our movie-watching permissions on each child rather than their age. Music is one of the most frustrating ones for me. What I consider to be club music geared at older teenagers and adults sounds so fun that young kids are exposed to it everywhere, and they love it. Songs like “Blurred Lines” and “Timber” are banned for anyone 12 and under in our house, and we have regular conversations with our older kids about the lyrical content of various songs. When a particular child is convinced that they can handle a movie and just won’t let it go, we have at times decided to watch the movie together and discuss it afterward. The outcome so far has been that our child understands why we didn’t want her to watch it, and would rather trust us in the future than experience something they’re not ready for.
Listening to All the Voices, and Following Your Gut.
We pay attention to our children’s wants, to what their friends are permitted to do, what other parents say, and what science is observing and discovering about children and media consumption. We take it all in, weigh its value, consider the nature of our children, and then follow our gut. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all rule for everyone. We make guesses that are as educated as can be at the time; then we assess how they went, adjust, and repeat. Some parents are more conservative and controlling. Others are less so. But in the end, we know our own children better than anyone else.
Discussing Everything With Your Children.
We had originally thought that we would read all the same books as our children, watch all the same movies, listen to the same music, based on our deeply held value that shared experiences are vital to developing close relationships with others. But with 6 children it has become clear that we just can’t keep up with all the media they consume. We neither have the time, nor, in truth, the desire. I do not want to read all the books aimed at middle schoolers. Or just about any of those written for teens (our teenagers actually shun that section of our library, as do I). But we still want to connect with them over the media they’re consuming. So we talk about it all. We ask them what they think of their books. If they’re struggling to figure out how they feel, we’ll look up reviews of the book so we can ask them more specific questions. We try very hard not to judge or shame them about their likes/dislikes and opinions. It’s part of fully accepting them as the persons they are in that moment. For how else can we expect them to open up about other topics if we ridicule them about their personal tastes? So we talk about everything as openly as possible.
Voicing Your Fears.
We’re not just after our kids’ opinions on media, but very much interested in a two way conversation with them. Discussing everything means vulnerability on both sides. When we explain why one of our children isn’t ready to take in a particular book or movie, or add a particular song to their playlist, we take the time to explain why. We talk about internet usage, and the importance of keeping the family computer (a laptop) in our family spaces for accountability. And yes, we talk about pornography with our children, especially as they get older and are allowed to browse the world wide web. As you would expect, our reasons are at times not very compelling. All they hear is NO. Sometimes that’s our fault as parents, because we start monologuing – a nice way to say that we’re lecturing them, or preaching at them. I believe it’s a natural thing to want to share our wisdom with our offspring. But it can easily become boring, and condescending. Have I mentioned before that kids don’t like to be condescended to any more than we do? Other times, they only hear “NO” because anything other than “Yes!” is unacceptable and not worth their time. Either way, we strive for a balanced conversation, where both sides are equally represented. A great way to do so (and make sure that we’re not talking too much) is to ask them lots of questions. It puts the ball in their court. And when it’s appropriate, we voice our fears. Things like our fear that they’ll think that what they see in porn is normal human sexual behavior. Or our fear that in hearing the message in certain popular songs that not respecting people’s boundaries is fun and acceptable (No means yes??? – No. No it doesn’t.). Or our fear that they will get sucked into an electronic media vortex that will turn them into a poltergeist that will haunt us for the rest of our lives (or just keep them living in our basement forever). Our genuine vulnerability tends to get their attention and models for them how to be vulnerable in healthy relationships.
In the final post in this series, I have four more thoughts to share, the last of which may be the one that rules them all (if you’ll pardon my Lord of the Rings reference).