- When I am not critical of the face I see in the mirror
- When I am comfortable in my clothes
- When I take the time to listen to someone’s story
- When I do a hardcore workout at the gym
- When I take a long walk with my dog
- When I have a particularly kick-ass teaching day
- When I finish a terrific book
- When I take the time to appreciate my surroundings
- When I move slower and more deliberately
- When I write something, even if it isn’t perfect
- When my kids eat what I cooked for dinner
- When both of my kids have showered in the same day
- When I do a load of laundry during the week
- When I help my kids with their homework
- When I pack a particularly artful lunch
- When I help with an activity at school
- When my kids are happily playing together
- When I make a joke that my kids think is funny
- When I show my kids up in basketball
- When my kids tell me, “I love you, Mommy.”
When we removed video games and other tech from our home, we wondered how our kids would spend their free-time. They had relished coming home from school and watching their shows or escaping into video game worlds. Now, they would have to figure out how to relax without the help of screens.
One of the first few days without tech, I offered to play a board game with them after school. They took me up on the offer, and we played for over an hour! Realizing that I might not be able to manage a board game everyday, I wondered what they would choose to do when left to their own devices? (Pardon the pun; there would be no devices!)
I had read, back when they were toddlers, that it was good to let kids get bored. Now, there are loads of articles suggesting that allowing kids to get bored will improve their creativity and psychological well-being, make them more motivated and more interesting, etc. I would think, and this has probably been written down somewhere, that allowing kids to get bored might also help them to become better problem solvers. The lack of structure during times of boredom suggests that mom and dad might not be hovering over their shoulders and that they may have to figure out how to do something on their own. Hopefully, this does not involve learning to scale the house and jump off the roof, which is something I can picture my youngest son trying, but perhaps to pour their own glass of water or peel their own banana. These are big things in the land of little kids!
But, what have the kids been doing since they have not had access to tech? Well, the truth is, they have gotten bored at times. In some of these moments, they have thrown little fits or gotten into things we would rather they not get into. Other times, they have done something creative or tried something new.
What have they been doing?
My oldest son has made origami. He had a project for school where they had to make something to trade, and he decided he would make origami. This was not his first choice. At first, he was going to make a spear by sharpening a rock with a knife and attaching it to a piece of wood. After we told him he could not bring such a weapon into school, he decide origami was a better option. Origami is a kind of time consuming task, but, with a little extra free time and nothing else to do, my oldest son made snakes, frogs, and various birds from small pieces of brightly colored paper. He truly enjoyed spending the time folding and refolding and seeing the finished product. He had all of his contributions to the Trading Post done within a few days. Without tech as an option, he felt the freedom to create!
My youngest son has rediscovered his toys. His room is a HOT MESS right now. Lego is EVERYWHERE! Yesterday, PlayMobil guys were stationed in the doorway between my kitchen and dining room. Today, Army dudes are occupying the coffee table in the family room. It is OKAY! I would rather have toys in every room of my house than go back to having a clean house and wondering why my youngest son no longer plays with his toys. After we failed miserably at Christmas, by indulging in more tech than toys, I purchased a few new toys that I thought might jumpstart a new – old (given they used to play with toys all time) – way of being in our house. I discovered Fat Brain Toys and picked a few things designed for kids in my kids’ age ranges. I gave them each a few new things, and, since then, they have both been playing with all of the toys that had been collecting dust in their bedrooms as well as the new things I purchased. The change has been quite remarkable for my youngest son, who has rediscovered so many of his favorite things and why he loved them in the first place!
They have played outside in the snow. It seems almost unbelievable now, given all the rain we have had in the last few days, but only a week ago there was enough snow on the ground to build multiple snow forts in the front yard. Before we took away tech, my youngest son would only spend a certain amount of time outside of the house before coming back in to tell us he was cold or tired and needed a break. “Can I watch some TV?,” he would ask. I always felt slightly annoyed when the outdoor play-session only lasted 15 minutes before he was back to asking for tech. “No, not right now,” I’d say. Of course, that set the next tech-fight in motion. These days, with no option of doing tech, except for family movie nights, my youngest son is more content to spend the time building a snow fort. One day, he even shoveled the sidewalk!
They have enjoyed spending time with friends. We have had some interesting moments with friends. When they still had the option of tech, they would gravitate toward playing video games when friends came over. I found myself trying to stave off the tech until they played with toys or outside for at least an hour, but tech-time seemed inevitable. Friends came to expect some tech-time when they visited our house.
The first time one of my oldest son’s friends came over, and discovered there would be no tech, he just sort of stood around the basement wondering what they would do. He did not stay long. When this friend came over the next time, knowing ahead of time that tech was not an option, they all got on swimmingly and played with all sorts of toys for hours.
I had noticed, before we rid our home of tech, that my youngest son was not really capable of having friends over. Whenever a friend of his would come to visit, he would insist that they play video games. I would insist that they play mostly together and mostly with toys. Sometime that was okay. Other times, I think he just wanted his friend to leave so that he could engage with tech instead. What a good friend tech makes!
Lately, after removing tech as an option, my youngest son is much more content to play with his friends. They play with all of this toys. They have Nerf battles. They play with Legos. They create worlds with PlayMobil people. They get out the board games. They draw. They tell each other stories. They do all sorts of things they used to do before my little man got so enmeshed in tech.
What can I conclude?
I guess the most important thing that has come from removing the option of technology is removing tech as a barrier to other activities and relationships. I think my kids have been better playmates without tech. They get along better and play more together. They play better with their friends. It was getting to the point, before we got rid of tech, that my youngest son did not want to play with friends if there would be no tech involved. In a very short time, he has come around to the idea that playing with his brother and his friends and his toys is way more fun than zoning out with tech. Granted, he still asks for tech. And, he is certainly looking forward to Friday movie night. But, he is no longer demanding tech at all times of the day, everyday.
When we were riding home in the car from my oldest son’s soccer game the other day, my mom asked my youngest son, “Have you been feeling better since you have been taking a break from tech?” After a thoughtful few seconds, he quietly admitted, “I have been feeling better.” The proof is clearly in the pudding!
The title of this post refers to Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, in which she provides some wonderful writing advice. I have always found this to book to be instructive with regards to writing, but I have also been able to apply Lamott’s advice to other aspects of my life as well.
In her book, Lamott recalls an memory from her childhood when her younger brother left his report on the topic of birds until the last minute. In response to her brother’s lamentations, Lamott recalls her dad saying, “‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird'” (19).
In recent conversations with friends, I’ve realized that a lot of us are experiencing the mid-winter blues, and, in some cases, flat-out depression. Even thought we’ve been relieved of the darkness of November and December, and despite the fact that the snow covering the ground reflects the sun’s brightness through our windows, some of us still find ourselves bogged down by the bitter cold, the bare trees, and the icy sidewalks.
Even as each of those unique snowflakes falls from the sky, we’ve had our fill of snowmen, snow forts, snow balls, and snow days. While skiing or skating might be a welcome reprieve on the weekends, these activities cannot make up for the trouble that our heavy coats, wooly boots, fuzzy hats, and puffy gloves pose. We are longing for spring. We are longing for sun. We are longing to break the shackles that bind.
Life is overwhelming at times. At these times, it can be helpful to “take it bird by bird.” When I teach Lamott’s chapter on “Shitty First Drafts” in class, I always tell my students the story about the bird project, which is located in an earlier part of the book. I tell them this story because I think the notion of taking things “bird by bird” is applicable to various aspects of life.
Take, for example, the conundrum of cleaning up after dinner. Everyone is tired. No one wants to do it. When it’s my turn to do it, I find myself overwhelmed by the prospect of moving plates, cups, and silverware into the kitchen, where it will have to be washed and put back into cupboards. No kidding, I will often think of Lamott’s advice. I imagine myself taking one plate off the table, which becomes two, which becomes three, which becomes four, until all the plates have been removed, thus beginning the stepwise (“bird by bird”) process of cleaning up after dinner.
It seems to me that advice might be applied beyond the realm of clearing the table. When feelings of depression sink in, it can be difficult to find the motivation to complete some necessary tasks. Even getting food on the table, in the first place, sometimes requires a herculean effort. The same goes for other things we have to do.
Taking it “bird by bird” might mean that we move a little bit slower. You say, “Hold on right there!” “How can we move slower when there is always so much to be done?” “If I move a little bit slower, I might come to a complete stop!” Not necessarily. Here me out.
Sometimes, we have to allow ourselves the time and space to work through things more slowly. I think life seems so overwhelming at times because we are constantly on the go. We have a constant need to be productive, to get all the things done. Once all the things are done, we tell ourselves, we will relax. But, all the things are rarely done. There is always more to do.
Some people enjoy moving through things very quickly. That’s great! Some days, I’m that person. Other days, I’m just not. Given the expectation to be always productive, I find I have to give myself permission to slow down. I have to allow myself the time and space to move through life more slowly. I have give myself a chance to think my thoughts and reflect on my ideas. I have sit down instead of standing up.
Last night, I sat down with my oldest son as he ate some frozen blueberries and I had a glass of water. He said, “Can I tell you something?” Sure. Yes. Of course. I’m all ears. As we sat together in the kitchen, he told me all about one of the books he was reading. When he finished his blueberries and I finished my water, we went our separate ways. I don’t recall exactly what he told me about the book, but I remember the moment. It was slow. It was quiet. It was nice.
I think winter is a nice time to slow down, despite the fact that we still have to do all the things. The idea of taking things “bird by bird” is really just a method for slowing down the body, for slowing down the mind, for making all the things seems slightly less overwhelming, and edging toward peace.
I had never really thought about the differences between these technological entities before my kids got a game system. We had an Nintendo when I was a kid, and I loved to play Super Mario Bros. 1, 2, and 3. My mother tells me that after a while she could not stand the sound of the theme song. My very favorite game was Zelda, though I’m not sure why now. I think we got our game system shortly after it first came out, when I was about 10-years-old. We had the game pad and the gun for Duck Hunt. Oh, remember the gurgling sound of the dying duck as it dropped from the sky after it was hit? The tortured look in its glassy eyes? Good times!
When my boys asked for a game system, I chose Wii U, partly, as a nostalgic gesture. But, I also knew that the games were designed for younger kids, and my boys were only 6 and 4. I thought it would be fun to have a game system for when they wanted to do something more ‘interactive’ than watching television and for when friends were over. The first games we got were Disney Infinity, Skylanders, and Splatoon. Of the three, they took to Disney Infinity the most. There were enthralled by all the characters they could buy and by the idea as many as 4 kids could play at time. We often have at least 4 neighborhood kids at our house! Disney Infinity is a seemingly harmless game where Disney characters travel throughout the Disney universe and take part an action-adventure story. Harmless, right?
It turned out, for the first few years we owned the Wii U, that I could regulate their use of it the same way I was regulating the use of other technological devices in the house. The liked to play Disney Infinity and other games, but they were just as happy to turn it off and have an epic nerf battle with their friends. I do not remember the exact moment when the boys asked for and we bought Minecraft, but I know that this purchase changed the whole dynamic. Not at first. But gradually, subtly. It was a slow burn. I had been told by a neighbor-friend that Minecraft was great for kids because it involved building worlds. It was a creative endeavor for future engineers! What’s wrong with that? That seems kind of cool. The kids enjoy playing, and it is also a learning activity! I never checked it out for myself; I just kind of assumed that since it was created for the Wii U, it must be like the other games.
Perhaps Minecraft is like the other games? Maybe it is harmless? However, it was after the boys started playing Minecraft that our tech-troubles ramped up. This game was particularly enticing for whatever reason. I will have to ask the boys when I pick them up from school today why the liked it so much! In any event, the played together and they played with friends. This was another game where 4 players could play at the same time. The game seemed to involve more than just building worlds though. I heard some chatter about foraging for food and fighting zombies, and images of the popular show The Walking Dead (based on Robert Kirkman’s comic book series) came to mind. I hoped it was not like that! Even if it was less gory, I wondered if the sight of zombies would pop up in my youngest son’s mind, long after playing the game, when he was trying to go to sleep at night? That would not be good.
Even if the zombies were also harmless, this game seemed to cause my boys a lot of stress. They fought some while playing Disney Infinity, but nothing like the fights playing Minecraft produced. My husband and I would take turns going down to the basement to tell them to “knock it off” or we would turn it off. They would stop yelling for a few minutes, but then they would ramp it up again. Sometimes, we would have make them turn it off and do something else.
I don’t know if Minecraft is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ game, but I started to become suspicious when a friend told me she was seeing faces in the blocks. Perhaps she was being dramatic, but I was seeing that the game had a kind of haunting effect on my household. My youngest son was asking to play more often, and, when he was not playing Minecraft, he wanted to watch Youtube videos of people playing. He was watching this sibling duo–Jen and Pat–and touting it as a lesson in ‘how to get along with your sibling when playing video games.’ If that was the lesson, it was not getting learned. I was learning that they were becoming a little obsessed with the Minecraft world.
I have always loved escaping into worlds unknown to me. I admitted to playing and loving video games. But, I was not obsessed. I only played, on and off, for a few short years before they were no longer of interest to me. But, I did not have access to video games until I was 10. Even then, we had one tv that we could use when my parents were not using it. This meant relatively limited access to video games. At 8 and 6, my boys had their own gaming center in the basement. The had relatively unlimited access, even though we regulated the amount of time they could play. Even so, perhaps we got a little ahead of ourselves and lost sight of how really little they are?
In “Tech-Addicted Kid: A Personal Story,” I explained that we ended up taking away the boys video game system and severely limiting their access to technological devices. But, I have to say, in the tech-economy of our household, video games seemed to tip the balance of what was acceptable tech-use and what was inappropriate tech-abuse. Video games are, in fact, very different from television. I mean, obviously, they are different. But, they work differently on kids’ brains too. In fact, gaming has been said to affect kids’ brains like heroin or cocaine.
Too much tv is not good for kids either. However, it seems as though even limiting gaming might be dangerous to some kids. Many kids will never get tech-addicted, but some kids do. The signs are fairly obvious. In households like mine, where one of the kids was showing signs of a problem, a tech detox (taking away tech for a week to 100 days) may be in order. We have not gone totally tech-free because we still have family movie nights on Friday and Sunday, but removing the game system was essential. I do not blame Minecraft, but I would be interesting in a study of that game’s affect on young kids. What it is about that game? I’m not sure we will ever have a game system in our house again. If we do, it will not be until both of the boys show the maturity to play and have fun and use tech responsibly. They will need to know when to turn it off and come back to reality. For now, we are escaping primarily through books!
I was leery about technology for children long before I had my boys. I successfully resisted the Baby Einstein videos that were so popular in the early 2000’s after my first son was born. In fact, by the time he was born, these “learning” videos had been largely discredited. As Ruth Graham explains, in 2009, “Disney was forced to admit that the videos had no educational value and offered full refunds to parents who had bought them.”
I reluctantly introduced short television shows to my first born when he was around 18 months old, mainly so I could sit down for a few minutes after a busy day at work. He was mesmerized by the sights and sounds of Shaun the Sheep, Daniel Tiger, and Kipper. These were cute and entertaining shows, and I did not see the harm of allowing him to watch for a few minutes at the end of what had been a busy day for him too!
When my youngest son was born, we had fallen into the routine of allowing our oldest son to watch a show or two each day. I kept my youngest son away from screens until he was around a year old, but then he too would curl up under and blanket with my oldest son to enjoy a few moments of PBS Kids bliss. It seemed these shows were harmless and even educational! It seemed like I had things under control. The television was only on for about 40 minutes a day. At all other times, it was off. I felt as though I was doing a good job of regulating technology.
As the kids got older, the shows they watched changed. At a certain point, they were no longer interested in the PBS Kids offerings. With the introduction of Netflix into our household, they had a wide spectrum of shows to choose from. Sometimes they chose things like Super Why! and Octonauts, but other times it was The Day My Butt Went Psycho or Uncle Grandpa. Some of the shows available to kids on Netflix are better than others, and we very quickly had to ban Uncle Grandpa and a few others. As it turns out, this would be just the beginning of our troubles.
When my boys were six and four, we got a Wii U. They had played video games on an Xbox One at my neighbor’s house and seemed to like playing. I thought it would be good to get a game system for our house, but I thought Xbox One games were too mature (and violent) for my little boys, so I settled on a Wii U. Things went okay for about a year. The Wii U was located in the family room, and the boys did not play it that much. I figured it was just another branch of technology that I could regulate just like the television. At this point, they were watching about an hour of television a day; they watched a little in the morning and a little in the afternoon. I thought that was probably okay.
Then, we branched out a little further. We allowed my oldest son to use his own money to buy a tablet and got my youngest son a tablet too. Again, we set boundaries and regulated their use of all of the technology in the household, which now included a television, two tablets and a Wii U game system. Things went okay for a while. They used technology, but not excessively. They played together and with friends. The games they liked to play–Disney Infinity and Super Mario Bros.–were narrative-driven and fun! Even my husband sometimes enjoyed playing along.
While my oldest son was pretty good at self-regulating when it came to using his tablet, watching television, or playing video games, my youngest son was having a difficult time. I attributed this to age and maturity and fought many battles with him when it was time to turn off the television and go to soccer practice or time to turn of the Wii U and go to mixed martial arts. It did not take long for me to get tired of fighting with him about turning of the devices, but I figured he was just tired and cranky after a long day at kindergarten. I thought maybe I had involved him in too many extracurricular activities, as we parents are prone to do. I did not think the problem was the technology itself.
This summer, we had our basement finished, with the goal of creating an additional space for the boys to enjoy with their friends. During these warm months, the boys spent the majority of their time playing outside. When the basement project was complete, as summer was coming to an end, we got some furniture and turned it into a play-space/gaming-center. It seemed only natural, and, again, things were going okay. The boys, ages eight and six now, were probably using technology a little bit more than when they were smaller, maybe an hour and a half a day after a busy day at school or on the weekend.
As my youngest son was entering first grade, I started to notice a shift in his behavior. He started asking for technology more. He started pitching bigger fits when it was time to turn the devices off. I found myself becoming slightly more lenient and letting an hour and a half of tech-time bleed into two hours. I was lenient on the weekends. They would wake up and watch shows on their tablets or on television in the morning, play video games in the afternoon, and watch movies in the evening. The situation was escalating, but I did not see it. I felt like I was constantly regulating technology, constantly telling them “no.” I felt like most of our conversations revolved around the use of technology. By Thanksgiving, these discussions had become mind-numbing. The tension in the house was palpable.
I thought maybe I just need to get out more. I thought maybe my husband I just needed to have more date-nights. I thought maybe my youngest son was just going through a phase. I hired a babysitter, and we went out. I went out with girlfriends. I worked on my personal well-being; I made sure I was eating healthy, getting some exercise, and sleeping the appropriate number of hours every night. We were still spending quality time as family (laughing and playing and reading), but there was always this nagging undertone to all of our activities. I could sense that my youngest son was always thinking about his next technology fix.
Just before Christmas, my oldest son expressed a desire for a Nintendo 3DS. I thought that would make a nice gift for him, but I did not want it to cause fights. So, I decided we would buy both of the kids a 3DS for Christmas. That would be their BIG gift from mom and dad. We went out to the store and got these at the beginning of December, and I felt happy about finding something that I thought they would both enjoy. I was still living in oblivion, despite a few conversations with friends that made me think twice about the purchase. One friend, in particular, had cautioned me that these devices were not good for their eyes. I thought about that a little, but I was busy with the end of my semester and trying to make Christmas happen. I guess you could say I did not think too hard about the warning and pressed on. Life was moving quickly these days!
Christmas break in Michigan is cold and long. The kids had two full weeks off from school! We ended up doing some last-minute traveling, which meant spending significant amounts of time in the car. That meant using technology for 10 hours at a stretch, with a break for lunch. We visited family without kids, which meant more tech for mine. Just before school started again, we had a ‘tech-reset’ day. We had instituted these tech-free days back in the fall, when we could sense trouble brewing. But, by the end of this day of no technology, we’d had enough of the complaining by dinner and let the boys watch a movie before heading to bed. So much for resetting!
I felt like we were losing the battle, but I was not sure how it had gotten so out of hand. It was after a conversation with a friend that it finally started to click. I was talking to her about the issues we were having with my youngest son lately, explaining how he was angry about technology all the time. She reiterated to me that they did not have a video game system at their house. I had been encouraging the boys to use the Wii U instead of watching television because it was ‘interactive’ and they had to work together. But, all I ever heard as soon as they turned it on was them fighting with each other. Then, they would fight me when when it was time to turn it off. I realized we had a serious problem.
When I arrived home, after chatting with my friend, I told my husband that I was taking away the Wii U, the tablets, and the new 3DS systems. I was going to put them away in a closet for 100 days. I had just finished reading A Happier Hour, and I was remembering that the author had kicked her problem with alcohol by first detoxing for 100 days. Going alcohol free became a lifestyle choice she wanted to keep choosing. I suppose this was the hope, in the back of my mind, for how things would go with the video games, etc. I decided that we could leave the television (they had gotten from Santa Claus) in the basement. I made up a rule that we would have two family movie nights–one on Friday and one on Sunday–a week. We told the kids after dinner (because we wanted them to eat well) that we would be boxing up most of the tech that night. And, we did. And, they cried. Hard. It was a hard moment.
I had started to consider that we might have to take technology out of the equation on the weeknights once my youngest son started first grade and started getting homework every night. But, there was more to it than that. He had been getting crankier and crankier, angrier and angrier. He was playing less with his toys and asking for technology more frequently. They had been getting into Minecraft and watching more and more YouTube videos. It was escalating. My husband and I were both getting more and more uncomfortable with it. We had already changed the settings on the television so that they could no longer watch YouTube. But, that did not seem to help. It was not until we cut technology out of their lives (nearly) completely that we started to see a change.
The first weekday with no technology was hard. My youngest son was not quite on board with giving it up. He asked a few times and had a few fits, but we made it through. Tuesday was similar. By Wednesday, I started to see a change. I picked the kids up after school, and, while we were walking home, I gave them an option. I said they could either play on their own or play a board game with me. They both chose the board game, so I selected Monopoly Junior. We sat down at the table and played for over an hour! My youngest son seemed more calm and focused than he had been in a long time. It was a really nice moment, and it was evidence that we were headed in the right direction. After Wednesday, no technology on the weekdays became the new rule that everyone knew we were following. We stuck to our plan of a movie on Friday and Sunday nights, and the kids were good about turning off the television when the movie was over and getting back into whatever game they were playing.
We are almost to the end of the second week now. We went out to dinner last night, and my youngest son was drawn to the screens (with video games for kids) on the tables, but he did not argue with me about not being able to use them. In fact, we have been very open about why we had to reduce technology use in our household. We told the kids that it was because our youngest son was having some trouble with it–asking for it constantly and becoming aggravated when it was time to put it down. We explained that we needed to focus our efforts on family time, play time and homework time. And, even though my oldest son was not having serious issues with technology, I can see that not having to worry about it during the week (and for most of the weekend) has been a benefit to him as well. Fortunately, he is also mature enough to realize that his brother needs time to mature. We have worked hard to foster a good relationship between our boys, and I can see that my oldest son is invested in helping his little brother with his struggle.
Obviously, kids and technology is tricky business. There are new studies and essays on the topic coming out every day. I heard a great NPR story on the topic just the other day. If you follow the link, you can take a quiz to find out what kind of screen-time parent you are. Modeled after Michael Pollan’s slogan, “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” Anya Kamenetz says, “Enjoy screens. Not too much. Mostly together.” Most of the parents I know are trying to find the right balance between activities for their kids. Some kids seem to be able to handle technology better than others. In our case, our youngest son just could not handle having ready access to tech. Recognizing this has changed our whole family dynamic. There is less arguing and more playing. There is more time for family discussions and activities. They are getting their homework done without being pressed for time. We are are calmer and happier. I think we made the right decision. We found what works for our family!
Darkness of November
Succumbs to Christmas lights of December
Yields to bright white snowfall of January—
Reflecting sunlight through windowpanes
Warming my house