Story originally published in “Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Less” on April 19, 2016.
At our house, we can watch T.V. shows and movies on four television sets, two tablets, two computers and five cell phones. We can play games on all thirteen of these “smart” devices too.
But when I walk into the room and see all of my children, who are six, twelve and fourteen, with their heads bent over slick screens, fingers typing away and faces awash in artificial blue light, it doesn’t feel “smart” to me. It feels unnatural.
I’ve read the blog posts by “experts” wagging their fingers at parents who allow their children hours of butt-sitting, game-playing, social media-scouring and television-watching time on screens large and small. “It’s unhealthy,” they say. “It promotes sedentary lifestyles. There’s no brain enrichment.”
I’ve read the other blog posts by “experts” claiming time on electronics is time well spent. It can be a time for learning, a time for socializing with friends or expanding creativity and imagination. My six-year-old would gladly testify in a court to defend Minecraft as more than just a game. My older girls would swear social media is the best way to get to know their friends, “No different than you, mom,” referring to when I spent hours talking on the phone with the cord stretched all the way into the closet.
I’m no judge and jury. I convict myself guilty of too much time on social media and reading news websites. What I do know is that a time came when I felt disconnected from my children. Perhaps this is where the unnatural feeling originated. Buried in their online worlds, my children were not poking their heads out to breathe. Or say hello. Or say anything to me other than, “I’m hungry.” They were growing, changing and making new friends, deciding on a new favorite color or maybe even developing a new skill. They were finding a new favorite online celebrity to follow. I’d ask questions, but get no answers. “Fine,” doesn’t really describe how one has been doing lately.
The hours of screen time had to be cut. Our family had become more connected to the online world than each other. My motherly instincts screamed at me to fix this.
One afternoon after work and school, backpacks cratered on beds and dinner boiling on the stove, I walked into the living room and looked over my family, heads bent down over their various tools to plug in online like plants in need of water.
“Listen up, family,” I said. “I think it would do us some good to have time when all electronics are turned off. We will call it a black out night, and instead of our noses in screens, we will make art and play games. We will talk about whatever you want. We can plan our summer vacation or be silly. I don’t care what we do and I’m open to suggestions, but absolutely no electronics, including cell phones, during this time.”
I braced for the whining.
“Cool! Can we paint bottles? I’ve seen some designs online I’d like to try,” Mackenzie, the middle child, responded.
“I have an idea too. Let’s do a fire in our fire pit with outdoor games,” said Madison, the oldest.
The youngest chimed in, “Can we color together? I’d like that.”
I was stunned. This was not the reaction I expected. Instead, my children agreed, and we listed several ideas for our black out days. We decided Friday evenings would be a good start since we rarely have plans.
For our first black out Friday we built a fire in our fire pit, roasted all beef hot dogs on sticks and made ice cream s’more sundaes, played football and talked about space travel, stars and planets as the sky began to darken and sparkle. No cell phones or other electric devices were allowed.
The second black out Friday we colored in coloring books, but not just any coloring books. I purchased a nice set of colored pencils and “adult” coloring books, which are full of small details to shadow and take a long while to complete. We ate homemade pizza and talked about our favorite colors, our favorite seasons and our favorite classes. I taught them about the color wheel.
By the third black out Friday, my children were turning off their tablets and cell phones ahead of time. I found them, dark and abandoned, tossed about the house.
It hit me. They were enjoying this as much as I was. They needed time to connect as a family as much as I did.
Spending less time in virtual reality strengthened our family bonds. Now we spend more time updating the status of our relationship with each other than any of our social media accounts. Who knew unplugging could lead to feeling so plugged in?