We are parenting in one of the first generations to deal with this much access to technology. The internet only became a common household reality in the 1990s. Because of this, we are pioneers, breaking new ground on uncharted territory. I bet you’d be surprised that long before technology, people still had some of the same parenting concerns we now face.
A child does not naturally know how to occupy himself in a positive way even though they are born curious. When children aren’t provided constructive options, they will come up with their own idea of exploration and busyness. This often involves something like the demolition of the bathroom, cutting their sister’s hair or flooding the backyard!
Did you know that parents who lived in the 1600s thought about the perils of over-entertaining children. At a time before radio, television, and the technology, the temptation to excessively divert children with amusement was a concern.
BRAIN DAMAGE FROM TECHNOLOGY
We all have heard that too much screen use can harm children’s brains. Did you know that the average American child watches between six and seven hours a day of screens? You might not know the details of what goes on in the brain during all this screen exposure. In a nutshell, as Dr. Archibald Hart puts it in “When Excitement Becomes a Dangerous Drug”:
The brain’s pleasure center is becoming more and more “flooded.” This flooding raises the threshold of excitement that must be exceeded the next time we experience pleasure. … the next thrill must be greater than the last before we can find any pleasure. This is the phenomenon that underlies all addictions.
Bottom line, when children over-stimulate their brains by passively sitting in front of a screen, the part of the brain that says “ahhh, I’m content and happy,” gets way overloaded. Now they need more stimulation each time to make that feeling come. After a habit of excessive screen use is established, a child will often end up not being satisfied (or finding pleasure) in toys, playing outdoors, books or board games. Normal activities seem dull, uninteresting and unappealing. Basically, their pleasure center has been numbed to anything that isn’t overstimulating. I read a great article on this once in Psychology Today if you want to read more about this.
WHAT’S A PARENT TO DO?
How can we turn this around to a point where our children actually want to do things that don’t involve technology?
We need to work to help our children desire what is good and not want what merely entertains or distracts them. We are being warned not to get our children used to sitting around being entertained and filling themselves on what I call “cotton candy for the mind.”
Dr. Hart has a few things to say to encourage us and give us something practical we can do to protect our children.
THE BENEFITS OF BOREDOM
The first thing we need to do is embrace the beauty of boredom. As a mom, I know two dreaded words you loath to hear coming out of your child’s mouth are: “I’m boooored.” I’ve had friends who answered this plea for help by saying something like, “Well, I have some dishes you could put away.” I also have heard other moms say, “When my child says they are bored, I tell them to go dig outside. After a while digging, they don’t complain anymore.”
The trouble with these types of answers are they don’t hit the root issue. Our child (remember?) doesn’t know how to naturally entertain himself. He needs a bit of training to get there. To make matters worse, if we have fallen into letting him watch TV or play on the iPad (’cause face it, that’s a great sitter!), he will now have an even harder time coming up with something to do that makes him content.
All is not lost. You may not believe this, but letting your child stay a little “bored” may the best thing you can do for them. Often when my son says, “I’m bored, mom, can I watch something?” and I say, “no,” I can wait a few minutes and he’s off doing something way better than engaging in technology.
Believe it or not, boredom is actually good for us. It provides the time our mind and bodies need for rejuvenation. Work and play, excitement and relaxation, euphoria and tranquility – these are the points and counterpoints of a healthy life. They are like valleys and hills – the one is necessary for the other to be seen. ~ Dr. Archibald Hart
WHY DOES A LITTLE BOREDOM WORK WONDERS?
Boredom leaves room for your child to exercise his creative imagination. Our children may resist this as much as they resist eating vegetables at first. After time, they will end up craving what once caused them to turn up their noses. As we wean them off “junk” on screens, we help them desire more “meaty” and nutritious ways to spend their time. As Dr. Hart says:
The treatment is obvious. Limit the amount of excitement in your child’s life. Limit the amount of time spent playing video games, the amount of non-serious television, the amount of music whose only aim is to excite.
Help them remedy boredom by playing with friends, by finding a hobby. Help them learn to engage in activities such as talking to a family member, walking the dog, doing chores, reading a book or magazine, learning a musical instrument, or foreign language, making something from a kit, writing a story, exercising or just playing simple outdoor sports. Or just thinking.
WE’RE BETTER TOGETHER
I have to add something to his thoughts. So many times we end up sending our children away. Why? So we can chat on Facebook, post on Instagram, or check our Twitter. What’s good for our children is good for us. We need to unplug and do things with our children. Not only will this inspire them in the moment. It actually models to them a life lived free from a dependence upon screens. Your children are growing up quickly. Spending time with them outdoors or sitting at a table playing a game or building Legos together could end up creating some of your most precious memories.
SET RULES THAT ARE CLEAR AND AGE-APPROPRIATE
In order to keep things clear and consistent, it is a good idea to have some family guidelines or rules about screen use. Over the years we’ve probably tried them all! You can put a schedule of “yes” and “no” times on the wall. I would leave those times as “yes, you may ask a parent to watch something,” and “no, don’t even bother asking.” I’ve even given out tickets to trade in for screen time. They earn the screen time during designated “yes” time slots by doing productive things on their own.
If you want some really good guidelines as to how to set your family’s technology limits, Common sense media has a great article to help you.
THERE IS HOPE
You don’t have to eliminate technology to help your children move it to the bottom of their list of favorite things. You can redeem the use of screens in your home. Keep their time limited and the content mostly meaningful. Train your children to engage in other activities when they feel bored. You can do this!
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This is a real struggles for parents. I do try to allow my kids to be bored sometimes when they tell me they are bored. It just take a little getting used to for them.
Latoya, It’s so good to hear from you. I’m so glad you do that! It’s a struggle for them and us. When they are bored, they often share the struggle with us and we have to live through their discomfort. We’d rather soothe them so all of us don’t have to endure it. The fact that you are doing this is such a blessing! You are giving them habits for life.