Tag Archives: mommy

on screentime

I was going to write an entire post on how the flattening of time is impacting us all right now, but instead, I think I’ll write about screentime. I just wrote an entire rant as a comment on the Forever35 parenting group because I cannot handle seeing people beat themselves up about their kids’ screentime right now. Everyone is allowing their kids about 3000% more screentime right now because our children have nothing else to do, but us parents have plenty to do, especially those of us who have been blessed and lucky enough to still have our full time jobs in the wake of all this nightmare of an economic disaster. We’re struggling to manage domestic and professional spheres of existence at once and it is metaphorically juggling every action all day long. If we can turn on Dolphin Tale 2 and buy an hour of quiet when we can put one of those balls down, then we should take it. It may be the only way we can keep ourselves from burning out, and we should never shame ourselves for doing so.

In recent years though, I have begun to truly resent the screentime issue. Screentime has always been part of the Great Shaming of the Mommy Wars, but in more recent years, has become an issue firmly tied to economic class (which is often also tied to race). Shaming parents for screentime, or making them afraid that screentime is going to break their kids’ brains, is yet one more facet of the American Merit Myth. We have now added “screen free childhood” as a contributing factor to future success, and we have added it into our class hierarchy accordingly. At best, we see the absence of screentime as one more element in the idealized environment we’re supposed to build for our children so they can go on to live great lives with full potential. In reality, screen access is one more place where privileged parents can point at other parents and say that their children’s economic circumstances are their own fault because the parents of the “failing” children didn’t institute screen limits. It’s the child rearing equivalent of broken windows theory

These kind of discussions are also nauseatingly terrifying because our society has been taken over completely by screens – and the people who invent them will not allow their own children to use the devices. The wealthiest Americans are paying for the privilege of having humans interact with their children instead of screens. Like all parts of the American merit myth, a low-screen environment has become one of the components of an educational system that is used to perpetuate the success of the same group of privileged families generation after generation. It isn’t realistic for less funded schools to have the staff required to manage a classroom of 32 kids without using screens. It is also unrealistic for people who do not have a dedicated stay at home parent (or a dedicated caregiver) to avoid the use of screens as a way to keep their children wholly occupied so they require less supervision. Even before the pandemic, with more people working more hours for lower pay, with radical economic inequality driving those hours, parents rely on screens so they can manage the household with the minimal time and energy they have left. Having a screen free kid is a status symbol because we all live basically in a Black Mirror uber-capitalist tech dystopia at this point, and that is why it angers me so very much to hear parents beat themselves up over screentime when it isn’t realistic to cling to an ideal that is more achievable by the wealthy.

As much as I resent the issue and debate and shaming associated with screen time though, I have a definitive stance on the appropriate use of screens for children. I limit screentime for my own child because there is an unnatural aspect to the way that screens are all consuming, which is why we have yet to truly understand the impact of screens on our squishy human brains. “Unnatural” becomes “frightening” when it comes to how compelled our children are to watch those screens. Screen based entertainment, be it TV or video games, educational or not, is always going to have a higher engagement quotient than other activities. It’s a constant flood of entertainment and avoidance of boredom, with very little input or down time.

I also see screen based entertainment as the equivalent of the enchanted Turkish Delight in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. There’s a point where Edmund chooses not to eat his fish and potatoes at the Beavers’ house, because the memory of bad enchanted food drives out his appetite for real, nutritious food. I’ve seen my own child sit in front of a TV waiting for his allocated screentime because the ease of screen based entertainment makes “real” life unappetizing. Screen time is enchanted Turkish Delight: it makes all other activities seem unappetizing by comparison, even when those activities offer more mental nourishment than the screens.

Years of being a more avid reader than a TV or movie watcher has given me a theory: I see screen based entertainment as lazy story consumption. Screens are capable of pumping an entire story, complete with imagery and sound, into your brain. It’s kind of magical in that it requires your brain to do very little work, but rather, hands you the entire story complete with a visual context. Your brain gets all the reward and engagement of a narrative without having to do the heavy lifting of visualizing and imagining the story. It satisfies our love of stories and our love of experiences and occupies our brains completely with the sensory overload of sound and light in the process of doing so. No child should develop a sense that storied do not require imagination.

The other factor we all contend with are smartphones, those dopamine slot machines, evolved over time for the highest usage possible, and that is just the devices. That’s not even considering the games. I see toddlers playing basic smartphone games, poking at the screen with their pudgy little fingers while sitting in their strollers and it makes me a little afraid, because every single phone based game seems to be a derivative of that game in Star Trek TNG that everyone got super addicted to after Riker picked it up like an STD he got on leave:

And that’s not even going into the more “sophisticated” smartphone games, that are are now creatively designed to be more addictive than gambling:

(I am not even getting into social media here because that’s not a factor for kids under 12. Okay, maybe Instagram but I promise he’s using it as a creative outlet)

I’ve struggled with this as a parent for a decade and finally, I realized the only realistic answer for our family was for me to accept the screens where they were useful, and help my child be able to identify why screens are detrimental. I have to teach him to see the mental, emotional and spiritual nourishment in activities that are not screen based. I have to remind him that he will feel better overall from working on his own comedy than he will from watching SNL on YouTube. I have to remind him that he does take just as much happiness from playing board games online with a friend as he does playing Fortnite. Ben has to learn to take true happiness and joy from activities with sustenance, and has to teach himself that screen based entertainment is the mental equivalent of an enchanted sugar gel cube. Otherwise, once Ben gets past the point where I can control his every move, then he will promptly gorge on Fortnite and video games at every opportunity and will risk wasting hours, weeks, years of his life when he could be working on his art, or his sports, or spending time with friends and family.

Maybe if I had raised Ben without any of these screens, then he would only know how to get joy from non-screen activities. Raising him without screens, however, wasn’t realistic for a two-parent working household with an elementary school aged child. Now, it’s not realistic for a middle school student to not be able to engage with his friends through screens…or for him to be not be able to watch Netflix while his mother works during the long hours of this pandemic. I have to juggle the real with my own ideals, and decide not only what I want as a balance for my son, but what I want him to learn for himself as he grows up into an adult who will unfortunately be able to make all kinds of stupid decisions without his mother nagging him to work on his monologue.

So here’s what I actually posted to the thread in question:

For everyone on this thread, PLEASE do not shame yourselves. Please stop thinking you are bad parents for leaning on screens as a way for your children to engage with the world right now. You have the rest of your offspring’s childhood to teach them how to take joy in things that are NOT screen based, and you can do that when you are no longer trying to work full time from home while raising your children with no care support or relief. When we all get through this, teach your children where they can find happiness and flow and joy in their existences without screens. Teach them there are other things to love in this world WHEN YOU CAN, like board games and puzzles, musical instruments, books and writing, time with friends. Take them to parks, or to the forest. Teach them to love and engage with animals. Sign them up for a gender-equal Scouting organization or other wilderness group if they love the outdoors and you want them to do a screen free activity (I hear the Baden-Powell Service Association is great!) Whatever their jam is outside of screens, teach them to explore that just so they know what it feels like to have that that kind of real space happiness. But FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY DON’T PUT THAT PRESSURE ON YOURSELF EVERY SECOND OF EVERY DAY. It is FINE to allow your child to watch as much TV as they – and you – need to so that you ALL can live your lives as a FAMILY without throwing a kid out a window.

Also, to the OP, I firmly believe that a few months of extra PBS shows is NOT going to brain damage your child. I gave myself guilt over this for YEARS because I let my son watch Sesame Street when he was less than a year old, and I would like to save you all the agony by telling you that so long as you teach balance and how to live life outside of screens as well as how to use them responsibly, your kiddos will be FINE. Also they will likely learn the alphabet early and probably pick up some lessons about diversity because Sesame Street remains a bastion of literacy AND kindness. I salute you for your good taste in children’s programming 🙂

(PS. I let my son watch Sesame Street from 6 months on, plus his beloved Mr Wodgers, plus Dinosaur Train and Thomas and the whole PBS gang and aside from constantly trying to play Fortnite more than his allotted hour a day, he’s fine. Then again, those video games are designed to be as addictive as a Vegas casino, so I don’t think skipping PBS shows in 2009 would have helped us with our Fortnite addiction issues in 2020. Separate post.)

I did not add, “screen time is an economic issue” or “screen time is part of the rapidly escalating class war”, because that’s a separate topic and what I wanted to say was for parents to give themselves some fucking compassion at this time. Still, all these things are tied up together: the screen time, our kids brains, their emotions, their addictions, and the way capitalism will take advantage of all those factors now and in the years to come. The cynical dystopia is already here, and is the reason we are even having to engage in this conversation in parent groups. A tech dystopia has no space for compassion. But that is also a post for an entirely separate day.

underestimating parenting problems in an age of inequality

Every day of this pandemic, I feel as if I am accountable to bear witness to the impact the coronavirus has on other New Yorkers. At first, it was the economic impact, as the service jobs disappeared quite literally overnight, back in March. Then it was disproportionate impact COVID-19 has on the less affluent neighborhoods of New York, the food deserts impacted with high air pollution, where the conditions of the neighborhood make the residents more prone to the effects of the virus. Now it is knowing that an essential workforce goes out there every single day to take care of other New Yorkers.

Credited to Bruno Iyda Saggese

The COVID-19 quarantine is also terrifying in the impact it has on children and their education. In New York City alone, thousands of students have city issued devices, but no wi-fi with which to access the school curriculum online. I would imagine even more students have access but do not have parents who are able to support them in the transition to online learning, due to tech literacy or language barriers. This is an issue across the country, but has been in high focus in New York due to the massive gaps in access in such a small geographic area.

And it isn’t only school where children, my son’s classmates and peers, are impacted. Yesterday, I was reading an article on how this summer will be bleak for children and especially for those children in New York City who are already impacted harder than Ben has been due to coronavirus. The lack of city programs, from a combination of budget cuts and quarantine precautions, will have a massive impact on children throughout this city.

Knowing all this, witnessing all this, we have of course been budgeting to send extra money to CAMBA for wifi in shelters or to CHIPS for food bank assistance. Our donations, however, are only a drop in the bucket of what’s needed. Millions of dollars would be a Band-Aid on the effects of inequality on New York kids just like my son, as they struggle to learn and keep up, as the gaps in access and privilege are made even wider by the pandemic. And so, my mental landscape has been shaped by our privilege and good fortune, our middle class comfort, my son’s ability to transition to remote learning with far more ease than a lot of his peers due to his age and materials for learning and his parents’ ability to support him.

It wasn’t until this week that I realized I had been underestimating Ben’s quarantine related sense of loss, as it fell into the peripheral vision of how very much we do have as a family. I had focused on how easy it was for Ben to transition to online learning, using the tech skills he’s developed over the years, combined with my own decades of white-collar organization. Paul and I saw him sitting down and working every day, looking at his schoolwork on Google Classroom, connecting through Zoom to his extracurricular activities and his friends. We thought that because we were able to support him in replicating his life on digital platforms, that he had adapted and everything was fine.

We dramatically underestimated the impact of social distancing on our kid, as his entire life has been yanked out from under him. Ben lost less than many New York kids due to the resources he still has at home, but he still lost a lot when the social distancing went into effect six weeks ago. Ben lost his freedom and his independence, his ability to take the subway or go for lunch at Chipotle. He lost engaging with his friends every day in their school habitat. He lost baseball, which is one of his passions, as Mr Sportball loves the sports. He lost all his in-person contact in every single activity, and I cannot expect him to get the same emotional value out of a digital equivalent. He can’t even go out and shoot hoops with a neighbor kid right now as playdates are even unsafe. So much of what was important to my son, all these things he has been discovering are part of who he is and who he is growing up to be, are completely absent from his life right now.

We discovered this week that this had manifested in some serious behavior issues, which I will not go into at the request of Ben, who has asked me to please not tell everyone what he did because he is very ashamed of himself and is very sorry. And as my son becomes a teen and a tween, I’m trying not to reveal his life as an extension of mine, but rather, accept that he is a separate person from me and that I can only write or talk about him as part of my own story and the impact being his mom has on me. For the intents and purposes of what I am struggling with today, what Ben did isn’t actually that relevant. What is relevant is that I assumed he was okay because we, as a family, have been so fortunate, and it was a mistake to do so. Of course Ben is not okay; of course he needs more support from his parents as he’s dealing with a situation that is scary and weird and most of all, lonely.

That is what I am now trying to deal with. My baby is mostly okay, but in some very deep ways, he is not. Nor should he be. No one is okay in all this. Even the most fortunate of us are not okay. I had assumed that because I am one of the 30% of Americans who easily transitioned to working from home, we would be more okay than most, and perhaps we are. But I cannot view okay-ness on a relative scale and reduce my son’s mental health to a binary: just because he has more then a lot of other kids does not mean his life will feel whole at this time. He is still struggling and he is still lonely and cooped up and miserable, and until this week, we had not given him permission to not be okay.

I tend to view my life through a lens of class privilege. That lens, however, doesn’t allow for a lot of recognition of my own problems when they are made relative to the much greater issues of the wider world. I would prefer my son to feel comfortable with his own problems, to feel like he is allowed to have those problems, and not like his problems are completely negated by his own middle class situation. Ben’s lack of happiness should not be diminished or made irrelevant due to the context of inequality the pandemic has brought into sharp relief around us. He should not be blinded to how fortunate he is, but also should not be made to feel as if he has to reduce his own emotions as to not seem ungrateful.

I’m going to have to carefully balance this, as I work out how to ensure my son remains aware of everything he does have, without feeling as if his material security and access to education cancel out his right to feel and express negative emotions. Parenting, even for the most privileged of us, is extra hard and extra complicated and extra fraught right now, and I am now much more aware of that than I was last week.

Sharing the world from the back of my bike

I consider the bicycle to be the perfect solution for short distance transportation. Its faster than walking, yet isn’t at a speed where i lose connection to the world around me. In a car, you’re cut off from the world around you; in a subway, the subway is the world around you. On a bike, I can speed through the streets of NYC, from Brooklyn to Manhattan and back, and see, feel, and even smell every detail of the city around me. (This is more pleasant when it’s a passing restaurant than when it’s Garbage Tuesday). Living in a city as dense and fascinating as New York, i think riding a bike is the perfect way to get around.

And, because I am from the Pacific Northwest, being able to ride my bike in a city is important to me. I still take the same joy from flying through a city street, from outpacing a car in traffic, from seeking a path through the urban landscape, that I did as a teenager. Riding through traffic, I’m focused on the calculations of my own movement, and the movement of the objects around me: cars, pedestrians, buses, Other cyclists. I’m in a zone where I am totally immersed in the present moment, where I’m focused on being in motion through a fascinating, and often beautiful, world around me. I’m in complete control of my speed, connected with both the machine I’m using to move, and the world I’m moving through, and it’s an amazing mind-clearing experience.

But in all of this, I just love riding a bike because it allows me to really see the city I now live in. I can go anywhere without worrying about traffic or parking. I can see the streets around me, yet have time to notice details. And I can experience the most beautiful places in New York, along the waterways and historical edges of the city, and choose to stop, to slow down, to pass by. I am fully immersed in the city. I am able to know the city better from my bike, by covering more of it at bike speed, than I ever could otherwise.

So, of course, I have been waiting to share this with Ben. I had been planning to acquire a trailer bike: one of those half-bikes for children that attaches to a grownups bike. I mentioned this to Paul’s cousin in law when we last visited Philadelphia for Easter. She immediately went to her garage, and handed me the bike she had been using with her youngest child. “We never use it anymore,” she said. “Take it, and send a picture.”. I was delighted. It was like getting a new toy, and I couldn’t wait to connect it to my newly tuned up and fixed up bike, and head off into Brooklyn with my baby.

It took us a month, while we searched for a missing hitch piece, but Ben and I finally started riding together this weekend. I connected up the trailer bike to my bike, and did a test run with it, up to the bike store to pump up Bens tire. Ben was apprehensive at first, but finally allowed himself to be coaxed onto the bike. Then, once he felt safe, we started moving. Once he realized he wasnt going to fall, he sat on the bike, thrilled to be moving so fast, and occasionally trying to pedal (his little legs are JUST a bit short, so he can’t really pedal yet, but he does half rotations when he can). After the first test ride, Ben proclaimed the trailer bike to be “awesome”. With that endorsement, we took off our on first neighborhood adventure, and set off to ride around Prospect Park.

I found out quickly that, while having the trailer bike on the back doesn’t affect my balance too much, it does mean I have to adjust to the added weight. I can’t turn corners too sharply, and I can’t stop suddenly, so I do have to ride in a more conservative way than I usually do. The trailer bike also adds over sixty pounds (the bike is 30 pounds and Ben weighs about 36 pounds), so I’m riding with a lot more weight than I’m used to.

But it is so worth it to be able to ride with Ben on the back of the bike! It opens up a whole range of Brooklyn for us to experience. Yesterday, we actually saw the other side of Prospect Park, parts of the park we’ve never been to because it just took too long to walk there. We looped the whole park in less than half an hour, when it would take hours, even with Ben’s trike, to cover that much ground, if we had been going to the library or the Greenmarket at Grand Army Plaza, we could have covered the mile and change up there in ten minutes, and not in the twenty-plus it usually takes us. Small differences, but when you’re dealing with a small child and his short little legs, they become bigger differences. Plan changing differences. Suddenly, extra minutes add up into hours, and I can travel without planning around subway lines, around bus schedules, or around Ben’s ability to walk or ride his trike.

Saturday, we managed to loop the park and pick up take -out on the way home. Yesterday, we decided on an even bigger adventure. After hearing that Ben’s BFF Aidan, and his dad Brian, were going up to DUMBO to visit Brooklyn Bridge Oark and ride the carousel, we decided to bike up and meet them. I checked a bike map of Brooklyn, loaded up the kiddo, and off we went. We coasted down the hill, from Park Slope down to Gowanus, and then headed north though Carroll Gardens into Cobble Hill. We pedaled through Brooklyn Heights, and downtown Brooklyn, and finally came out at the new waterfront park. After some confusion, we made our way to the little beach between the bridges, whe Ben happily threw rocks into the East River for twenty minutes while I gulped water and rested.

We had a lovely time at the park, too. Aidan and Ben got to ride the carousel. For them, it was just a carousel ride, but for us grownups, it’s an experience. Jane’s Carousel is in a clear plastic enclosure on the East River, to protect it from the weather. It is an exquisitely restored carousel that was orginally commissioned, like a work of art, for the then prosperous city of Youngstown, OH, in 1922. The horses are beautifully carved and painted, the floor is honey-colored wood, and even the ceiling is gorgeously detailed, painted with flowers and vines and butterflies. It’s a fantasy carousel, even more so because of where it’s located, across from Manhattan, with views of both the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges. The music it plays is from a pipe organ and an automated drum, and combined with the grass, the sunshine and all the happy families out for Mothers Day, it felt more like we were in a small town, part of a community, than in the big, impersonal city. It was just astonishingly beautiful, and it made Ben so happy to ride the carousel with his buddy.

After that though, we had to say our goodbyes and ride home. We followed the bike lanes back down through Red Hook, east into Carroll Gardens, down through Gowanus, over the canals, und the subway…and back to the start of the hill up to Park Slope. They don’t call it the Slope because it’s flat. It’s called Park Slope because there is a very long slope that leads up to the neighborhood. It’s just under a mile, five long streets, from 2nd Avenue to 7th Avenue. I shifted down several gears, and took it one street at a time. Unfortunately, by then, Ben was starting to get tired, hungry and crabby, and was whining that the hill would make him more tired. As I pushed the pedals, gasped for breath, and just tried to keep moving, i kept hearing “I’m tired, Mama. I don’t want to ride anymore,” and only the threat of walking (“I will stop this bike and we can both walk it home!”) got him to stop whining.

But we made it home successfully, albeit with slightly frayed nerves. And except for those last few minutes, it was a wonderful bonding experience. While that bonding is the best part of the rides, I also love that being on a bike lets Ben see the world around him. While we were riding through Cobble Hill, he suddenly observed, “These are pretty houses, Mama.”. And they were. We were in a section of brick town homes, some painted colors, some left reddish brown, and Ben noticed that. I want my baby to grow up to really notice and observe the world around him. Letting him see it from the back of my bike is worth every second of the ride up the Slope.