“Screen Free” with Our Kids: what I learned and what changed

About a year ago we were a screen heavy family.

About six months ago we went “mostly” hand held device free.
(Read this as we primarily watched on Netflix or Amazon Prime collectively and greatly decreased what and how much the kids held devices themselves.)

Then our fifth addition was born, the school break and holidays hit, and we were down TWICE with the stomach bug and influenza B. This was brutal and a huge increase in the amount of screen time we were all consuming. When I thought of being “screen free” I would have laughed, panicked, or shrugged it off as a complete “impossibility in today’s our world.”

Our current season of transition has been the most challenging as far as new babies go. Due in part to our children being older and experiencing transition themselves (each handling it differently) and then additionally because… FIVE.

The short of it is that we knew something had to change. We wanted an improvement in the quality of our life, an improvement in our kids’ behavior, and generally speaking to feel like we had more enough time. Guess what? Going screen free did exactly that and more. So here’s what I have learned and what has changed in the past three weeks of being entirely screen free for the kids, and primarily screen free for the adults. (We get to watch after bedtime.)

  • I had no idea how much we used and relied on screens. I would have said we were “heavy users,” but removing them all together I am shocked at how much we just passed off the phone, turned on the television (now totally decommissioned) or allowed the kids to access a screen in some form.
  • It is a way harder adjustment for the adults than the kids. They adapted so quickly and I rarely, just three weeks later, have to deal with the “Show?” or “Can I watch?” requests. It’s me who had to resist the urge to hand over my phone, turn on a show “just so I can shower,” or rely on it to occupy their time.
  • It is hardest for the youngest two boys who don’t have school to occupy their time, but they are benefiting the most. They also won’t have as many habits built around and because of screens.
  • It is more work, but I am getting more work done. Yes, the kids make more messes creating more work; but being screen free for them means I have my phone in hand FAR less, and am naturally on all screens less too. Ther result is that I am getting so much more done, prioritizing the time I have with fewer children, and also completing the necessary stuff first. It literally feels like I have more time.
  • You know all those toys, creative supplies, costumes, instruments, puppets, and educational resources that you buy the kids and then say, “I don’t know why they don’t play with their toys?!” I know the answer at my house. Screens occupied them so they literally didn’t use them. Now they use them every.single.day. My kids are building, coloring, playing outside, doing puzzles, building forts 25 times more than ever before.
  • Behavior is changing. Language is better, their choice of topics for conversation has improved. And we are all talking, engaging, and enjoying each other more. Other people are noticing. Dinner in a restaurant, family time with grandparents, kids church… I can’t tell you the number of times people have noticed that our kids are “well behaved and engaged.”
  • They can do it. I know it seems funny for this to be something I learned, but I really figured that since it’s always been a part of their lives we “couldn’t” just remove them.

The only times the kids get screens are on the weekends, and I’m finding I dread even those opportunities. Given that fact we shall see how long this even lasts. As of now they get to use them in two ways. The first is as a family movie and the second is with a time limitation on their game or video of choice. They typically like to build in the game Minecraft or will choose to watch a video about fishing. The timer gets set and when it goes off, that’s it. No extensions, no more time, and not again later. Keeping screens to the weekends when we usually fill them with fun family activities, homework, church, and chores also naturally limits the time we use them at all.

Going screen free didn’t solve everything, but it gave us more time and improved the amount and quality of our communication which does have that power.

We will continue. I don’t see us going back.

You can read about some frequently asked questions below if you’d like to know more!

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

  • What about in the car?
    Screen free there as well. They are coloring or listening to books on cd which have been favorites for years. I check out audiobooks every couple weeks and we rotate them, we also use an online app and Bluetooth device to pipe them from my phone into the car speakers. This one wasn’t too tough as we have never had a car DVD player. The only exception to this rule is for the two year old, on the way home from preschool. I work hard to engage him and even ask him to stay awake. I usually start with talking to him along the way, but if he starts to doze he’ll get something on my phone for the remianing drive home (only about 10 minutes total). This is just so he gets a full quality nap at home.
  • Would you stay screen free if you had a sick kiddo?

Screens when they are sick would be treated differently! Although now that we are screen free I wouldn’t go back to hand held devices. This was a scary rabbit hole for our family that I never want to go back to. Nothing ever came up that was hugely harmful, but this was a huge motivating factor to going screen free in general. The hand held devices caused the kids to be more “crazed” or seemingly obsessed. They were also where the kids could get into things we would not approve of. That being said I would use even a large screen, controlled by me, more sparingly now. Napping and looking at books will be prioritized.

  • How do you keep the kiddos entertained everyday with zero screen time.

This was harder at first. A brief detox period proved more challenging and I had to get creative. At first I used novelty items like playdough, colored water mixing, new coloring materials etc. I also made their legos, magna-tiles, and craft supplies even more accessible. It has meant more messes and more of their stuff in our community spaces; but hey it also means we are living more in our spaces and engaging more. Worth it for sure! Now three weeks later they are finding things to entertain themselves much more independently. Paper, crayons, legos, books, and magna-tiles are the most commonly reached for, but I’m also seeing costumes, cars, and “doing the dishes” a lot more too!

  • What about with this terrible weather?

We still play outside. Lots of layers, Oaki rain suits, boots, and gross motor activities. We play (or do chores) outside everyday, rain or shine.

  • Have you noticed a difference in your family’s sleep or behavior?

YES! A thousand times yes! This is the most meaningful improvement. The boys are interacting more (yes which means a few more arguments) but primarily it means more fun, play, and better behavior. They are seeing the nasty behavior less, because they aren’t watching it on the screens. I hate to admit that. I didn’t give credence to it before, but they were seeing things that they would never see in our home on a show and then emulating it. With our eldest boys behaving better the little boys are really benefiting. If you recall I mentioned above that it could be the hardest for the youngest two who have more time at home and less structure to the days without school, but they are truly benefiting the most. The behavior improvement was a major motivator. Ways of speaking, words they choose, how and when they communicate… simply put they are more attentive, responsive, and engaged in EVERYTHING!

They are going to bed better, throwing fewer fits, and falling asleep quicker too! One weekend when we watched a movie on Friday night with popcorn we also saw that they had a harder time going and falling asleep. When we made the connection our jaws were on the ground.

  • Was your husband on board right away? Did the adults do it too?

Benjamin was definitely on board, but we were both entirely skeptical. We were feeling desperate for a change and couldn’t come up with what else to do, and we tried a lot. When I mentioned it I think he just felt like “why not?” and ” if this helped it would be worth it.” (I was nervous when I threw it out there as a possible solution to some of our issues.) I don’t think either one of us thought we’d see these drastic results or stick with it. We now look at each other amazed that we are doing it, that we want to keep it up, and that we are now screen free.

I will say Benjamin was more inclined to turn the television on for “down time” on the weekends with them, and he has been slower to use his phone less. I was simply forced to adjust how and when I use my phone. I am the one with them all the time so if I had my phone out at all they would come to see what I was doing. I am on my phone half as much! It is incredible, freeing, harder, and better.

As a side note: I have also noticed that when they DO get time on screens they have a harder time understanding when they will get it, and when they won’t get it. I prefer no screens even to a little. This part may be learned and need adjusting.

When it comes to adults… We still use screens. I am forced to use them way less. For example I hate folding so a “show while I fold” was always my motivator. This means I have to fold after bed if I want to watch a show. I am on my phone WAY less because they aren’t allowed to be on them so I shouldn’t be on mine either. I respond to texts; make important phone calls for bills, doctors, etc.; I use audible for audiobooks; and I share on Instagram some. But… I scroll and do mindless activities on my phone a fraction of the time.

We watch any television after bed, and if Ben is watching a sporting event it becomes a family activity that the kids can elect to watch. Some have watched with him and some choose an alternative activity.

  • What are your go to kid activities when you need to focus on a task like cooking or cleaning?

Playing outside (I realize not everyone can do this,) coloring or lego’ing in a nearby space are favorites. I sometimes have to wait until the younger one or two are napping to get anything done. This is the area that has to be prioritized. I am engaging in less mindless activity on my phone, so I have some more free time to do these things; but there is also less time for “me.” They are helping a lot too, sometimes in a truly helpful way and sometimes in a way that makes a mess but occupies them. Our kids have always done chores, but for the little boys helping alongside Momma has increased a great deal, and so had my opportunity to teach them about how and what our expectations are. It’s still like an area I am figuring out. But with how my heart and mind feel I can tell you it is amazing how much more I am accomplishing, and the quality of what we are all doing together.

  • What inspired this?

A couple of things. I have already mentioned our need for some change in our home. We also needed a reset post new baby.

Additionally, I had one friend who did a screen free summer and her results and how the kids responded were intriguing to me. There are also a couple of moms in my life or who I engage with online who are mostly or totally screen free. When I saw they could do it, and had them to watch for inspiration and ideas, it spurred me on. I felt like it was worth a shot and that I had some ideas about where to start.

  • What do you feel was the biggest or most rewarding benefit from this?

It’s all worth the sacrifice. The biggest reward is that the quality of our entire lives has improved. Drastically. From behavior and communication to time management, and seeing our boys GROW it is all worth any “sacrifice” we are making to watch on screens or to “do what we want” or “veg out.” I do have to pay more attention, engage more, and give up more of my time. This was time that felt like I was owed or deserved. I would use my phone to “escape,” “relax,” or justify what I was doing as “me time.” However, I also found myself more irritated when I was interrupted, generally more short-fused and taxed, and like I didn’t have enough hours in the day. My feelings have changed, and I’m using the time I have alone differently now. My downtime is used in wiser ways. I elect to read, finish a chore, go to sleep, or date my husband with the time I have in the evenings because I see how screens take over that time.

I’ll update you all as this adventure continues so feel free to put your comments or questions below and I am happy to respond.

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