“Mum, can I watch a mooooooovie?” These words used to fill me with dread.

I didn’t want to say no as I try really hard to be a yes parent. But I also didn’t want to impair my children’s long-term cognitive function or, you know, alter the thickness of their cerebral cortex. So instead I managed every moment, directing them from playdoh to tree climbing to sensory play. I’d encourage them to relax every so often with a biscuit and a Fireman Sam audiotape.

There was not a spare minute for brain damage! For the kids, that is. Personally, I felt like I was going bonkers.

The Fireman Sam theme tune became the soundtrack to my parenting crisis.

I felt like I was hounded in one direction by research that seemed to show that screen time was immensely bad for children and hounded in another by my daughter’s clear wishes to watch movies and play on the iPad.

A turning point.

The turning point for me came when I realized I was being hypocritical. Here I was, making a living from screens! My blog, ebooks and Youtube channel had been providing the only income for my family for over two years. And I loved my job! I counted it a true privilege to open up my laptop and get paid to write and connect with people.

While I nearly always head to another location for the main grunt, I still Instagram and tweet from home. (Specifically from the windowsill at home, the only place we actually get the internet.)

One evening my daughter said “I don’t CARE if I get brain damage mum! And why do you get to play on the iPad?”

I decided that if I was going to pursue a path that didn’t feel good to me I had to be absolutely certain that the research was golden.

The jury is out.

Turns out, that for every article suggesting screen time makes kids moody, crazy and lazy there is another claiming that it makes them better students, with less psychological problems.

Faced with this ambiguous science, I did what I always do when confused – I ate a biscuit and rocked back and forth to the Fireman Sam theme tune.

Just kidding. I ignored it.

I simply said “Well, the research is no help. Let me do what feels right.”

And then a whole world of connection and joy was opened to me.

 

Screentime can provide connection and joy.

My oldest child, Ramona, just loves movies. Adores them. My youngest couldn’t care less; she would rather take her clothes off and roll in the mud. But Ramona loves them.

I decided I would always say yes to her requests to “watch somepin” or “play somepin.” I now sit down and watch with her (until the 96th replay and then I sit and deliciously read a novel) and we take turns playing her favourite games.

She began to open up to me and tell me things that had happened to her that she found hard. Playing the iPad with her somehow unlocked a door that I didn’t know had been so firmly closed.

Now that I was valuing the things she valued, she felt valued.

These days when she asks “Mum, can I watch a mooooovie?” I simply feel pleasure that I can help her do something she loves simply by flicking a switch for her.

Sometimes she asks to watch while she eats her dinner (is there anything better than combining pleasures in this way?) and sometimes she asks to watch a movie late at night and she will gently drift to sleep in front of the laptop. Sometimes the request drips off her lips first thing in the morning, and I stay in bed with our youngest while she welcomes the dawn with Rockstar Barbie.

I can shrug off society’s belief that these things equal neglectful parenting because when I look at my daughter, I see that she is happy, healthy, loved and deeply connected to us.

Limits or no limits?

We embrace screens and don’t impose limits, although we have some fairly natural boundaries around them. We are off grid and barely get internet, so our movies are dvd’s from the library rather than the bottomless resource that is youtube. We get our electricity from our solar panels, so some days we run out and there is not much we can do about it.

I am clearly a complete hippy, a total tree hugger. But I am convinced that screens are vilified as the enemy of nature, and our kid’s health, at the cost of parent – child connection. 

We are trying to get the internet to our farm, and perhaps we will have to have a conversation about how to use the endlessness of the internet wisely. But I hope to do it in a way that remembers the lessons I have learnt so far.

A trusting, open-minded relationship with my children is far, far more important to me than inconclusive research and societal expectations.

And I haven’t listened to Fireman Sam in a year.

Tips for wise no-limits screen time:

– Put effort into their screen time. Make sure they are warm, comfortable and well fed! Those post screen time blues are often simply because your child hasn’t had their physical needs met whilst watching/playing.
– Make a joyous, connecting occasion of it. Make popcorn. Dress up as the characters! Follow up a movie with themed food and crafts and imagination games. The iPad apps or movies they love can be a brilliant jumping off point for loads of activities to do together.

–  Make an occasion of other activities too! Learn how to knot a rope swing and go on hunts for the perfect tree to hang it from. Plan mud slides and lantern walks and picnics on the trampoline. If your lives are full of play and connection screens, simply become one of the many brilliant things your kids can choose from.

– Model what you believe in! If nature is important to you, make an effort to get out there and enjoy it. Kids will see value in the things you make time for.
Finally, if you do feel the need for limits, do it in a way that respects your child’s wishes and ideas, rather than imposing a rule. Hold a family meeting where everyone can come up with ways to limit screens in a way that feels good to everyone. (And stick to it yourself!)

Lucy Aitkenread is a mama, activist and writer. She lives in a yurt in a forest in New Zealand with her daughters Juno and Ramona and her husband Tim. She writes books about falling in love with nature and giving up shampoo and can recite the entire script of Happy Feet.