When our kids were little, we wouldn’t let them have toys with batteries. Each time a birthday or holiday rolled around, our families would run their gift ideas by us and we vetoed any toys that lit up or made noise. We were committed to simple toys that required imagination. To their credit, no one in our family openly questioned our decision or made fun of us for it, though I’m sure they had a lot to say about our rigidity behind our backs. We also didn’t let our kids watch television and movies were a special treat during family time.

I’m not self-righteous by nature but I will confess that the view from my moral high horse was pretty sweet. Our kids were engaged and active and bright and, of course, I attributed much of that to our superb parenting.

Parenting has taught me many lessons but the greatest one is humility.

Fast-forward from those days of wooden toys and art projects to this summer, when I have accepted that I have lost the battle against screen time.

Our kids are 10 and 14 and, during the school year, we have strict rules about how much screen time they have. But summers are hard because my partner and I both work from home and our kids are home with us most of the time. My daughter goes to camp for one week each summer and my son goes to sleep-away camp for two weeks but it is not economically feasible for us to put them in camps all summer and they don’t want that anyway. When my partner and I were both working full-time and not working from home, both kids were in day camps every day, all summer and, when I quit my job at the end of 2012, the first thing the kids did was rejoice that they wouldn’t have to go to camps anymore.

Our kids are still engaged and active and bright but they also love screen time and will spend all day playing games and watching things if we are not vigilant. Many times, we don’t have the time or energy to be vigilant.

Last summer, we created an elaborate system of rewards that involved poker chips and chore checklists and behavioral expectations and monitoring their efforts and checking things off and doling out and trading in chips -- which took so much of my time I felt like a full-time poker dealer. This summer, with my partner traveling for work often plus my own deadlines, I knew that I could not manage that system. So, we decided we would trust them to self-regulate.

A few years ago at Halloween, we decided we should just let our kids eat as much Halloween candy as they wanted and they would eventually learn moderation. But, after watching our son eat his fifth full size candy bar in one sitting, we snatched his bucket away. The experiment with screen time this summer has gone about as well, though we have not snatched the devices away.

I know that I am also a bad example for my kids because, as a writer and blogger, my work is often on a screen, whether I’m writing or using social media to promote my work and engage with readers. I do feel guilty because I know that we should be enforcing strict limits.

The New York Times recently ran an article about screen addiction in children with the following:

While Internet addiction is not yet considered a clinical diagnosis here, there’s no question that American youths are plugged in and tuned out of “live” action for many more hours of the day than experts consider healthy for normal development.

We know this but screens are powerful and managing screen time will remain a struggle for most families, including mine. I know I could solve the issue in an instant by taking their devices or shutting off the Wi-Fi, but the summer is winding down and school will be starting soon and we’ll settle back into structure and routine. I’ve already been thrown from my moral high horse so I might as well limp into fall.

Today, while writing this, my daughter came into the room and I asked what she’d been doing and she told me she had been watching videos on YouTube. I sighed and she said, “I didn’t say I was doing something you’d want me to do. I just said that I was doing something.”

Yes, parenting has taught me humility and it’s also taught me that we try things, fail, and then try something new.


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Lessons from my children: What is the definition of a perfect family?

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Nature versus nurture: I was a nerdy kid, but my son is a jock